How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)

The Benefits of Notebooks


I used to write in longhand all the time, filling up five-subject notebooks with the predictable angst of a young man in his early twenties and several early starts on stories, plays, and screenplays that I would revise or abandon. Taking notes was once the thing to do. Back in the nineties, when I wrote film reviews, half the critics took notes. And I learned to write in the dark by taking up large sections of the paper, noting a sentence and then sliding my pen downward to another sector. I felt that it was important to be true and accurate to any crazed thoughts or feelings, even the half-assed ones that I could dredge up in a pinch. Today, thanks to reduced column inches (and reduced journalistic expectations), very few critics, aside from those still writing reviews longer than 600 words, take copious notes anymore, whereas I still obstinately scribble without looking down at the pen. I suppose it’s the writer’s equivalent of learning how to assemble a weapon while blindfolded.

muninotebookThe result of all this scribbling has involved quite a few notebooks, most of which I have kept in two file drawers. I’ve just pulled one out at random and I see a drawing of a floor plan for a San Francisco streetcar. Flipping the pages, I see lists of interesting words I’ve noted in novels, such as “contrapposto” and “ephemeron.” There’s an awkward poem that begins with the line “Pigeon pecking pieces from discarded pizza boxes / Whopper wrappers flayed upon a health nut in detox.” I see a hasty budget I’ve drafted for a film shoot, noting the costs of renting fresnels, Tota kits, flex-fills, and C stands. Another page offers this curious list:

  • Party Animal
  • Collector
  • Amateur Sleuth (Sam)
  • Femme Fatale

And I instantly recall the moment in Java Beach when I wrote this all down, along with the research I did for a short film I wrote, but never saw through to production, called “The Collector.” Then there is this section from an entry titled “Observations in the Mission”:

At Muddy Waters, two ladies talk. One is more short-haired than the other and is enamored with such words as “never,” “layoff,” and “responsibility.” She keeps her left hand locked on the table, perpendicular to the surface. Her thumb sticks up. There is almost a butterfly-like spread, ever so slight. Perhaps the modest gust from the door can be felt this way. Her companion listens. “You are a robot,” says the angry friend.

These are curious details to observe. And I chide my younger self for not being more careful to observe the specific hairstyles of the time, which would perhaps be of greater value to me in reconstructing the moment. I am also needlessly zealous about the hand gestures. But I do remember being particularly interested in body language. Still am.

But sometime around the year 2000, I cut down on notebooks. I figured that anything that I could observe would be permanently captured on my hard drive. But I’ve had a number of hard drives die on me and I haven’t always been able to revive the files. A friend of mine just lost her thesis this way. We get so caught up in the act of writing that we forget that our tools are sometimes more fickle. And even if we do manage to backup our data, there’s always the possibility that it might be accidentally deleted or lost within a baroque directory structure.

Not so with notebooks. Like analog books, one flips through any notebook and finds a diagram or an abandoned idea. This is rather similar to the unexpected book you find in a library or a bookstore that just happens to be situated close to where you’re standing. Many of the discoveries are useless, but some are surprising. Some fresh idea you think you possess now was actually in some primitive gestation a decade ago. Even some phrases are similar. Your voice is yours, even when you didn’t quite know how to express it in early days. Ten years from now, will we be able to do the same with our blog posts and tweets?


That picture above is from an apartment hunt. I can adduce from the squiggles the apartments that didn’t pan out. And I can track the specific order in which I located an apartment by looking at this page vertically. I have the price ranges of apartments in San Francisco at a specific time. I also see that with this particular quest, I had my eye on the Haight Ashbury neighborhood (which I didn’t end up moving to, but eventually did later).

Since I’ve been less prolific with notebooks in the past nine years, I wonder how many ideas or thoughts or unintentional chronicles (such as the above) that I’ve lost. Smartphones may permit us to text our friends or send an email on the fly, but don’t we have some obligation to preserve our online thoughts? We call an Apple laptop a “notebook,” but is it really a proper notebook’s equal? Our pens do not have delete keys. We cannot take back a written thought, except by scratching it out or burning it. I wrote about linkrot and the problems with online permanence back in August. And it occurs to me that we may be driven to confess our most private details to Facebook — little thinking of the manner in which the social network giant is profiting — because we perceive it to be the new notebook.

But looking through even this one notebook, I can’t imagine a more foolproof technology. And I’m wondering if I should use notebooks more. Computers have produced interesting blogs, wondrous photos on Flickr, and a culture that is more documented than ever before (at least so long as the technology holds). But what about the subconscious buried within us? If we are prohibited from expressing unpopular or strange ideas on social networks because of what others might say or think, then is Twitter so reliable a tool? Could Kafka have written “The Metamorphosis” if commenters were constantly heckling him about his silly bug story? (Conversely, if Kafka couldn’t count on Max Brod to burn his papers, would he have succeeded in closing his online accounts? Or would the cache images live on forever?) If you’re at a party tweeting the names of people arriving into your BlackBerry, are you really being social?

I’m not against technology or e-books. The Internet has given us many great things. But I do feel it’s important to always contemplate the purpose and usage of any new development. If 90% of the reading public prefers analog books over digital, then now is not the time to declare a revolution or to suggest that the days of printed books are over. Moving forward and adopting tools is great, but maybe there’s more life in the dead tree technologies than some of us are willing to admit. Hell, maybe there’s even a good deal on an apartment vacant for years.

An End to Permanence?

WordPress informs me that 2,831 posted entries on this blog are presently “Uncategorized.” If I possessed some tremendous treasure trove of expendable income — for time, as we all know, is the only commodity presently tradeable among regular people — I might very well sort through these entries and eventually finish the long duty of corralling these stray textual swine to their taxonomic holding pens. But, even assuming that these entries were feral animals deserving of such virtual domestication, a position that is highly questionable, the journey wouldn’t end there. One sifts through these past posts knowing that the links are, in most cases, invalid and therefore useless to anyone hoping to follow a thread or pursue a path to knowledge. The Wayback Machine only takes us so far. It was fond of taking snippets of websites every six weeks or so in the early noughts. There are, for example, eight snapshots of this website as it existed in 2001. And I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: (1) the needless braying of a young man in his mid-twenties confessing his failings with women and his predictable liberal leanings or (2) the fact that the “archived” site didn’t correctly extract the code, causing one 2001 “snapshot” of this website to crash within Firefox’s most recent iteration.

Such past peregrinations perhaps place an undue importance on what I wrote at a particular time. I read my own thoughts and feelings and wonder who the hell this guy is and why so many people believed in my bullshit at the time. There is a temptation to kill the early entries that are even now still publicly available on this domain. (Indeed, when Return of the Reluctant — as this site was then called — “returned” in December 2003, it did so with the proviso that everything written before that time never happened. The impulse to destroy one’s own work is so casually cavalier!) Some of those entries are locatable on my hard drives, but I wasn’t nearly as precise with my archiving and backups as I might have been. So how many thousands of words have been lost forever? Half a decade later, I’m not sure that I would approve of my extirpating twentysomething self. And there are likewise entries written by me even three years ago which I presently do not approve of. But I now find myself required to preserve everything — the posts, the comments (even the nasty ones), et al. But let’s say that I were to be killed by a car tomorrow. Would anybody even bother to preserve this website? Would any of this website be preserved? Would it even be worth preserving? Maybe I will indeed puff up and die, as The Anthologist‘s Paul Chowder suggests.

Even some of the data recorded on third-party sites and featured on these pages, such as the now-defunct AudBlog, is not recoverable. While I became better at using common data formats and hosting the content on these pages over the years, I have proven, like many people creating things on the Internet, exceptionally optimistic that many websites will stick around. If YouTube were to somehow fold tomorrow, then numerous embedded videos — a number of which reflect my own creative efforts — would be as useless as the few 5 1/4″ diskettes I still have in a file cabinet containing thoughts, essays, and writings from twenty years ago. It’s probably all juvenalia. But maybe there’s some vital thought or feeling in there that I wasn’t quite ready to take on.

William T. Vollmann has amusingly styled websites as “a particularly hated category” in his endnotes for Imperial. I believe his enmity to originate largely from the lack of permanence, our common failure to note a set of thoughts and feelings expressed at a particular point in time. We’re not just talking about preserving words. There’s also a type of moderation that goes over the line. There are at least six websites that I have stopped visiting — a number of them that boast of being “civilized” places — because their immature proprietors saw fit to delete my critical but by no means trollish comments. Some thoughts are better left unspoken or censored. How many uncomfortable truths are lost to tomorrow’s historians because of these knee-jerk impulses?

At the risk of echoing bigoted reactionaries like Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and (soon) John Freeman, there remains a double-edged sword. How many of our immediate thoughts should be loosened from our minds? I must again applaud Twitter for ratcheting up the speed and limiting the number of characters, thereby solving several expressive problems. My stupid thoughts and immediate expressive impulses now have a home there, for better or worse. And these ostensible “blog entries” have transmuted from ephemeral roundups into lengthy essays. But who am I to judge the quality? Historically speaking, people have been less interested in what I often spend several hours writing and researching and have been decidedly more intrigued with something I’ve assembled in 20 minutes. (The problem, incidentally, isn’t limited to blogs. John Banville has recently raised his objections to such perceived apartheid.) Perhaps the “rushed” writing is better. (For any stopwatch enthusiasts in the peanut gallery, I have now spent about 75 minutes writing this post.) Or perhaps we can only make distinctions based on the temporal commodity observed at the onset of this essay.

