J. Robert Lennon (BSS #300)

J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating his surprising longevity after 300 shows.

Author: J. Robert Lennon

Subjects Discussed: Ending sentences with nouns, how location affects character description, objects and places as the territory of a story, how the land in upstate New York inspires narrative, objects that regular readers can relate to, lost childhood, lost parents, more isolated characters in Lennon’s later novels, meals in fiction, antipodean metaphors within Castle, working with a narrative juxtaposed against a cultural-historical symmetry, Stanley Milgram, Vietnam and Iraq, whether Loesch’s actions are exonerated by historical injustice, the white symbols and black redaction throughout Castle, cutting down on pre-planning novels and trusting the subconscious, whether we’ll ever see the full version of Happyland, restarting a writing career multiple times, dealing with marketing forces, accessibility, Stewart O’Nan, New York publishing biases against small towns, the unexpected American publication of Pieces for the Left Hand, how naps permitted Lennon to finish Pieces for the Left Hand, relying on anecdotal culture for narrative, long thin environments within Lennon’s novels, survivalist novels written in dark, evil writing labs, the “gray”/”grey” controversy, and batty character surnames close to specific words.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You seem to veer between these really lonely tales and these outright satirical tales. After the whole incident where your novel got serialized at Harper’s, I’m curious if there’s some hesitancy on your part to pursue satire. Is that why Castle‘s so dark?

Lennon: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Why bounce around tonally?

Lennon: I had written Mailman and Happyland in sequence. I was in that antic black comic mode for a while. Which I think is kind of my default mode. I like to think that I go away from it for a few books. I do something very different. And then, whatever I learn there, I bring it into default mode. I mean, right now, I’m writing a book that has a large cast of characters with some manic satirical elements. And, in fact, it’s a family book. Except it’s the opposite of the other family books. It’s not that family members are missing. It’s that there are too many of them. It’s a big ad hoc family that has come together in spite of the unlikelihood of that happening.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I thought you were going to give me the James Ellroy line for this book.

Lennon: Oh?

Correspondent: You know how he says, “It’s fun for the whole family…if you’re the Manson family.” He does this every time he sells a book.

Lennon: (laughs)

Correspondent: But I mean, that’s interesting. I should also point out with Eric, there is nevertheless a strange absurdism to his need for having things in place. And, in fact, and I’m sorry to just throw a bunch of things at you at once, I wanted to ask about the two meals he eats, which are essentially bipolar. You have this really greasy cheeseburger. And then he goes and he eats this vegetarian meal. So it’s almost as if his choices are reflective of not being able to fit into the middle of these two antipodean ends. And I’m curious how much this was a part of devising the character. Having specific locative places like this that he couldn’t inhabit. The middle ground.

Lennon: Well, I think the problem with him is that he can’t inhabit the world. And I wanted to have a scene with him twice, where he had to go and eat something, and he would take that opportunity to sit and think about things for a few minutes. And it occurs to me, “Where does this guy eat?” He’s so abstract. He’s so detached from human life — or this is how he presents himself anyway — that the notion of him eating a cheeseburger is just ridiculous. And it was only later I realized, there’s nothing I could have him eat that would seem right. Because he’s not the kind of person that goes to a restaurant. He’s the kind of person that exists in this sort of dark, violent abstraction as a dark, violent abstraction. I mean, this isn’t an explicitly comic book by any stretch, but I found these scenes to be kind of funny to write. I mean, he’s at the Vegan place!

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this notion too of him fixing the renovations on his house under time, which is interesting in light of the fact that you do mention Iraq in this book. And, of course, Iraq has no timetable. So I’m curious again about these points of disparity throughout the book. How many of these were designed along these lines? There’s also the symmetry, of course, of his very predicament. Here he is. Something terrible has happened to him. And he, in turn, has become someone who has done something terrible as well. So I’m curious. At what point during the conception or the writing of this novel were you aware? Or did you design such symmetry?

Lennon: The Iraq thing came first. And it was only after my wife was reading an article in Weird NJ — the magazine — about a guy who finds a castle in the woods while walking through the woods that it occurred to me that this should be the setting for this book that I had in mind. Like she was the one who told me that that was the setting for the book I had in mind.

