Did the New Yorker Make Nicholson Baker Elitist?

Last year, the New York Review of Books had the bright idea of commissioning Nicholson Baker to write an exuberant essay about Wikipedia. Beginning with the simple sentence, “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing,” Baker’s piece went on to chart his participation and subsequent obsession with the well-known website. Baker expressed his genuine horror at cavalierly deleted articles and depicted the many communal surprises he found along the way. It was a journey of self-discovery that permitted many who had used Wikipedia to rediscover the collective pixie dust selflessly sprinkled in the pursuit of knowledge. The essay was widely cited and linked. Here was the man who had once tapped his life savings to preserve newspapers now mining unexpected nuggets from a rich digital deposit. And Baker, under the moniker “Wageless,” continued with his Wikipedia contributions for some months after the article had been published.

Fast forward to today, with The New Yorker — a publication that not a single writer can afford to say no to — commissioning Nicholson Baker to write about the Kindle. But where The New York Review of Books managed to subvert expectations, the New Yorker has applied a marketing team’s craven predictability, with Baker corrupting his voice in the process. Baker’s essay is laden with cheap shots and clumsy generalizations. He’s not interested in seeing the bigger picture, even as he attempts some slapdash journalism when talking with Russ Wilcox on the phone. I’ll defer to Teleread’s Robert Nagle for Baker’s gross technological oversights. The more troubling betrayal here — one I hope that is merely temporary — is that the man who once unapologetically expressed his passion about John Updike, Wikipedia, and the use of “lumber” is nowhere to be found in this piece. He has been replaced by a brazen elitist who — in this essay at least — is closer to Lee Siegel in temperament than the man who once wrote gently and eloquently about card catalogs, or the writer who has devoted his career asking us to find the magic within the quotidian. The man who has subtly beseeched us to commiserate with the lonely and misunderstood people toiling in offices and talking on phone sex lines has momentarily transformed into a cavalier ruffian who scoffs at regular people for having the temerity to express their enthusiasm on Amazon and who likewise suggests that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable.” (That last comment echos a regrettable stance that can also be found within an inexplicably meanspirited passage from Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Anthologist: “You have to hand it to those podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody’s listening to them. And then eventually they puff up and die.”)

For a writer who has been so careful with his sentences, it’s astonishing to see Baker capitulate like this.

I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this. If Baker is going to go after Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, then you’d think that he’d cop to the fact that he’s betrayed his own endearing populism for the New Yorker‘s lucrative word rate and prestige. (It should be observed that this is Baker’s first appearance in the New Yorker in nine years.)

The essay’s apologists will probably point to Baker’s defense of the iPod Touch (via Eucalyptus, ScrollMotion, and Stanza) later in the essay as a pro-technology concession. But aside from Baker’s inherently subjective position (indeed, one that doesn’t seem to consider other viewpoints), there’s Baker’s more troubling elision of class. How many unemployed types can afford either a Kindle 2 or an iPod Touch (costing $70 less than the Kindle 2) right now? Oh yeah. Baker hasn’t bothered with that. I guess one of the deals you make when you now sign on to write for the New Yorker is to act as if any thinking or feeling individual making under $30,000 a year doesn’t exist. Or that anybody who puts long hours into a blog or a podcast, or who uses a Kindle to read, can’t possibly be of societal value.

That’s a far cry from the man who once celebrated the “strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose” and who marveled at the capacity for people to build grand things with merely a keyboard and a desire to help. I hope that the old Baker comes back. But this new guy who can’t be bothered to laugh at a wasp passage because it appears on a screen? He sounds like a guy at a house party who can’t laugh at the Seth Rogen movie because it’s not playing in a movie theater.

[UPDATE: I will let this article stand unmodified and uncorrected as a reflection of how I felt at the time. But after some thought, I believe that I jumped to several needless conclusions, some of which have been cleared up by Nicholson Baker himself in the comments. (This update, incidentally, is not motivated by Baker's appearance. I should point out that I was all set to respond to several comments before he arrived. But propinquity being what it is, the timing has worked out accordingly.) The upshot is this: I suspect that the rather grumpy tone of this article came about because I wrote it just after coming off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian driver who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive. My girlfriend and I, both in the early leg of this rather hellish journey, had acquired the article through email and read it on a cell phone. Perhaps these reading conditions prove Nick Baker's point that the medium and the circumstances in which one reads can indeed factor into how one perceives the article, I detected several sentences as troublesome, interpreting them in an emotional way. I presented my findings in rather persuasive terms to my girlfriend, who was somehow persuaded. (I have a regrettable tendency to be able to persuade people of things even when I am wrong.) And the writing of this post occurred not long after we finally decamped from the raving lunatic driving the bus. I still believe that Baker should have used his writing talent for more enthusiastic purposes, but it was wrong of me to suggest some Svengali-like collusion between Baker and Remnick.]

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18 Comments

  1. I think what we are all looking forward to is Amazon’s round-the-corner “digital shoe” that will revolutionize the footwear industry, now that they are a billion dollar shoe distribution company. A shoe so important it will change everything about feet.

    Personal speculation: Chuck Taylors, bound in morphological e-ink. You’ll be able to buy unique skins that make them look like leather, canvas, crocodile skin, etc. Laces? FUCK laces.

    Ziplock!

  2. Ed, I don’t feel that way at all about this article. For one thing, Baker is writing this from a private and personal point of view — he’s narrating his own experience, not making generalizations about how others should feel. His reaction is valuable to others who (like me) might feel similarly about the Kindle — and isn’t that often the point of good non-fiction writing, to commune with others about a shared feeling?

    As far as the nature of his critique — Nicholson Baker has devoted his life to books and printed texts, and has certainly earned the right to say whatever he wants about the medium now.