Perhaps this is too much introspection. My own thoughts on these very important issues may not mean anything to you. But at least I have the solace of knowing precisely how I felt on the subject on August 3, 2009. It is very probable that I will feel differently in a few hours. The text here may not be permanent, but I am doing my best to pretend that I am throwing a packed bottle into a sea. Should I change my mind later in the week, I will certainly do my best to note it. Such “journalism” may be the only way to mimic textual permanence. But no matter what the form, it remains our duty to preserve. Human minds and hearts change, but if we hope to witness these magical developments, then we must do better.

You Can’t Write About It

You can’t write a deeply critical piece on Obama and patiently explain that you’re a liberal. You can’t make fun of the homeless or the disabled or the flawed, and yet you also can’t bring yourself to condemn Governor Schwarzenegger’s callous slash and burn, which will hurt many people. You can’t write against a popular position and be considered anything less than a predictable contrarian. You can’t take chances. You can’t express your feelings in this foolishly rational age. For you’ll lose your precious sinecure at the newspaper.

You can’t write about certain people because they might be able to throw you some work. You can’t publicly question some of your more sensitive friends, the advertisers, or the executives. You can’t find the time to quietly encourage someone. You can’t write about the dumbass who gets the work you so desperately need simply because he has a book and you don’t. You can’t write the truth, but you always claim you stand for it. You can’t criticize your heroes or praise the noble qualities of your enemies.

You can’t reveal how men really feel about breasts or what women think of biceps. You can’t write about how much you want him and the whiff of desperation they all smelled on you after so many lonely return trips home without the ephemeral human trophies. You can’t write about the guy you fucked when she was out of town on business and how you never told him and how you fucked him again. You can’t write about the girl you knocked up and the day you called in sick to spend the day at the abortion clinic. You can’t write about your prevarications. You can’t write about how you ignored the struggling friend who needed work so that you could get ahead. You can’t write about that last atavistic impulse you have towards those with darker skin or a sexual orientation you consider peculiar, if not outright sinful. You can’t write about that one time you stepped hard on the gas and almost killed the son of a bitch, the time you didn’t hold the door open for the old woman, the night you drunkenly pissed on the man who asked you for change, and the cruel afternoon in which you told many children that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny didn’t exist simply because you were bored.

You can’t write about joy or something filling the world with so much good.

You can’t write about these things. Because it will reflect poorly on you. Because, oh dear, you’ll be judged. If only you could take a chance.

Small wonder the newspapers aren’t interesting.

The Mad Scientist

This post was intended to be a mashup of sentences from posts I’ve had sitting in draft form over the last month. But as I got to assembling it — or, more accurately, not assembling it — I found myself free associating and thinking about silly things. In fact, I’m writing this sentence after I have written the two paragraphs that follow this one. The first sentence read differently and was originally attached to the beginning of the next paragraph, before I just rolled in with my effrontery and cut the paragraph in two and started typing these sentences. Thus, this paragraph represents an attempt to anchor the newer and entirely unintended context of what I had certainly not planned. The sun is now rising. There are delightful birds outside chirping pleasantries. And I’m getting the sense that it’s going to be a pretty delightful day. It always helps to remain positive, particularly when you are trying to survive doing something without value in this present economy.

The original purpose of this post, concerning the mashup and now long transmuted, can be summed up as followed (this paragraph is, incidentally, largely unaltered from the post’s original purpose): I don’t know if I’ll actually complete any of these posts, but it seemed a pity to let the posts languish. After all, if the posts represent entities with independent feelings, I must be a very cruel person indeed to leave the posts unfinished. And now it occurs to me that I am probably being crueler by opening up various draft posts, piercing into the body with an unwashed scalpel, and flinging the guts around the laboratory. The hell of it is that I don’t have any mad scientist hair right now, much less a white coat. And now I am feeling a little uncomfortable. Because I now realize that the horror film image of a mad scientist in a white coast with fresh blood stains makes me quite giddy. I have always loved artificial blood and guts and was a Fangoria reader back in the day, but I have always been a bit queasy around real blood. But are my very real feelings artificial because they are now bound in text? There is clearly a selection process at work here. Does any author hold back on 98% of her real feelings? And if we are getting only 2% of an author’s real feelings within the text, then are we really feeling with the author? Or are we feeling an artificial construct? Is literature nothing more than a highbrow version of some teenage girl pinning up a BOP pinup of the Jonas Brothers in her bedroom? And is this, in turn, why so many literary snobs are reluctant to express enthusiasm about genre? That the truth might come out? That their strong feelings about literature are really just artificial?

Anyway, this is no ordinary laboratory. People are reading this site. It is, in some sense, a performance for the public. The British are better about referring to the operating room as a theater, but I’m now wondering what it says about me to get so excited about flinging sentences around and having no problem doing this in a public setting. (Of course, now that this post has become about something else and I haven’t actually assembled the sentences together, I may be able to recuse myself from culpability. Except that I had the original impulse to do this. My original purpose was to disrupt and disturb unformed textual entities and do so in a public setting with little concern for how these entities felt. We grant corporations the same legal rights as individuals and any good liberal gets himself worked up in a tizzy over the duplicity. But why don’t we afford an essay the same emotional rights as a person?)

The sun has risen. The birds have stopped chirping. She rests — hopefully asleep — in the next room. Those feelings are all very real to me, but are they real to you as I write these sentences? Or do you want me to shut up now? These are perfectly reasonable questions. This is the problem with literature. You can recognize that there’s another person with feelings behind the sentences, but you are simultaneously given open license to slam and dissect those sentences and otherwise declare something wretched or wonderful. There’s something inherently duplicitous in that, but there’s also something liberating. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that has me so excited about the mad scientist with the white coat and the blood. I can celebrate the mad scientist without judging the person who created the mad scientist. Because I am lost in the mad scientist’s narrative. It’s safe to say that I will probably never run into a mad scientist with a white coat stained with blood. But some might wish to judge my excitement for the mad scientist or even the sanity of the author who came up with it.

This little essay was finished up around 6:08 AM, on June 11, 2009. The word count now stands at 830 words. I’m now being badgered by a window that informs me that WordPress 2.8 is available. These are simple mechanics. Cold facts. But can we get excited about them? Why not? The reader hostile to the seemingly mundane hasn’t considered the magic. The time and word count are just as valid as the mad scientist, and it’s up to us to keep the whole operation exciting. Even as observers watch us fling the guts around.

Letting Mary Gaitskill Skate By

I’d like to take the time to echo Nina Maclaughlin’s astute remarks over at Bookslut and call bullshit on Mary Gaitskill.

Let the record show that I have very much enjoyed Gaitskill’s stories and novels in the past. But there comes a point, and there is most certainly a point in Don’t Cry, when the author is so full of shit that one cannot grant her a pass because of her sterling reputation. That moment, cited by Maclaughlin and Claire Dederer, is this series of sentences in the story “Mirror Ball”:

Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the put of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant. Without the membrane of her soul to buffer and interpret the raw matter of the pit, her personality was now on the receiving end of too much primary force. Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand. (82)

To which I reply, like Maclaughlin and Dederer, “Well, come the fuck on!”

Let us examine why this is awful writing. We have already established in the story’s opening line that this musician has taken an elfin girl’s soul. Gaitskill then writes, “But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone.” Okay, a little corny, but it works. And that’s really all we need here. The next natural question that the story should answer is what precisely the musician took from the girl. Gaitskill then establishes how the musician and the girl meet.

And then we get this: “She should not have shown him her soul.” Uh, Mary, we already know that something happened concerning the soul. Can you not tantalize us further about what could have been lost here? We already have some inkling that the girl lost her soul. But, no, we get this sentence immediately afterward: “She flashed it again and again, as if it were a bauble meant to entice him, or a hand mirror flashing signals from a dark and lonely place.” Okay, the girl is determined to flash her soul, come hell or high water. But then we already know this. Because it was established in the previous sentence and it was established in the story’s opening paragraph.

Then there’s some insipid chatter about a vintage-record store, which the musician plans to show to the girl. Okay! Soul-showing time! Well, no. The musician leads the girl through the gritty streets, so that Gaitskill can, you know, demonstrate to us that she has street cred and all. But now we’re three pages into this goddam thing and Gaitskill still hasn’t given us anything. The musician feels “as if he were in a fairy tale where the hero is led into the forest by an enchanted ball of light.” But this simile simply doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t tell us anything about the musician, much less contributed to answering the central question, which involves a girl who has shown her soul and answers the presumed costs of the soul-showing. Then the girl’s soul flashes in her eyes. Uh, yeah. No shit. The girl has a soul and she’s going to show it. No need to remind us for the third fucking time, Mary.

On the next page, the forest and the ball of light seen by the musician are brought up again. Then the musician balls the girl and she “recklessly [unfurls] her soul.” Lots of bullshit about her soul darting “here and there,” but no sense about what the soul is or what it means or what this elfin girl is feeling. The girl then feels “her soul gather its vastness in one small spot.” Uh, yeah. Five pages in now and we still haven’t quite answered the central question: What precisely did the musician steal from the girl?