Correspondent: Really?

Lennon: Yeah, and when I started thinking about this guy, I was reading a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro. You know, how his narrators are — they’re liars really. Nothing dishonest, but they’re creating a reality for themselves that’s appealing to them. They’re justifying their actions. They’re justifying the things that are happening around them in a very self-serving way. I’m just going to write a first-person narrative like that. Not unreliable, per se. But it’s the sound of a guy who’s done something wrong convincing himself that there isn’t any ambiguity about it.

Categories: Fiction

Douglas Rushkoff (BSS #299)

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Life, Inc.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Surprised to discover someone more contentious than he is.

Author: Douglas Rushkoff

Subjects Discussed: The wage labor system established in Portugal in 1253, Daily Life in Portugal in the Late Middle Ages, whether the day laborer can stand up, children and branding, people who attend Wealth Expo, the real estate market, pyramid schemes, The Secret, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the relationship between self-actualization and helping other people, social interaction, Rushkoff publicly announcing his “anonymous” good deeds, Rushkoff’s anger and crazed speculations on whether or not the Correspondent is a journalist or a Colbert-like persona, why Rushkoff couldn’t just walk into a Westchester school and drop off some comics, the WTO and Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, whether Ricardo (and Paul Samuelson) is applicable to individuals and small businesses, the applicability Nash equilibrium, game theory and behavior, the meaningful life metric, cultural values of the 19th century and the home as a fiefdom, most of the world population now living within cities, New York City’s development, whether or not regular people can afford to live in the city, Birkdale Village, NC and New Urbanism gone awry, Rushkoff’s judgment on places for community, tangents about whether a Mickey Mouse watch purchased at Disneyland is real, what “real” is now about, whether brands represent a legitimate common connection, the consequences of viral marketing and Rushkoff not striking it rich, why Rushkoff opted to publish with a corporation, whether or not the Correspondent is “mean,” and whether or not this is the worst interview Rushkoff has done.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You write, “A kid’s selection of sneaker brand says more about him than his creative writing assignments do and is approached with greater care.” Let me ask you something, Douglas. Do you remember the brand name of the high school sneaker that you wore?

Rushkoff: I do.

Correspondent: Really. What was it?

Rushkoff: I wore Keds. And then I wore this JC Penney brand. But by high school, I was in Scarsdale. And everybody else wore Pumas and Adidas. And we just wouldn’t spend the money We couldn’t spend the money on it. Because my parents had spent everything they had to get us into that neighborhood. And I was teased actively and relentlessly. Because I had a fox on my shirt instead of a little alligator.

Correspondent: But the writing that you did. The times that you had. Surely now, decades later, you remember those times. They matter more to you than the brand name on that sneaker. And not only that. But it seems to me that you had a situation. I had a similar situation in terms of having hand-me-downs and that kind of thing.

Rushkoff: But I went to high school before MTV. I went to high school before this hyper-branded universe even happened.

Correspondent: But such a statement is a bit of a generalization. Do you think that this applies to everybody? Every high schooler?

Rushkoff: No.

Correspondent: Okay, well then why….

Rushkoff: Why do you pull out a single sentence from a book and try to say that my entire argument is based….

Correspondent: I’m trying to figure out where you’re coming from in terms of how this branding….

Rushkoff: I’m saying that if you talk to most high school kids about the amount of effort that they put into a paper and how much they thought about it — try and have a deep conversation with them about a paper — and then have a deep conversation about which brand of tennis shoe they bought and why. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It means that they have more depth of knowledge and experience and thought into who is Nike, what does Nike mean, what is the brand image mean than what did Abraham Lincoln do with the railroads in that paper I just wrote.

Correspondent: Even inner-city kids, you would say? Or kids who have parents — like your situation growing up — that don’t have the option of putting hundreds of dollars out for a high-brand sneaker.

Rushkoff: I don’t think. I think in many cases the poor have more relationships with those brands than the wealthy.

Correspondent: I ask this question in light of other examples that you use in this book. You attend a Wealth Expo at Jacob Javits.