    I don’t argue with your right to dislike the New Yorker article, Ed, but as your fellow NB enthusiast I have to say I disagree. This is a very important topic, and certain things need to be said.

  3. To know you is to love you, darling. You totally cracked me up with this one. Why don’t you simply admit your aversion to fontina cheese and let it rest? I think Mr. Remnick, who is obviously running a very tight ship (albeit sinking) doesn’t need you micro-managing his editorial policies. He’s doing a magnificent job in a very challenging environment. Let him earn his million dollars a year without any help from you.

    I thought Mr. Baker was a total sweetheart, especially to his fellow townspeople. He’s single handedly driving the economic development up there. He bought ice cream, digestive biscuits, a teapot and plenty of books from the local shopkeepers. And if he charged it to Conde Nast as a pass-through to Monsanto, all the better.

  4. Frances: I like fontina just fine and, in fact, introduced a number of New Englanders, to a cardomam rice thing I do designed to match some kabob. I also like me some rudimentary head cheese. All depends on the circumstances. Don’t assume. I’m adaptable.

    I can attest that Baker is a sweetheart, but there is a strain in this essay that is completely at odds with Baker’s true and genuine gift as a writer: namely, that ability to get EVERYONE excited about the quotidian and to gently suggest that the incurious are missing something without ridiculing them. I admire that quality tremendously. But Baker blew it with this essay with the cheap digs. He’s too GOOD a writer to stoop to these lows. Remnick waved the carrot here, and both men are culpable.

  5. Who is speaking in the passage from The Anthologist?

  6. Hey, Ed: I think you must have read a different version of this article than the one I did. Nowhere in the version I read does Baker suggest “that all blogs are ‘earnest and dispensable.'” Rather, he says that when newspapers are converted Vizplex for reading on a Kindle DX, the device turns them into “earnest but dispensable blogs.” He was talking about the diminishment of newspapers when read on a Kindle, not the relative quality of online writing in general. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

  7. Sorry, that should have read “converted TO Vizplex…” etc.

  8. There once was a fellow named Baker,
    In his mien akin to a Quaker.
    When upset by dint
    Of the slow death of Print,
    He threw a prosaic haymaker.

  9. Rake: More limericks please. (Hell, I do hope there’s a future post at your place featuring the Collected Limericks of the Garter Belt!)

  10. [...] was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon?”), you can’t help but feel that, after having written a glowing, unexpected paean to Wikipedia, Baker is just becoming good at [...]

  11. What rhymes with “six months(?!!!) of Metracal?”

  12. Ed:

    I read your post, then read Baker, and came back and read you again.

    I find your complaints inexplicable.

    “I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this.”

    I didn’t see Baker kicking down the average Joe, Bezos and the named authors aren’t hapless day laborers scraping bottom, and I don’t think his criticism is equal to an attack.

    How do you equate that with your latest lament that you can’t criticize anyone and be published?

    Then you complain that Baker didn’t bitch about how people making $30,000 can’t afford a Kindle or ipod Touch. People with limited incomes are excluded from owning many things. Does that mean no one should write about them? Baker was assigned to write about using the Kindle, and that’s what he did.

  13. I just read this article, Ed, and though I don’t think it’s one of Baker’s finer essays, I think your overall response to the thing is colored by your misreading of the blog remark. He is clearly not suggesting that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable”.

    And I am indeed curious about the context of the quote from his forthcoming novel. What is the “stance” you think is being expressed there? Is it a character speaking? A narrator? Is he saying anything like “podcasters are all losers” or whatever? If so, does that opinion have to be Baker’s? Is it not a novel? I’m confused.

  14. Nicholson Baker July 30, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    The infamous “puff up and die” passage is spoken by Paul Chowder, the narrator of a novel (The Anthologist, to be published in September), who himself briefly fantasizes about doing a weekly poetry podcast with a name like “The Paul Chowder Thimblesquirt of Rhyme” and then despondently waves the idea away. In fact the whole book is a sort of podcast.

    I enjoyed doing the Bat Segundo Show.

  15. Nicholson Baker July 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Also, there was no carrot waved by David Remnick. The idea for the Kindle piece came from me. The New Yorker has not “applied a marketing team’s craven predictability.” The New Yorker is the number 2 magazine at the Kindle Store (they were number 1 for a while), so they presumably have electronic revenue to lose as a result of my criticisms. In any case they brought no subtle pressures to bear one way or another.

  16. Thanks for clarifying, Nick. (After some thought, and to address Richard’s comments, and to likewise offer some apologia to Nick, who I probably should have contacted before making some of these assertions and who popped up here just as I was about to suggest that I was a bit off-base, I suspect that my rather grumpy reaction came about because I had come off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian type who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive.)

  17. [...] EdRants wonders whether Mr. Baker has become elitist. [...]

  18. I read Nicholson Baker’s article on the Kindle all the way through. I found myself agreeing with most of his specific points: the Kindle’s screen isn’t paper white; it does a poor to middling job of displaying photos; I only own a license, and not the book (although since my wife and I share the account on Amazon, we can trade ‘text licenses’ with each other.)

    Nor do I think his article makes him elitist: these are all legitimate complaints about the Kindle. And goodness knows, anyone who claims to be anti-elitist and ALSO owns a $450+ reading device has some self-reflection to do.

    But the very best thing about Baker’s article is this: I read it all the way through and totally forgot that I was reading it on my Kindle . . . the force of his prose, delivered without distraction, made up at the very least for the absence of commercial advertising on the page, and then some.

    Good writing thrives no matter the medium, whether web or hard copy or e-reader. With Baker’s piece, it was EXACTLY as if I had a grouping of words, and only words, in front of my eyes for my private use. Just like a book.

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