Her sex, as it turns out, in one of the story’s few not too shabby moments. But what of the soul? The musician drops “her soul on the floor, where it quickly became invisible to him.” Hey, Mary, this story is about the fucking girl, not the musician. Five pages. Are we going to get to the part where you are going to use your writing gifts to tell us precisely what the fuck’s going on here? Or are you just full of shit?

Turns out it’s the latter. After the girl declares, “I don’t even know him. I’ll get over it,” the story then offers this ridiculous humdinger: “Her soul was connected to her through her brain.” Yes, obviously. It has already been established that the soul is related to existence — if not through this story, then certainly from any fucking dictionary — and that, yes, the musician took it. Then we get some condescending bullshit about how “the brain is not higher in moral or celestial terms.” Look, Mary, I don’t give a fuck about the brain or your amateurish philosophy. I want to feel the loss of this girl’s soul. This is what the story should be about. And we’re a good seven (!) pages into this story and we still don’t know. Then you inform us that the girl’s “soul spoke in images of sight and sound that were quick and multiple, and which changed form by blending into each other.” Well, that’s nice and all, but, for fuck’s sake, this is a load of horseshit. We have no sense of the girl’s emotional loss. Even if we buy into the ridiculous notion that this naive philosophy is meant to reflect the naivete of the girl, this still does not tell us anything about why she lost her soul, and how this loss (at this point, now fluctuating between permanent loss and casual misplacement) completely changed her.

And then we get this: “The girl tried to feel contempt for the boy, too, but it is hard to have contempt for a person who’s made off with part of your soul.” Well, wait a sec. Does the girl now feel that part of her soul is gone or is it the whole enchilada? Does Gaitskill even know what the fuck she is writing? And why this needless longass sentence?

We then get some metaphorical sense of the girl’s predicament: “She thought of him against a vast, open sky, with a halo of piercing white. She thought of him astride a leopard, light and graceful in mid-leap.” Good Christ, this vapid nonsense rivals Ron Miller’s Silk and Steel! Talk about prose that tells us absolutely nothing about the girl’s feelings. Talk about sentences that completely betray the visceral truth of losing one’s soul. But then maybe this story’s not really about losing your soul and more about how a guy who doesn’t return your messages after two weeks has moved on. But if it were about the girl realizing this musician’s betrayal, what then is the purpose of all this soul bullshit? You’d think that Gaitskill would then take us into the elfin girl’s head and heart, right?

Wrong. Gaitskill follows the musician! And we learn that the musician has essentially snatched bits of souls from other lovers. What the hell is this? Stephenie Meyer outtakes? We learn that “the newly stolen soul was so talkative, so increasingly relentless, that it had gotten all the others going.” Here’s the question: Why the fuck should I care about any of this? The reader is being strung along here. And Gaitskill is doing an extremely insensitive thing to the reader. After tantalizing the reader for eight pages, we get this amateurish fantasy bullshit. And we still don’t know the full emotional impact of the elfin girl losing her soul! We do learn that the musician has been splitting up his own soul since he was two. (Ha ha.) But who cares really? Again, this isn’t his story. But maybe, just maybe, there will be some insinuation here about what specifically soul-stealing entails. I mean, really, we’re due.

Nope. “The chattering soul of the infernal brain girl was everywhere.” Yeah, so what? And then we get the passage quoted above:

Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the put of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant. Without the membrane of her soul to buffer and interpret the raw matter of the pit, her personality was now on the receiving end of too much primary force. Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand. (82)

This is awful writing. This does not tell us anything that was not already telegraphed to us over ten pages. Forget the mixed metaphors and Gaitskill’s complete ineptitude with the imagery. Let’s slap her around here for not telling us ANYTHING AT ALL about this vital emotional moment in the elfin girl’s life. Even if we had some inclination of what the “primary force” entailed, we’d be okay here. But instead, we get a tired music metaphor. Because the man is a musician. And of course, it fills the empty space. But here’s the thing. If the girl’s soul was torn from her, how in the hell could she have feelings?

I think it’s safe to say that “Mirror Ball” would be rejected by just about any fiction workshop. So why was it submitted to Index Magazine? Was this a failed New Yorker story? Were the editors of Index so spellbound by the prospect of Gaitskill in their pages that they didn’t even bother to edit her? And why was this inept story included in Don’t Cry? Would it have killed Gaitskill to get the collection down to 140 great pages? Or was she contractually obligated to pad this damn thing out to over 200 pages?

I present all this because it seems to me that Mary Gaitskill, as good as she is, must be held to the same standards as any other writer. Accepting a fourth-rate Gaitskill story is accepting a fourth-rate story. Period. And if we accept anything less, then newer readers — such as Bookslut’s Nina Maclaughlin — come along and are instantly suspicious of this nation’s crown jewels. No, the time has come to get out the tar and the pitchforks and storm the gates of Index and drag out the cowardly assholes who let a talented writer skate by because the editors didn’t have the balls to place their editorial judgment above their fanboy hero worship.

I am not sure if this dreadful story happened on Index editor Molly Kincaid’s watch. But the time has come to bombard her with emails and demand accountability.

In Defense of David Denby

In an effort to liven things up, New York Magazine has assigned Adam Sternbergh, the snark practitioner who cut his teeth with Fametracker, to review David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. I don’t believe the subtitle is fair to the arguments contained within the book, but I can understand why some marketing type at Simon & Schuster included it: controversy drums up sales. And controversy, particularly the unthinking and tendentious variety that is on display in Sternbergh’s review, drums up attention.

As someone who has actually read Denby’s book, and as someone who has indulged in snark from time to time, I find myself in the strange position of defending Denby. Sternbergh’s “appropriate response” completely misses the point of Denby’s thesis and Sternbergh, in his efforts to persuade us of snark’s great glory, unintentionally reenforces Denby’s argument.

Denby does not, contrary to Sternbergh’s claims, argue that snark is “humor as a vehicle for cruelty.” Denby states at the beginning that he’s “all in favor of nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective.” And he concludes his book on the same note, urging readers and writers to commit “vituperation that is insulting, nasty, but, well, clean.” If one must be vituperative, Denby hopes for writing along the lines of Gore Vidal’s evisceration of Truman Capote in his 1976 essay, “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self,” in which Vidal’s carefully worded insult (labeled here as “high snark”) takes into account specific biographical details about Capote. In Denby’s view, this follows quite naturally in Juvenal’s tradition. And even he cannot resist this.

Nor is Denby “rehashing the arguments mounted against irony.” It is indeed irony that Denby is championing. Denby brings up Stephen Colbert’s infamous 2006 appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, writing:

I don’t think the jokes are Colbert’s best, yet the event is still a classic of comedy and of citizenly virtue. Why? Because it’s not snark. It’s irony, an apparent act of kinship with the president that is actually a violent unseating of the president. (121)

But irony alone isn’t what Denby’s after here. He believes that good satire involves praising “some corresponding set of virtues, even if only by implication.” And in Sternbergh’s view, it is the “acid-tongued readers” who constantly complain that present “the best fans a culture could hope to produce.” While sarcasm and vituperation certainly have their place, and can be exceptionally potent qualities when a writer wishes to pursue a larger truth, I must again side with Denby here. Is it really “passion” that drives a writer or a commentator who is always sour? Or is there really nothing more than bitter resentment? What is the point of nothing more than nimble flayings if you are not fighting for something better?

Sternbergh also takes umbrage about Denby’s observation that snark “has too modest a rooting interest in artists actually succeeding at anything,” and insists that the contributions to Television Without Pity were “never, ever, disengaged.” But “disengagement” is not what Denby is identifying here. One can be sourly “engaged” when one is merely an “acid-tongued reader” too terrified to express anything joyful or marvelous about the universe. Denby’s wondering why some writers refuse to offer so much as a positive word. And Sternbergh, in his defense of TWoP, never cites a single example from the website in which its writers wrote something along the lines of, “That episode of Lost was fantastic. And the filmmakers should be commended for an intelligent script and taut direction.”

I agree with Sternbergh that Denby doesn’t quite identify where snark originated (but he does make a half-decent effort to pinpoint its contemporary roots at Spy Magazine), but the very irony that Sternbergh identifies as “a defense against inheriting a two-faced world” isn’t the issue here. Because the best defense in these cases is hardly an effective offense. As Denby observes of Spy‘s infiltration of Bohemian Grove, “The malicious rug-pulling was fun to watch, but there was also something creepy, parasitic, and fully meaningless about such minor invasions. Spy never did find out how power worked in New York or what deals between political and corporate honchos were struck in Bohemian Grove; it discovered only where power hung out and what its vulgar habits were.” While I disagree with Denby’s suggestion that pranksterism and tomfoolery fail to loosen minor realities which lead others towards a better understanding of how the world operates (computer hackers, driven by curiosity and mischief, force administrators to enact better security; Sarah Palin is revealed to be woefully unqualified by a Quebec comedy duo), he is right to point to a certain vacuity in many snarky experiments. You can read a website like Television Without Pity and realize that the people who write for it are wasting their talents drinking in nothing but the poisonous tonic of sarcasm. These writers have no desire to understand or properly rebel against the “two-faced world” that’s apparently so evil. Indeed, in TWoP’s case, NBC Universal snatched it up and this caused others to take umbrage at the distilled results.