Rushkoff: Right.

Correspondent: And you conclude that a lot of the people who attend this expo were there to essentially improve their circumstances. They were almost rube-like.

Rushkoff: Right. I don’t think that the people going to Wealth Expo are spending the two or five hundred dollars to have a cynical entertainment experience, or to laugh at Trump. I don’t think they really are getting it as, “Look at this funny bizarre cultish situation.” I think they are there in earnest. I think they want to make money by going.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. Wouldn’t your scope have been broadened if you had followed, say, Charles and Sandra two or three years later to see if someone actually got money out of these DVDs that were thrown into the audience? I mean, I didn’t see in the book any positive results from Wealth Expo and I’m wondering if you were able to determine any over the course of your peregrinations and your inquiries.

Rushkoff: I was more interested in the Wealth Expo as a phenomenon. I was more interested – I mean, it’s true. We should follow The Secret. It is possible that the people who are using The Secret are developing a spiritual path through which humanity is going to be saved. It is possible. You know, and it’s not — I think that the probability of it is so low that I don’t want to dedicate my life to pursuing that. I think that it is such a blatant scam that it doesn’t even deserve that long-term sociological study. But anyone who wants to go do that, I welcome them to do that. I was more interested in the fact that even after the real estate crisis — now it is my belief and you don’t have to buy this either — it is my belief that it has been revealed that many banks and many Americans made some mistakes in the real estate industry and in mortgage banking. And you can argue this one. But I think that it has been almost proven that there’s a crisis of foreclosures and mortgage-backed loans. And those kind of things have turned out not to work the way they were planned to. And I think that’s almost accepted.

The Wealth Expo that I went to, which was happening after the mortgage crisis, was trying to teach people how to take advantage of other people going into foreclosure. Most of the people I spoke to at the Wealth Expo were people who were in foreclosure. So they were looking at how to try to make money off of people who were about to go through the same thing that they did. And at an event that had fairly accepted charlatans with Jack Canfield and Donald Trump and, you know, get-rich-quick real estate DVD schemes that you see on TV at night. You know. Flip that house. That they shared the stage with Alan Greenspan was fascinating to me. Because I feel that he understands that this really is the real estate market. And maybe it will work. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the way to get through it is to scam. Let’s join Amway. Let’s join Mary Kay. Let’s create pyramid schemes and MLMs. Let’s flip this house. Let’s build something out of nothing. And maybe there’s another few laps in that horse yet. Okay. Go for it. If you believe it.

Correspondent: Well, it seems to me…it seems…

Rushkoff: I think the opportunity rather is to consider whether there are Americans who might choose to create value with their work. To make something. To provide a good or service to someone. And that there’s still time to build an economy on the exchange of value between people rather than pyramid schemes.

Correspondent: But this pyramid scheme. The Secret. The Wealth Expo. Whatever. Amway. People are still going to these things. They’re flocking to these things. This may, in fact, stand against your people-based economic solution that you’re suggesting here and at the end of your book. But…

Rushkoff: Why is that? I don’t understand. So you’re saying — so that lots of people in a country end up killing other people. So that stands against the logic that people might have fun not killing each other.

Correspondent: Maybe you could…

Rushkoff: Well, what are you saying?

Correspondent: Well, what I’m asking here. Perhaps you could explain why people continue to flock to things like The Secret while the 600 years that you document in this book demonstrate that corporations are essentially in control and exploiting….

Rushkoff: The Secret is corporate! What do you think The Secret is? You think that The Secret is a bottom-up, home-spun, let’s hold hands and reclaim America movement? No. What The Secret is is a set of instructions for people to assume the same posture as corporations. To create wealth by thinking it. I think the reason. The very reason why people do flock to a pyramid scheme supporting philosophy like The Secret is because they have internalized the logic of corporatism. Because they think that the idea of actually doing something for someone, of actually lifting, is obsolete.

Correspondent: You go after Maslow in this. Do you think Maslow’s a pyramid scheme?

(Image: WNYC)

Categories: Ideas

China Mieville II (BSS #298)

China Mieville is most recently the author of The City & The City. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #105.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the Mieville and the Mieville.