This is the precise cycle that Denby identifies in Gawker (citing Vanessa Grigoriadis’s “Everybody Sucks”). The real motivations of these young snarky writers are to take the jobs of those within the mainstream. And just as Jessica Coen and Choire Sicha have moved within the gates, so too has TWoP. The “revolters” become the establishment. The founders flee their garret and get good jobs. And then they have friends, such as Adam Sternbergh, defending them at their new vantage point in the parapets. (See an archive of Tara Ariano’s articles for New York and an archive of Sarah D. Bunting’s articles for New York. Both were founders of TWoP.)

Sternbergh quotes Denby’s “lazy generalization” about people in the thirties and the forties being “in the same boat,” but he conveniently elides the sentences that follow:

But at the moment, the attitude is that there is no common boat, and that, if there were one, other people should be thrown out of it. Income inequalities and Rovian tactics that exacerbate ethnic and class differences have made for sandpapery relations or blank indifference, and snark serves not to break down the walls of loneliness and fear but to solidify them by servicing communities held together by resentment. This isn’t the place for economic and sociological analysis, but everyone knows there’s an infinite amount of anger out there.

Now, you could calmly point out Sternbergh’s almost total inability to grok historical context or his failure to challenge Denby on how snark “breaks down the walls of loneliness.” Or you could respond, “Sternbergh, you dumbass, have you ever read any fucking books about the economic and social conditions during the Great Depression or World War II?” Witness Sternbergh’s total disregard for (a) trying to figure out where Denby is coming from and (b) deliberately cutting off his quote so that Denby’s larger point about isolation is curtailed.

Denby is certainly not disputing how Peggy Noonan’s slip clips away at pores in the wall. His argument rests on how snark fails to puncture it. When Maureen Dowd, who Denby devotes a full chapter to, consistently shifts her messages or fixates on Al Gore’s mannerisms (which has nothing to do with political realities), he is pointing out quite clearly that the snarky response is not always the best response and that, without any corresponding set of virtues, it’s utterly meaningless to public discourse.

While there may be some truth to Sternbergh’s theory that snark may turn its volume down if people say what they actually believe, one is likewise struck by Sternbergh’s unwillingness to give Tom Cruise the benefit of the doubt. I’m certainly no Tom Cruise fan, but I’m not such a jaded bastard to view Cruise as a total enemy incarnate (particularly with true scum like Bernard Madoff swindling good people). Cruise has certainly made an ass of himself jumping on Oprah’s couch and the like. But like Denby, I’ve never met the guy. And I probably never will. For all I know, we might get along.

What I can address is Tom Cruise’s strengths and failings as an actor. That is within the legitimate realm of public discourse, because that is my relationship with Tom Cruise. I can likewise address, as Sternbergh suggests, the “draconian information control” that prevents Cruise from answering tough questions about his craft and perhaps growing as an actor. But what contribution does describing Cruise as “a smaller, yappy version of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator” make to public discourse? How does it help us to understand Tom Cruise? It would be just as ignoble if I described Adam Sternbergh as a “third-rate David Caruso with a silly chin” (based on this photo) or Sternbergh describing Denby as “an Internet-age Andy Rooney” in his review. But what merit or thought do such descriptions have when we are considering thoughts and ideas? None whatsoever.

Denby isn’t asking us to keep our voices down. He’s asking us to reconsider how we use our voices. And unlike previous books that have railed against the Internet (recent volumes from Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen come to mind; Denby, for what its worth, dismisses the former), Denby is not entirely against the Internet’s possibilities for expression. And this is what makes his book more nuanced and more interesting.

He rails against anonymous trolls, but his complaints extend more to the anonymity behind the comment. Why go to the trouble to slander someone when you can put your name to it? (Easy. You divest yourself of responsibility.) He bemoans websites and blogs that don’t bother to check or corroborate information, but that insist that they’re doing a better job than mainstream journalism while they simultaneously declare that they lack the time and the resources to fact-check. (And to demonstrate that Denby is not an enemy of the Internet, he commends Talking Points Memo for its fact-checking.)

He also bravely reveals an excerpt of his own snark, to show that he is not above taking snarky potshots. Indeed, we’re all capable of it. That’s part of the problem. Do we lob Sternberghian spitballs at those whose arguments we cannot intelligently address? Or do we do so with a corresponding set of virtues in mind? Do we say something positive or constructive every now and then? If we work in media, do we close the gates to those who are just starting out? Or do we give these struggling voices opportunities and include them into the framework? Most importantly, do we siphon our rage into something that involves unexpected revelations about the world we live in? Just about anybody can fire off a cheap shot, but it takes a thoughtful individual with real guts to reveal the full scope of terrible truths. And to give Sternbergh the benefit of the doubt, I hope he reconsiders what pursuing these truths really entails.

Statement of Current Intentions

You may have observed a slight downturn in new content in the last week. In an effort to organize and clear away needless detritus, I’ll be stepping back a bit from these pages during the next month or two. There will still be fresh content and new podcasts over the next several weeks. (The subject of dogs keeps coming into these podcasts, and I’m not sure why.) But my attentions are currently required elsewhere.

There are several reasons for this. Beyond my freelancing responsibilities, I’m trying to take advantage of the winter slowdown to (a) make a serious push forward on the manuscript, which involves considerable rewriting and a sustained burst of about 30,000 more words before I get to the end (very painstaking, but loads of fun), (b) get certain technical aspects of this website streamlined, (c) perform a continual series of mental resets* to ensure that I can stick with point (a), and (d) check in on people and otherwise ensure that folks I know are okay. Aside from this four-point framework, there’s a good deal of pleasant anarchy. Notes and papers are shuffled daily on the kitchen table.

I am trying to replace one routine (offering a blog post or three every day) with another (working on the manuscript every day). There has been some discombobulation, but I’m now getting the hang of it. And I now see that this beast will, at long last, get finished.

Because there could be several days between posts, I may enlist a few guest bloggers to keep this place thrumming. If you’re interested, feel free to email me.

In the meantime, I may perform a few experiments pertaining to this novel-in-progress. What I may do is throw you dutiful readers such strange questions as: “If a gun was pointed at you just after you’ve pissed your pants, what circumstances would cause you to remove your pants?” (That question, incidentally, has been answered.) You get the idea.

Again, I must point out that if you have been adversely affected by the current economic crisis, please do not let this stop you from doing what you do. The defeatism that has taken hold of some anonymous pessimists truly isn’t constructive. The time has come for all of us to push forward with solutions. Try and take this time to do something wonderful in a time of crisis. Support your local bookstore if you can. And if you’re a writer, above all, stay writing.

* The mental reset has involved long periods away from the Internet. I am now on a strict reading and writing regimen that involves an improvised mathematical formula establishing the number of hours I abstain from the Internet. (Don’t ask. But I assure you that it makes sense.) Since my laptop is currently temperamental, I have shifted back to thick books and five-subject notebooks and writing atop the manuscript by hand. I have also decided to limit the amount of information I ingest during any given time, because I am now at a place where I need to think long and hard about a number of complicated issues pertaining to points (a) and (b).

Stay Writing

Chances are that if you’re a freelance writer, some of the actions that have occurred in the past week have seriously jeopardized or dramatically affected your ability to survive.

Stay writing.

Don’t let a single person tell you that your profession isn’t a real job.

No matter how hard it gets, do something every day to ensure that you stay writing.

If you have to take non-writing work, make sure that you’ve set aside enough time for your real work. Stay writing.

Be sure to eat, sleep, rest, and see friends. But don’t slack off. Right now, you’re probably working harder than you’ve ever had to before. Yes, it’s tough. But if you’re a real writer, you’re tough. Just stay writing.

Look to your friends, family, and loved ones and tell them what your situation is. You’ve probably been there for them. Now it’s time for them to be there for you. See if they can do anything to ensure that you stay writing.

Drop a line to other writers and ensure that they stay writing. (If you need moral support, email me and I’ll do my best to respond.)

If you have not been paid for a piece that has been published more than thirty days ago, then pick up the phone, track down the appropriate person, and demand immediate payment. Don’t let them string you along. Don’t accept any bullshit excuses. You are just as much a laborer as anybody else. And this payment will help you to stay alive and stay writing.

If you are an editor, fight tooth and nail for more freelance work in your section. Even if it’s just one extra assignment in the budget, that’s one person who you’ve managed to help stay writing.

If you do not stay writing, then you are not a real writer. Period. Move over, pursue some other line of work, and step aside for someone who is willing to bust her ass every day and willing to write to the best of her ability.

If you are turning in lazy writing, then either improve your work or get out of this business. With so many unemployed writers, with possibly more jobs that are going to be cut, it is now more important than ever that writers demonstrate why writing is important. And that means writing at the top of your game.

Stay writing. And write so well that not a single soul can knock you down.

Freelance Follies at Manhattan Media

One of Black Friday’s casualties was the Harvard magazine, 02138 — a magazine owned and operated by Manhattan Media. Upon hearing the news, I immediately emailed editor-in-chief David Blum — to see if he and the staff were okay and to determine how Manhattan Media intended to honor its contracts. I was informed by Blum that Manhattan Media would indeed be paying its freelancers, and given the name of Chief Operations Officer Joanne Harras as the contact. I then followed up with her.

The 02138 freelancing contract specified payment “upon acceptance of the article.” And not only had my article been accepted, but it had been prematurely published. Ms. Harras informed me that the check would be mailed by the end of last week. But it did not arrive. I contacted other 02138 freelancers and those who answered my emails had likewise not been paid.

I informed Ms. Harras by email that I would be stopping by the Manhattan Media office this morning to pick up the check. Instead of responding with diplomacy, Ms. Harras emailed me, “If you come by the office, there will be no check here.” She then unleashed her attorney, Michael J. Simon, on me, claiming that I was threatening her, when I was simply upholding a contract and a promise.

I left this morning, entered the building, handed my ID over to the security guard, and told him I was going up to the Manhattan Media office. My name had been placed on the building’s “Watch List #1.” I told this friendly guard, who laughed over the cautionary subwindow on his screen, that I had not been placed on any watch list before, but that he could watch me as long as he liked, particularly if he remained suspicious of my intentions. Perhaps in watching, he might see something that I hadn’t observed in the mirror. Or perhaps, I also argued, I could watch him and put him on my own private “Watch List #2.” Perhaps we could generate thousands of Watch Lists and share the results of all this watching with interested parties. I stood around for a while, and he then let me go up.

I informed the receptionist that I was there to collect a check, and that Ms. Harras was responsible for its issuance. The receptionist told me that Ms. Harras was in a meeting. “How about Tom?” I asked. (Tom Allon is the President and CEO of Manhattan Media.) He was also in a meeting. “How about someone from accounting?” I asked. “We need to resolve this matter today.”

The receptionist told me that “someone” would speak to me. Who? Someone from accounting.

A friendly woman by the name of Shawn Scott — the Accounts Manager — came out. She told me that that “everybody’s getting paid.” I begged to differ. I had discovered that a number of 02138 contributors hadn’t, including me. She then told me to write my name and the amount on a slip of paper, which I promptly did, and she proceeded to investigate.

Ms. Scott gave me the specific details that Ms. Harras was incapable of conveying to me: the check number, the date it was issued, the date it was sent. Ms. Scott was kind and professional, and determined to resolve the dispute in a civil and equitable manner. Manhattan Media is lucky to have Ms. Scott in its employ. I asked if the other freelancers had been paid out in the same manner. Ms. Scott told me that she needed specific names, but she alluded to all the 02138 checks being sent out around the same time. If you are an 02138 freelancer who is not paid this week, please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with contact details for all parties identified in this post. You deserve to be paid according to the contract terms.

I told her that I would need a replacement check, because the check had not arrived. She told me that she would need to issue a stop payment on the old one. But since today was a holiday, she couldn’t issue a stop payment. This seemed a fair and reasonable concession to make. I agreed to hold off for another day. The terms were as follows: If the check does not arrive in tomorrow’s mail, then I will collect a replacement check in person at Manhattan Media’s office.

At this point, Mr. Allon arrived out to meet me. I informed him that we had arrived at a solution. He told me, “We empathize with your situation.” He also told me that he hoped the matter could be resolved civilly. This was what I had asked for all along.

When I returned home, I received an email from attorney Simon:

Please direct all further communications with regard to this matter to my attention as no one at Manhattan Media is authorized to speak with you further regarding this matter.

Alas, it was too late. I had already stopped by the office and communicated with several people at Manhattan Media. But I memorialized this morning’s meeting for Mr. Allon, Ms. Harras, and Mr. Simon, noting that we had resolved the dispute.

Let us ponder the way that Manhattan Media handled this. The people in charge after Blum — again, a good man — did not contact me and inform me of the specifics in the wake of 02138‘s closing. I had to contact them. Ms. Harras not only did not give me the specific information that Ms. Scott did, but she then tried to threaten me with her attorney, as well as place me on a silly Watch List. She had her attorney declare that I could not speak with anybody at Manhattan Media about the issue. In other words, this is a company that, under Ms. Harras’s invisible hand, could not be bothered to own up to its own inadequacies.

I am posting this episode publicly, in the event that any former 02138 contributor or any Manhattan Media freelancer experiences similar problems. Freelancers are often ridiculed, implored to “get a real job” by those who have never had to struggle to collect checks like this. But freelancing is a real job, and it frequently involves working 80-90 hours a week to get by. For those who work nine-to-five, I assure you that I get to work earlier and stop work later than you. Contracts exist for a reason. And they must be upheld. Any company who commissions freelancers must have the maturity and the professionalism to understand that freelancers are as vital as the full-time staff. We also have rent and bills to pay.

I remain fairly confident that Mr. Allon and Manhattan Media will honor its promise, and that this dispute will be resolved. And I publicly thank Mr. Allon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. I just wish that the professionalism exhibited by Manhattan Media this morning extended across the whole of its company.

[11/12 UPDATE: I received the check in yesterday’s mail. Rather interestingly, the envelope from Manhattan Media was postmarked on November 11th — affixed with a stamp, rather than a postage machine. I don’t know if this was sent at the eleventh hour, so to speak. But a check is a check, and Manhattan Media has lived up to its promise. I have received a few emails from 02138 contributors and have directed them to the appropriate people. The word is that Manhattan Media is now honoring payment. If you are an 02138 contributor who has not received a check, please email me and I will provide you with the contact details.]

Word Count and Ancient Novels

From a letter to the New York Times editor, January 7, 1899:

Have you taken note of the fact that the majority of successful novels are long? I mention this fact because a few years ago — about the time The Prisoner of Zenda made such a hit — it was predicted that all the widely read novels of the future would be very short. Not long ago your own London correspondent W.L. Alden predicted that the novel of the future would be only 40,000 or 50,000 words long.

I have calculated very closely the length of the prominent novels of the last two or three years, and I find that Mrs. Steel’s On the Face of the Waters is 150,000 words, Ford’s Honorable Peter Stirling is 145,000, Hugh Wynne, 170,000; Corleone, 165,000; Quo Vadis, 210,000; The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 120,000; The Seats of the Mighty, 115,000; The Manxman, 220,000; The Christian, 210,000; The Gadfly, 105,000; A Soldier of Manhattan, 100,000. Against this list of long novels appears Soldiers of Fortune and The Choir Invisible, which are of medium length, about 75,000 words each, while in the 40,000 novel list we have only Hopkinson Smith’s Tom Grogan and John Fox’s Kenutuckians.

I have purposefully omitted the 1898 novels from the above, but when we come to the year just closing we find the tendency to length still more accentuated. Take the two best and most successful American historical novels of the present season — Mr. Altsheler’s A Herald of the West and Miss Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope — and we find that one is about 120,000 words and the other 130,000. Mr. Parker’s very successful Battle of the Strong is about 135,000 words; Mr. Page’s Red Rock, which is a study rather than a historical novel, is 140,000 words; David Harum is about 110,000 words; Helbeck of Bannisdale is 110,000 words; Ms. Crowninshield’s lively story of adventure, Latitude 19, is 145,000 words; Evelyn Innes, which many think the finest novel of 1898, is 175,000 words; Roden’s Corner is at least not a short novel, nor is The Red Axe. All these have passed the test of commercial success, which is the final arbiter in such matters. In view of these facts, does the reign of the very short novel seem to be at hand?


* * *

I know very few of the titles that the good C.T. Adams has kindly listed for us to investigate. But for those who find a 900-page book imposing, the above statistics are worth remembering. I have added links to the complete text of the books that Adams mentions. It is a great credit to our information age that only Manxman could not be located.* Adams is right to observe that George Moore’s Evelyn Innes is somewhat promising — that is, for those who like slightly florid, monosyllabic noun-heavy sentence constructions. (“Iron-grey hair hung in thick locks over his forehead, and, shining through their shadows, his eyes drew attention from the rest of his face, so that none noticed at first the small and firmly cut nose, nor the scanty growth of beard twisted to a point by a movement habitual to the weak, white hand,” reads one such sentence.) My current beard, such as it is, is not habitual to any movement by my hand. But I am very much taken with this image, and I’m wondering if men have, over the past century, resisted the impulse to tug and twist at their facial hair in such a matter. The time is ripe for a comeback.

There’s more from Moore: “The vague pathos of his grey face was met by the bright effusion of hers, and throwing her arms about him, she kissed him on the cheek.” Who knew pathos could be vague? But “vague pathos” is a wonderful idea. And I particularly like the antediluvian sentence construction.

I’m serious! The forgotten novels that people raved about a century ago are worth revisiting — if only for the odd and enjoyable syntax. (I’m afraid that Moore’s dialogue didn’t impress me as much as the sentences.) Can you imagine a novelist today getting away with a woman “regretting her tongue’s indiscretion?” A man named Sir Owen is “seemingly a tall man, certainly above the medium height,” which suggests that Moore isn’t certain. But then how often are any of us certain about how tall some people are? “Wall paper” has not yet been crammed into one word. An upper-class man in his thirties is described as “three-and-thirty,” and I’m considering adopting this manner of speech if anybody ever asks my age.

“The nakedness of the unfinished and undecorated church was hidden in the twilight of the approaching storm….” This is very old school, but I’m again strangely fond of this phrasing, even if I’m not inclined to use such a prepositional phrase in my own writing. If an MFA tried to write a sentence like this today, she’d be asked to revise the sentence read something like: “The undecorated church hid in the storm.” This isn’t nearly as interesting. And you can’t really make this sentence work without the past tense.

Don’t discount the old novels. There are quirky ideas here to be discovered, tinkered around with, and employed in your own writing.

* — UPDATE: The good Rory Ewins has pointed out that Manxman is available online. I had mistyped it “Maxman.” Thank you, Rory. And thank you, Internet!