Author: China Mieville

Subjects Discussed: When The City & The City was written, speculating on the novel’s setting, ratty technology and shambolic modern cities, passenger policy, comparisons between The City & The City and “Reports of Certain Events in London,” subconscious intent and conceptual framework, police procedural dialogue vs. melodramatic dialogue, whether an author’s voice is “reigned in” because of genre, the myths of genre constraints, steps taken in advance to alter voice, the dangers of reading while writing, maintaining two sets of momentum while writing two different books, the enabling qualities of thematics, multiculturalism in Canada, satire and political engagement within fiction, resisting critical labels within a cultural framework, Jacques Lacan, metaphors in fiction, Mieville’s frustrations with perceived author endorsements, readers who cling to rigid interpretation, disappointing mystery novels, designing endings as moral dilemmas, circumstances in which you can exonerate the author, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, uneasy books, the dangers of unease as an abstract concept, not distinguishing between aesthetic and emotive qualities within text, resisting post-structuralism, seeing text as part of social totality, and keeping people turning pages.

VIDEO EXCERPT:

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Mieville: Fundamentally, what this is about is taking the logic of everyday borders — the logic of political boundaries — and extrapolating them just a little tiny bit. But the logic is the same. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s not a radical break. So in terms of the rules of physics and all that sort of stuff, it is at least 96% sure that they are the same as in this world here. This is not a magical realm in that sense. That’s not how this works. And that’s quite a big difference. Because that short story [“Reports of Certain Events in London”] was very much about the kind of implicit dream logic of the psychogeography of London, and literalizing that metaphor and the city as an uneasy beast. This is slightly different. In some ways, this is much more to do with a genuine juridical legal reality of the world. As I said, it’s extrapolated. But to that extent, it’s very realistic. The logic of the strangeness is actually a logic that exists in the real world. It’s a little bit exaggerated, but that’s all. So to me, they feel quite different. But that’s not to invalidate your point. Because like I say, it has much to do with reception and subconscious stuff. But at a conscious level, they felt different to me.

Correspondent: Yeah. But you’re also dealing with a conceptual framework here with the two cities. And this leads me to wonder — since, of course, the last time we talked, you talked repeatedly about your notion of monsters and the way your imagination works — if this is very much extending into creating this giant world. Here you have a situation in which on a dialogue standpoint — just on that alone — you are now dealing with procedural dialogue, as opposed to what we have seen in your previous books, in which you have dialogue that is very intense and dramatic. Because, of course, there are giant monsters that are terrorizing the landscape and ripping things up. And, of course, people are going to want to get other people’s attention in this. But I’m curious if going to this procedural dialogue was a bit of a challenge — because you had to possibly restrain the natural inventiveness that definitely crops up in the dialogue as well as the narrative — or if the conceptual framework was just enough to even things out. Or if there any difficulties in the procedural dialogue whatsoever.

Mieville: Well, it didn’t feel difficult. Now that’s not to say it’s done well. I mean, I’m not the right person to judge. It’s up to readers. They might be saying, “Well, of course, it didn’t feel difficult. Because you totally fucked it up.” You know, I don’t know. I mean, for me — can I swear? Sorry.

Correspondent: Oh yeah. You can say whatever the hell you want here.

Mieville: Alright. Okay. But, no, in the writing, it didn’t feel difficult. Because for me, it’s always a question of trying to get into the voice at the start. So it wasn’t a question. Like I don’t think I have a default voice as people possibly think. Because the Bas-Lag books have a baroque meandering voice. So that’s obviously what I’m known for. And I understand that. But I think it’s more that each of the voices was got into as part of the project. So, for this, because this was always a book that was conceived of as a noir — as a noir set in what is, brackets, very, very nearly, close brackets, the real world, it felt completely different from the word go. And so people ask the same question of Un Lun Dun. Did it feel difficult to get into a slightly more playful child-friendly voice? No. Because that’s the mode you’re in when you’re starting the writing. I was reading a lot of noir. I was reading a lot of crime. I was thinking in terms of telling a story to my mum, who read a lot of books like that. So that was the voice that that demanded. So, no, it wasn’t a question of reigning yourself in. It was a question of indulging the voice that you had got into for this job. If that makes sense.