Late Bloomers and Early Risers

This Malcolm Gladwell article is quite interesting, if only for the wry way in which Gladwell suggests that Jonathan Safran Foer’s best years are behind him. One thing Gladwell does not seem to account for is the writer’s need to support himself with other types of writing that are more lucrative than fiction, because the writer does not wish to answer the dunning rap of a landlord. With rare exceptions, the landlord will not accept the perfectly reasonable explanation that the writer is, indeed, a late bloomer or a verbal toiler of some sort. Nor will the American government appropriate the appropriate bailout funds for citizens who fit this description. (via Mark Athitakis)


The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

— Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamus”

There exists a maximum amount of prearranged information, cultural reconfiguration, and other artistic offerings that one can ingest before it becomes necessary to splash bracing water upon one’s face (or, to take this idea further, to permit dollops of grease to crease one’s cheeks because of a self-administered oil change in one’s figurative vehicle). This is where the frequently overlooked human experience comes into play. By venturing outside one’s domicile or spending time with other humans commonly referred to as “friends” (as they are specified in the parlance of our time), or by participating in intimate activities that involve getting out of the house because the windows have fogged up and nobody wants to talk about the pleasant musky odor known to cause roommates to scurry, one can encounter a new sheath of information or perhaps a sequence of events that is not as neatly contrived or as conveniently cross-referenced as the hallowed narrative construct. The real world is refreshingly anarchic and, depending upon your degree of involvement, can prove to be more interesting than the cultural item that purports to represent it.

It is for these reasons, among many, that books which cannot live up to life must be thrown across the room. It is for these reasons, among many, that one should strive to emerge beyond the house, speak on the phone, meet up for coffee with deranged but amicable individuals, chat up strangers, and otherwise own up to one’s responsibility to live, lest one takes the hypothetical hurling of the book across the room too seriously. (It is a mere parabolic flourish, but a pugilistic passion not to be entirely discounted!)

We speak of verisimilitude, but we don’t speak so often of its dreaded cousin, similiveritude. And if you don’t know what similiveritude is, it is not because I have coined the word. (As it so happens, I am not the originator. At the risk of adopting Googleveritude, another nonsense noun unfound through Googling, one encounters only two search terms for “similiveritude.” Some gentleman named Felix appears to be the first to bandy this about. So I’ll give Felix the proper plaudits — congrats, Felix! you were the one! can I have your baby? — and carry on with this febrile exegesis.)

You could very well be a simiiveritudinist, but you may not know it. And if you still don’t know what this word is, well, then you haven’t been paying attention to all the phonies and the charlatans laboring at “art” who refuse to admit that they have no real understanding of the world they live in, much less an emotional relationship to it. It is quite possible that they may capable practitioners of verisimilitudinous art, but this intuitive connection may very well be dwarfed by academia’s rotten institutional walls.

For the similiveritudinist, life must not only reflect art. Art is the very life itself! The similiveritudinist gravitates to an artistic representation in lieu of a stunning natural moment. He may attend an artistic function, hoping that it will fill in certain ontological vacuities from not thinking about or otherwise ignoring the world. The similiveritudinists talk with others, but the conversational topics are limited mostly to art. My empirical state has revealed that similiveritudinists are found in greater frequency in New York than in San Francisco. Similiveritudinists may be socially maladjusted, apolitical, asexual, or otherwise fond of keeping their noggins lodged inconsolably in the sand. Understand that there is no set formula here aside from highly specialized chatter. They may create callow games like “Name That Author” and they may put up photos on their websites of otherwise pleasant individuals who appear more bored than a silo stacked with accountants on the eve of the apocalypse. They may spend all their time occupying movie theaters — and I have seen more than a few etiolated souls who live for the New York Film Festival’s darkness over the past few weeks — but they cannot confess that they have enjoyed something, nor can they be authentic, stand apart, or otherwise inhabit the variegated identity within. They may indeed be employed primarily as critics, lacking the heart, the soul, the tenacity, or the talent to make a strike for the creative mother lode. The pursuit of art is, in the similiveritudinist’s mind, always a serious business. The worst of the similiveritudinists will thumb their noses at genre, popular art, or anything sufficiently “lower.” (This works, incidentally, both ways.) They believe that art, serving here as a surrogate plasma, must always be high, and that anything that falls beneath these cherished standards should be disregarded. They have perhaps inured themselves to the pleasures of a commonplace flagrance or the joys of a small child laughing as a sun sets over the playground. Joie de vivre? Try joie de livre! The similiveritudinist’s vivre, scant as it may be, is likely to be the hell of other people.

If you’re thinking that my wild ruminations here emerge in response to Horace Engdahl’s remarks concerning the current state of American literature, well, your hunch is partially correct. Michael Orthofer, a gentleman and a scholar, has already exoriated Mr. Engdahl quite nicely (as well as Adam Kirsch’s equally myopic remarks, which are perhaps a tad more pardonable because Mr. Kirsch is now out of a job and must now consort with the rabble, surviving hand-to-mouth like any other cultural freelance writer; which can’t be easy, because I suspect that many of us live more frugally and enthusiastically, and certainly less similiveritudinously, than Mr. Kirsch). So my specific reaction to Mr. Engdahl’s words isn’t quite necessary. Mr. Orthofer has already gone to town here. But I suspect that Mr. Engdahl and I might share a few grave concerns over the similiveritudinists who have invaded American literature. The crux of his criticisms suggest very highly that he may be an asshole, but he is thankfully not a similiveritudinist.

To live for culture is not enough. Culture is no replacement for the real thing. It is a helpful prism with which to find and divine certain meanings, but it is only one great piece of the living puzzle. And Mr. Engdahl is quite right to suggest that certain literary clusters within the United States have become too isolated and too insular. Did Jonathan Franzen read any other emerging author aside from the tepid name he picked from his middlebrow hat when he was asked to name his 5 Under 35 choice? We’ll never know, but his choice, which discounts the dozens of emerging voices who currently write for life and passion, is clearly that of a similiveritudinist. Likewise, David Remnick has been foolish enough to suggest that none of our celebrated writers are “ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” This is clearly the remark of a tony avocet too terrified to leave his golden perch. A casual saunter through any three city blocks reveals this ruddy symbol of the beast, the hellish mire of advertising that threatens to subsume all human moments. Has Remnick’s annual $1 million salary prevented him perhaps from, say, properly understanding what it is like to live under $30,000 a year? Or to work two jobs? Or to toil in the service sector?

If you do not know why you must tip a waiter in cash, but you can cite pitch-perfect passages from Milton, you are a similiveritudinist. If you do not know the price of a package of hamburger buns, but you’re not keeping track of how much you are blowing at Amazon, you are a similiveritudinist. If you have not skipped a meal so that another mouth can be fed, but you can describe the precise cordial to go along with a slice of pecan fig bourbon cake, you are a similiveritudinist.

Similiveritude represents everything that is wrong with American literature. Not all American literature falls under its terrible influence, and there are many literary advocates who understand its proper secondary place. To cure a similiveritudinist, you must ensure that this reader doesn’t just have a clue, but maintains an open and genuine curiosity about everything. To listen to a stranger because you are interested. To view the book as something that may be real in feeling but unreal in execution. To accept that something crazy, whether it be an elaborate series of footnotes or a moment of magical realism, is meant to happen in a book from time to time because the book is not real. More important than a critical scalpel hoping to be absolute in its appraisal is the idea of whether or not the book is applicable to the human heart, and whether or not this applicability feels intuitively true. From here, reasons and justifications can be loosened, with enough wiggle room to involve the reader.

Last month, Nigel Beale saw fit to tsk-tsk me because I had enjoyed a story involving an unhappy housewife having an affair with a 1,000-year-old woodpecker, and it had provoked an emotional reaction in me. It goes without saying that woodpeckers do not live this long and that most lonely housewives would settle for a Hitachi Magic Wand over a cuckolding canary. But the point here is that Mr. Beale, despite being a good egg, could not get beyond his own personal definitions of literature. And I fear that Mr. Beale might dip into the similiveritudinous deep end of the great literary pool because of his inability to (a) read the story to see what I’m talking about or (b) consider the story on its own terms, despite the unconventional sexuality presented. It is not a matter of Mr. Beale liking or disliking the story. That is his choice. But it is the instant dismissal of the story, and the dismissal of my reaction, that is the issue here. It would be no different if I were to dismiss a reader for, say, enjoying a James Patterson book. Now personally I loathe James Patterson’s work. But a reader has the right to have an informed reaction, even a positive one, and we have the obligation to listen to that reader’s reaction before chiming in with our own. Because there might be some intriguing personal reason for why someone prefers the story with the woodpecker or the James Patterson novel that represents a peculiar commitment to life.

Of course, abandoning similiveritude or listening to the other’s viewpoint doesn’t mean abandoning one’s artistic faculties. It merely means placing a particular way of living first: keeping an open mind and ensuring that the careful intake of culture remains a thorough but secondary occupation. What I am calling for here, quite optimistically, are more Renaissance men to inhabit a society in which there are no limits or barricades to one’s curiosity, a nation that counters charges of insularity with limitless interest, a country that can make Mr. Engdahl’s half-true claims utterly fallacious. It starts with the end of similiveritude. It continues with a series of upturned ears. It ends with an army of pro-active thinkers who value life first.

The Decline of Editorial Standards: The Crimes of Nick Nadel

We all make mistakes. Grammatical gaffes have been committed on these pages, dutifully pointed out by readers. I am grateful for these corrections. This helps me to write better and reminds me again just how much I still need to learn.

But there comes a point when one must ask why those who commit a surfeit of mistakes remain consistently employed as writers. I’m sure that these people are nice, that they’re probably good lays, or that they are dutiful drinking buddies. But at the end of the day, one’s work is what counts most.

I have seen a marked increase in basic editorial standards being abandoned and/or disregarded by today’s “journalists.” It is a scenario that simply drives me crazy. If any of these young whipper-scriveners had committed these same mistakes a decade ago, these journos-come-lately most certainly would have been belted across the face by a pugilistic copy editor. And they would have deserved it.

In lieu of chasing these vandals off the grass with a pump-action shotgun and a crazed look in my eyes, I shall instead upbraid one of these editorial felons here.

Nick Nadel is an alleged “comedy writer who has worked for HBO, The Onion, Fuse, VH1, and others”. And I certainly hope that he wasn’t paid money for this embarrassing blog post at AMC TV. (A Google search turns up two editorial names at AMC: Carolyn Koo and Clayton Neuman. But I cannot find emails for them. Typical of corporate sites, there simply isn’t a shred of accountability here. Presumably, Koo and Neuman are too busy cooing their nomina to each other to pay attention to basic grammar.)

Let us count the ways in which Mr. Nadel, a purported professional, has committed an epic fail.

1. Mr. Nadel’s lede begins, “Much has been made over the years of the rivalry,” when he should really be writing, “Much has been made over the rivalry….” Unless, of course, he means to suggest that people have been contemplating the number of years over the rivalry? While I remain a dutiful counter, I don’t think this is the case, seeing as how the post purports to be about a feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

2. Mr. Nadel begins his second sentence suggesting that the subject is “two strong-willed legends.” But his true subject is the feud. This is sloppy. The sentence should begin, “The infamous feud between these two strong-willed legends….” Clarity.

3. The word “duo” is not a plural noun, but a collective noun. But don’t tell that to Mr. Nadel. He seems to believe that English speakers write phrases like “the water were flowing” and offers us, “The volatile duo were set to reprise….”

4. Mr. Nadel doesn’t understand that when you end a sentence with a question mark (in this case, a sentence containing the film title), there is no need for a period.

5. Mr. Nadel is terrible with his commas, failing to separate “illness” and “causing” to make these two clauses clear to readers.

6. Mr. Nadel writes that “Davis and Crawford had bad blood that dated back to 1935’s Dangerous.” But he has phrased this in a way to suggest that Davis and Crawford were more in need of constant venipuncture.

7. Mr. Nadel depicts “a cooler of Pepsi products.” Surely, he means a cooler with Pepsi products. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a machine in the early 1960s that cooled Pepsi products while discriminating against other bottles. Later, Mr. Nadel writes, “It’s unclear whether or not Davis was behind the machine.” He’s right. I don’t know if Davis was standing or hiding behind the machine either. But I do know that she might have been behind the installation of the machine.

8. Mr. Nadel writes, “she was rumored to have toasted eventual Crawford’s departure.” I’m unaware of eventual Crawfords, but I’m almost certain that they eventually depart.

And so on. And so on.

How did this get past the editor’s desk? Sheer laziness from the writer and the editor. Mr. Nadel’s inability to take the assignment seriously. Mr. Nadel’s unprofessionalism. He probably banged this out in ten minutes and didn’t think that anybody was going to look at it. And how does this reflect upon AMC TV’s blogging presence? A visitor like me stumbles upon this post by accident and I know immediately that this is a blog that is neither serious nor worth my time.

Then again, AMC TV brass may have considered that most of its readers don’t care about language. After all, this is a film and television crowd. Therefore, the audience should be regaled with the worst writing possible. But if we insist on poor and incompetent writing, is this not an insult to the audience’s intelligence? And if we insist on Mr. Nadel mangling his sentences for an interesting piece of gossip in film history, is this not a missed opportunity for context and conversation? And others to leap forward with other observations? If the Nick Nadels of our world write so badly, how will others get passionate about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis?

Incidentally, a more cogent article about the rivalry can be found here, which is considerably more interesting than Mr. Nadel’s lazy cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

This American Reality

Ben Tanzer: “But how does one get a piece on the show? Or even meet Ira Glass who I understand rests in a cryogenically sealed chamber between shows? I imagine one could lurk outside the studio or Ira’s home, though again please note that I am not a stalker, and that the charges to that effect filed by NPR’s legal office here in Chicago did not stick. One could also submit their work, which I have done, but how well does one’s actual work reflect their wit, timing, and ability to move the public to tears, joy, and maybe even arousal in the space of one sentence? Not well my friend, not my work anyway.” (via Pete Anderson)

The Successful Writer

The successful writer knew he was a success because the checks kept coming in and everybody told him that he was a wunderkind. He knew he was a success and he wanted you to know it too. Because this was what successful writers did. He knew this, even if nobody has passed along a manual. The curious bubble, once so spacious during his great climb to the top, involuted. The little people became littler. He had less patience for half-formed opinions, in part because they reminded him of the half-formed opinions that he had kept away from publicists, journalists, and, in particular, other successful writers. He believed that the time for growing was not at an end exactly, but certainly going to occur on autopilot.

Only his family and closest friends knew the truth. They tolerated the successful writer, and they were obliged to keep printing the legend so that the successful writer would remain successful. His innovations became derivative. His stories became more commercial. Book tours permitted him to work on his persona, to hide the disguise. He didn’t need media training for this. The gestation came naturally.

He had stopped challenging himself after the third novel. He had merely banged out sentences after the fifth, relying upon the editor to massage his copy. And who would know really? They didn’t print the editor’s name anywhere in the book.

His advances had accrued enough for him to purchase a home in upstate New York. And by the time his wife had abandoned him, losing patience and shedding tears over what had become of the ambitious young man who had dared to go into the writing racket, he had enough left over from his better half to finance a bacchanalian midlife crisis.

There was additional lucre in the public appearances. The offers by universities to teach. The publishers put up more money for hotel rooms and other expenses that they could write off. These were fringe benefits. He was enough of a successful writer to live off his books. But he took these ancillary gigs anyway. Because a successful writer doesn’t stop being a success.

Some young readers weaned on the successful writer’s early work met the successful writer and were seduced by him. But they begin to see through his incurious and almost mandatory bonhomie. And the successful writer soon saw himself parodied in literary circles by not so successful writers who would, in a decade or so, find this kind of success if they kept down the avaricious path and valued the small pecuniary rewards over the words.

When the successful writer died, there was a big funeral and many newspaper articles. He was declared irreplaceable, a legend, other words and terms of art often confined to the obituary page. But in ten years, half of his books were out of print. Aside from an occasional reference in a review, the literati stopped mentioning his name. A few writers — mostly friends of the successful writer — tried to restore his reputation. But the successful writer could not find the same success during his lifetime. The smaller people he scorned, who had real talent and who had thrown it all away on booze and heartache, were now the successful writers. It was a pity that they had not lived to see this.

It is a cycle that repeats over and over. There are, of course, exceptions. But this is why success should remain a fickle measure always in the company of skepticism.

Brian Farnham, The Biggest Deadbeat Editor in New York

brianfarnham.jpgAs Choire Sicha reported back in September, Brian Farnham, the editor of Time Out New York is not a big fan of paying his freelancers. And that includes me. I wrote a profile piece for them in July, but didn’t get payment for it until four months later. And the only reason I was able to effect payment that quickly was through persistent emails and phone calls, going directly up the ladder to Farnham. I did, after all, have rent to pay. Farnham made repeated promises about the check coming from Chicago. This never happened. And after several communications from me, his staff had to cut a check from the New York office — something that the TONY cronies had previously told me was “impossible” — and I had to go down there and pick it up at their office. Because given the constant misrepresentations, I didn’t trust them to get my address correct.

A few weeks after another piece I wrote for them ran, I sent an email to find out what the status was on this second payment, thinking I might experience the same four month return time and receive similar misrepresentations from the TONY offices. I never received a reply. I followed up two weeks later. The Editorial Coordinator wrote back telling me that she was “checking in with our accounts payable department to find out when your check will be cut.” I left a voicemail asking for more specifics. The Editorial Coordinator hadn’t bothered to inform me in her email that, oh actually, “the financial director is on vacation this week.” I fired back a forceful but reasonable email, telling them that I would call their office “every day from Monday on — with equitable and reasonable intervals, I assure you — until we resolve this dispute, until we have a definite answer, and until there is a check in my hands.”

This afternoon, I got a phone call from Farnham. It was an effort to try and shake me up. I had experienced this approach before by bullies in high school, but hadn’t seen much action in my adult life outside of bars and law firms. “How dare you!” he screamed at me repeatedly over the phone. “Who do you think you are?” These were lines out of a bad melodrama. I responded with facts. I pointed out that I was not the one who had allowed four months to pass before the last check. I pointed out that I was not the one to let two weeks pass before replying to a payment query and repeated that I was completely understanding of a delay in payment, if only the efforts were communicated in a forthright manner. “You’ll get your check,” he seethed, sounding like a frat boy who can’t get a new pledge to hand him his beer bong.