Correspondent: But still, you are dealing with limitations here in a way that you’re not in any of your other books. Because you don’t have those giant monsters. Literal monsters. Metaphorically speaking, we can go into that too. But you have to reign yourself in. Because even though, as you argued in your Scalzi piece, you don’t believe mystery novels to represent any kind of realism, there is nevertheless a verisimilitudinous plane that you have to meet with this. It’s a little bit different.

Mieville: They pretend to be realist.

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Mieville: Yeah, that’s true. There is a limitation. But there’s a limitation in all forms. Genres are both constraining and enabling. Now one of the things I wanted to do when I was writing this book — it was very important to me that this was a book that was faithful to crime. That somebody who was interested in crime, who read a crime novel, would not feel that this is some outsider who doesn’t get the rules, who doesn’t play fair. I wanted to be completely respectful and have total fidelity to that paradigm. So you’re quite right. I can’t magic them out of a difficult situation. You don’t have the recourse to that sort of thing. But at the same time, you have other things that are potentialities. Like I know a lot of readers with the best will in the world, without any snobbery, who simply cannot proceed with a book once they’ve had too much of a strong eruption of the fantastic.

(Photo: Mattia V)

Categories: Fiction

Ellen Ruppel Shell (BSS #297)

Ellen Ruppel Shell is most recently the author of Cheap. On the main text-based site, the book was also featured in an in-depth five-part discussion with several thoughtful people, which you can investigate here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bargain hunting for alcohol.

Author: Ellen Ruppel Shell

Subjects Discussed: Pinpointing the phenomenon of discount culture, Edward Bernays, bargain hunting, game theory, Gresham’s law, fixed pricing vs. elastic pricing, John Wanamaker and the price tag, haggling, thought experiments concerning the powerless buyer, mattresses and reference prices, discount pain medication and less effective treatment, the placebo effect, Jason Furman, Jerry Hausman, and the underestimated price benefits on Walmart, not accounting for quality when considering working-class Walmart benefits, iPhone pricing, dishwashing liquid and the pennies price trap, manipulating public opinion, Whole Foods and the decline in demand for luxury goods during 2008, Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” outlet malls, buying one more thing because of a shopping cart, shrimp’s move from a delicacy to a cheap and ubiquitous food, IKEA’s illegal wood-cutting, “out of sight, out of mind” business practices, the Chinese “luxury” of human rights, Henry Ford’s virtue of a worker owning his own car, the rise of disposable employees in the 1990s, at will employment, the lost social contract between the company and the employee, labor aristocracy, workers monitored by the corporations, deficient pencils, T-shirts that work, thought experiments about minimal manufacturing standards, the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States, Andrew Jackson, and the financial panic of 1837, globalism, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, and Douglas Rushkoff’s Life, Inc..

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You bring up Gresham’s law a few times in the book. That principle in which bad money drives out the good. Your example involves watered down milk over purer milk. But as you point out both in the book, with the idea of Americans having less spending money for T-shirts and lettuce, and in this particular idea that you just said in your last answer about looking for the ultimate bargain, if we have indeed become accustomed to our watered down milk, why then would we start accustomizing ourselves to purer milk? Or this higher aspect of craftsmanship? If there is no economic incentive for us to do so, then surely are we trapped in this cycle of bad money driving out the good?

Ruppel Shell: Well, that’s a really good question. And Gresham’s law is a very important concept — I think — for us to keep in mind. Gresham’s law — the so-called bad money driving out good — was illustrated, as you mention, with this milk example. And that is, if there are merchants or retailers selling watered down milk at 80 cents a gallon. And this is just theory. We know we don’t pay 80 cents a gallon anymore for milk. But if they’re selling watered milk for 80 cents a gallon and full milk for $1.20 a gallon, and they write down the label, “This is watered down milk. This is pure milk,” people who want a bargain or who want to pay less buy the watered down milk. And there’s no problem there. They know what they’re getting. But if it becomes the case that watered down milk gets sold as milk — just milk, okay — both cartons were sold as milk and were charged 90 cents, it seems that we’re getting a bargain when we buy this watered milk. Because we just assume it’s milk, okay? And those who try and sell full milk at $1.20 a gallon will go out of business because of this low price. We’re driven by price, not quality, right? We’re looking at the price. And they will go out of business. So pretty soon, everyone is selling watered down milk at 90 cents, and we all think we’re getting a bargain. And this is the metaphor I use for American retail culture today. Many of us are buying what I consider to be — including myself; I include myself in this — watered down milk and paying a low price for it, and thinking we’re getting a bargain. But we’re not getting a bargain. We’re getting watered down milk at a somewhat higher price than we might be paying if all the actors were transparent. If we really knew what we were getting.

And another thing I say in the book is that knowledge in the marketplace is probably the most valuable thing. Actually knowing what you’re getting. But in global retail culture, it’s very, very difficult to know what you’re getting. It’s very difficult. The Internet hasn’t helped us all that much. There’s all sorts of tricks that retailers use to hide the product’s background and the manufacturing techniques that go into building up products. It’s very, very difficult to know. And I go into the many tricks in the book. And I won’t bore you to death today with all the tricks. But so many of us go into retail stores not knowing what we’re getting. So what we are is price-driven. Since it’s the only thing, the only so-called objective factor is price and that’s how we make our comparisons. And one of the things I point out in the book is, in fact, pricing is not objective. It’s probably one of the most subjective factors in purchasing. But we think it’s objective and so we use it as a marker.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also the innovation of the price tag, and the fact that you no longer have a scenario in which the buyer can in fact haggle with the seller. That relationship has completely changed in the last 120 years. And I’m wondering if you feel that, if we were to restore that particular impulse, we might perhaps drive out this additional impulse. This present impulse. I mean, we go to Kayak to get the best flight deal. We go to Google Shopping to find out who’s selling that iPhone, that iPod, or what not at the lowest possible price. And yet at the same time, price is elastic, as you point out in the book. The common example used is: when the iPhone initially came out, it was marked $200 more than what it was two months later. And a lot of people were upset by this. So if the buyer has no control over the price, then I’m wondering if offering some kind of return to haggling in some sense might be part of the solution here. Or is our relationship with, for example, Third World Labor so interdependent upon cheap labor and cheap goods that it’s impossible now?

Ruppel Shell: I think haggling over price has become quite difficult for the very reasons I cited before. We have real difficulty knowing what things are worth. And you talk about the price tag, that’s true. The price tag is a more recent innovation than I think people realize. It’s about a 120 year old invention, as you say, invented by a retailer named Wanamaker, who was actually among one of the first people to buy the notion of sales. He was actually a really good guy. His idea was that his own employees should be able to afford the things that he had. He devised the wholesale model. The low-cost model. He kind of popularized that model. And after that, the model was kind of perverted by a colleague of his — Frank Woolworth, who many of us have probably heard about historically — who believed that the way to keep prices low was to pay his clerks as little as possible and to deskill the position of clerk. That means that they had very little knowledge. Very little authority. And he would pay them $2-3 a week, which forced them to live at home with their parents and allowed them very little latitude. So the Woolworth model is a more typical model in some of the discount empires today — the most famous being Walmart, in which employees are paid quite poorly on average and there’s a very, very high turnover. So that’s the model. The Walmart model was actually a very old model that was started by Frank Woolworth.

But to respond to your question about whether I think unfixing the prices, freeing the prices, allowing them to haggle over price would be helpful, it’s an interesting idea. And I could imagine it happening. I think certainly when we buy a used car, for example, we apply that method still. There are still things we do haggle over. When we go to a flea market, we can haggle. But in general, I don’t think we’re going to lose the price tag. I don’t think we’re going to go back. What I’m suggesting that consumers do is think a lot about the object and less about the price.

Categories: Ideas

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (BSS #296)

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #296.