When it was clear to Farnham that I could not be shaken up, that I would be polite but not kiss his ass (apparently, I was the asshole for being a professional and following up on payment), this infuriated the man. So he followed up with an alpha male threat that I “would not write for Time Out New York or any other magazine I edit.” Perhaps because of his Everest-sized ego, it apparently hadn’t occurred to Farnham that I’m not a fan for writing for publications that don’t honor communication, much less timely payment. Every place I have written for has always communicated with me in precise and reasonable terms, communicating to me when a check is late and being honest in every way. Most people, I believe, are kind and reasonable. “That’s fine,” I said, “I have no interest in employing my professional services for fucking deadbeat douchebags.” He hung up. A coward and a bully to the last.

I should point out that I think Michael Miller is a fine and demanding books editor. Because of this, I was happy to arrange the Sacks profile with him on short notice, getting a copy of the book the day before I had to interview the man and staying up during one twenty-hour stretch to read and prepare and ask Sacks questions he hadn’t been given before. So on this note, I regret the developments.

But if you are pondering writing for Time Out New York or any publication Brian Farnham is involved in, I present this anecdote to reveal just what you might be in store for.

You see, a writer is as much of a professional as a plumber, a barista, a lawyer, or a doctor. They have rents to pay and mouths to feed. Why is it then that so many want to screw them over?

[UPDATE: Emily Gould is a sweetheart. And for what it’s worth, Farnham had his deputy messenger me the check this morning.]

But It Took Him Considerably More Than 14 Minutes to Move On

Chronicle of Higher Education: “Fourteen minutes. That’s how long it took Prestigious University Press to reject my proposal to edit a book of new essays on an early-modern philosopher. Apparently that’s the time it took the acquisitions editor to receive my e-mail message, open the 10-page attachment, make a professional judgment, and then write back with a curt one-sentence rejection stating that my proposal was ‘too specialized’ for the press’s successful series of handbooks on individual thinkers. That’s also how long it took me to go into the kitchen, eat a sandwich, and return to my computer to find his reply.”

You know, most of the time, a writer doesn’t get any kind of reply at all.

(via John Fox)

All Roads Lead to Writing

John Baker coaxes Jenny Davidson to chart her writing process. And I find it very interesting. Because there are many things there that I can’t fathom (for me, the premise announces itself in the writing) and many things that I can (write something every day). But so long as all roads lead to creating work, I think it’s fantastic and that it doesn’t really matter what road takes you there. Perhaps personal temperament — and not some horrible seminar that tells a starry-eyed hopeful the absolute way to write — is the thing that determines how one goes about this discipline.

Love/Hate Write

To answer Jason Boog’s query over whether writers hate to write or love to write or what not, here is my answer on the subject:

I love to write. I love having written. I hate to write when my brain doesn’t work and when I end up writing drivel or I fail to challenge myself. But this is not endemic to the writing itself, but a rather ruthless castigatory impulse directed towards self. I don’t hate having written. I am a goal-oriented monkey and I can sometimes convince friends to throw bits of banana into my mouth; from this vantage point alone, I suppose I must love writing, even though writing is nowhere nearly as easy as it looks and there is that synaptic problem of mediocre prose sprouting forth like fungi on a white screen. There is clearly some sadistic part of me that likes to kill the fungi, slashing at it with blue pen or selecting text and nuking the site from orbit with one mighty push of the DELETE button. But when I write and there is nothing but fungi, I don’t necessarily hate the writing. Write better you bastard! Thoughts along those lines. I do sometimes hate the fact that fungi is all I’m good for, thus causing me to question whether there is a capable mind inside my thick skull (partial answer: there is, I suppose, but why dwell on it and become a smug megalomaniac when there’s a fascinating world of exciting people to contemplate!). Thus, how one answers this question of being a writer says a lot about the writer himself. Writing is work. It is sometimes difficult, sometimes easy, but it is not a painful process. Compare writing to working in an office or a maquiladora. Get some perspective, for Christ’s sake. Trying to figure out how to pay the rent is a painful process, but how one decides to do it or the degree of difficulty that one places in paying the rent is a matter of choice, depending upon how one’s interests run against the system that runs our world. But spare me this nonsense over whether you love or you hate writing and simply write and write the best prose you can with love and life attached to it.

Writers who don’t love writing are easy to spot. As for John August, it would seem to me that he does not love writing and that he has not loved writing ever since his fantastic screenplay, Go.

Someone invited me to this thing called “Good Reads.”

My profile is here.

I reviewed my own book, EEEEE EEE EEEE.

I reviewed almost every book I like.

They link to places like Amazon to buy books from.

You can go to other places though.

The cash is in your hands.

The choice is yours.

McNally Robinson ships any book anywhere in the world.

I will give you some advice now.

Some practical advice to actualize your liberal politics in concrete reality.

1. To get free books go to your pile of books, in your room, and pick up an Amy Tan book, in your hands, bring it to Barnes and Noble or Border’s, and exchange it for a book by an independent press.

2. If an author you like is reading at Barnes and Noble or Borders and you want to give them your book, that you wrote, go to the bookshelf in the store, take the book, in your hand, write a note in it, then bring it to the author who is reading who you like, and give it to him or her.

Barnes and Nobles in NYC, and probably in other places, don’t have tags in the books, but I think Borders has tags in some books. You can just flip through the book and find it though, and take it out, and put it on somewhere else.

Go to Good Reads and be my friend and read my reviews.

I reviewed Noah Cicero, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Richard Yates, Lydia Davis, Matthew Rohrer, Jean Rhys, Ann Beattie, Todd Hasak-Lowy, Bobbie Ann Mason, Kobo Abe, Celia Farber, Peter Singer, Mary Robison, and some other people.

The Confused Manatee and Bear829

The confused manatee wakes at 3 p.m. most days and begins writing at 10 p.m. after drinking a double espresso with soy milk. The confused manatee is unemployed. She has been rejected from Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Cincinnati Review, Other Voices, Ploughshares, A Public Space, Eclectica, Mad Hatter’s Review, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Mid-American Review, NOON, and Fourteen Hills. The confused manatee’s hobbies include finding secluded areas and staring at them, touching the covers of literary magazines, and pushing seaweed into giant floating piles and then swimming away.


Bear829 lives in Greenwich Village with three humans. He enjoys shopping at Whole Foods, doing push-ups in his room, and petting his own head while saying, “It will be okay. It will be okay.” He emails his mother once a day.


what is this

I’m not sure what this place is or what I’m doing here. I got an email with a login URL, a username, and a password. I forgot about it for half a day then emailed back asking what I should be doing with this. Then I remembered a few days earlier, someone asked me if I wanted to guest blog somewhere. But I didn’t know when. Now I realize that when is now. The reason Ed didn’t return my email is because he’s away; that’s why he needs guest bloggers.

I’m a stranger here, I think.

Here’s an interview with me that was posted on Michelle Lin’s blog today.

In the interview I talk about my book and about how my dog attacked me when I was five. We put the dog “to sleep.” That’s a phrase I like.

Here’s my book, which is called Fires.

Another novel you might like is The Magus by John Fowles. It’s very good.

I’m tired. I ate many oysters tonight, as well as some mango sorbet.

Here’s the beginning of a new novel, which I may never finish:

passing through

Strangelets pass through the planet at 900,000 miles per hour. Space is a great river, the earth is a porous cloth, and in the water are strangelets. (Or you might say they’re a part of it, actually.) Other things in, or of, the water: neutrinos on their way from the sun in the trillions of trillions, muons careening out of deep space, and perhaps even the ghostly and sluggish Weakly Interacting Massive Particle, which no one is sure exists. Those things are all passing through the planet—easily, in numbers beyond comprehension. They are passing through your face now—your eyes and teeth and hair.

Here’s a post on my blog about accidentally going to a gay pool party this weekend.



I was going to blog about this Marco Roth, n+1, Benjamin Kunkel thing (which happened after this Marco Roth thing) and type some things about censorship, different kinds of people, and concrete reality vs. the world of abstractions but stared at the computer screen for a long time with a concerned facial expression then bought and ate a salad then came back and typed this post called “THE MOOSE AND THE GERBIL.”


The moose is forthcoming in The New Yorker but feels conflicted because its short story was edited a lot, to the point that the moose believes it is a “completely different story.” Sometimes at night the moose goes outside into the woods and headbutts trees while interminably thinking, “What is the function of art?” The moose’s life partner tells the moose it’s okay because “look at the art, not the artist,” but the moose stopped taking its life partner’s advice seriously over half a year ago during an epiphany where he distinctly thought the following sentence, including punctuation, “This moose is not someone I would be with if I were not as lonely and irritable as I am; actually I would talk shit about almost everything this moose says and thinks if I were less lonely and more attractive and less irritable than I am.” The moose lives in a studio apartment in mid-town Manhattan and is a senior editor at Riverhead.


The gerbil is an aspiring writer who has just discovered the online writing community called Zoetrope. It has completed three short stories but is unsure which to post for feedback. All three of the stories are very autobiographical and the gerbil has read many disaparaging remarks about autobiographical stories. The gerbil has brown hair and often feels alienated from its peers, despite that it has almost always received only praise for its “kind-hearted nature,” “intelligent-looking, beautiful blue eyes,” and “quirky sense of humor.” Its only friend, who it talks with almost every day through email and gmail chat, lives 4000 miles away, in Norway. The gerbil itself lives in a four-person apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which it found on Craigslist.