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan are most recently the authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms. They are also the proprietors of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

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Subjects Discussed; Kathleen Woodwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, the beginnings of original paperback romance, genre respectability, romance’s profitability, the stigma of effeminacy, cozy mysteries, arterial bloodspray, the fallacious anatomical placement of the hymen, spontaneously lactating virgins, whether the pun is intended or not, editorial house style and “the magic hoo hoo,” the wandering vagina, Lilith Saintcrow’s “Half of Humanity is Worth Less Than a Chair,” rapists within romances, Candy Tan’s suggestive hand gestures, marriage and choice, intrusive Mercedes drivers and related invective, the frequency of oral sex within romances, how far sex needs to go in art, porn, anal sex, bukkake, double wangs and double penetration, homunculi, the line between romance and erotica, hypothetical genre fusion, poseur man titty and erotic romance, the “shop and run” approach to romances, embarrassing covers, dashing long-haired heroes and bald badasses, game theory and Sarah and Candy’s reading preferences, Candy’s pirate fixation, the sharp disparity between genuine smelly pirates and the twee McSweeney’s pirates, “the big mis,” John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, misunderstandings and character flaws, simultaneous organs, romances and Republican presidencies, Cassie Edwards and plagiarism, and encouraging civil disagreement and discourse in the romance community.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Science fiction, mystery, YA. These genres are getting respect, particularly in the last decade. And yet romance is still one of those things in which people thumb their noses down. Why do you think this is? Must we always have some place to go for the ghetto? What’s the deal here?

Sarah Wendell: Well, I will point out that romance is actually getting a lot more respect because of the turgid strength of its quarterly earnings. And even though most industries — especially in New York, which is hyper-navel gazing in the financial industry — are experiencing massive losses year to year and quarterly to quarterly, romance is the one erect column in your spreadsheet. And it remains quite strong. So while it doesn’t get a lot of respect from your average cocktail crowd, most financial newspapers are having to pay attention to the strength of romance when you’re looking at it as an investment, or as an indicator of an economy. Which is why I think that Harlequin is chuckling, or befuddled, at the entire economic crisis. Because they were founded during the Depression. I’m sure they’re looking at this, going, “This? This is nothing. Are you kidding? Let me just tell you what it was really like.”

Candy Tan: This is great for business!

Sarah Wendell: I know.

Candy Tan: What the hell? No, I think personally that a lot of the reason why romance novels are the Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction is the stigma of effeminacy. You know, science fiction. They’re “novels of ideas.” Mysteries have lots of blood and guts. Well, some of them do. The ones that don’t get respect, interestingly enough, tend to be the cozy mysteries. The ones in which there’s a cat solving the goddam murder or whatever the hell. You know, those are the ones: “Oh man, they’re not worth taking seriously.” If I remember correctly, and I might be wrong, because I don’t know mystery as well as I should, the hardboiled mystery were one of the first to exit the ghetto.

Sarah Wendell: As long as there’s arterial bloodspray, you get some respect.

Candy Tan: Or you know…

Sarah Wendell: Spooge, not so much.

Candy Tan: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot more respect for male fantasies versus female fantasies in fiction and you see this over and over again.

Correspondent: If we’re going to talk about arterial bloodspray, I think we should point to the fallacious anatomical scenario involving hymens, which you point out in this book.

Sarah Wendell: At length. At great, great length.

Correspondent: Yeah, at great length.

candytanSarah Wendell: You can tell that this is something that rubbed us the wrong way.

Correspondent: Yes, I got the sense…

Sarah Wendell: And to anyone who’s listening, I want a complete pun count at the end of the podcast. And if we can get an accurate pun number, I’ll totally give away a copy of the book and some beaucoup prize if you can identify how many puns we make in the course of this interview.

Correspondent: But the question is: You have so much attention to detail in historical romance and yet this one thing continues to propagate, continues, I suppose, to not be patched up in quite the way that one would expect.

Sarah Wendell: Good one.

Correspondent: And so what I’m wondering is: Do you think romance readers and romance writers want to fantasize about where the hymen is?

Sarah Wendell: No, I think it’s simple oral history. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think that the legend of the misplaced hymen is just something that’s passed down from writer to writer. Much like the historical inaccuracies that plague other parts of the specific historical genre, “Where the hell your hymen is?” is one of them.

Candy Tan: Here’s the thing. I think I’ve spotted the same misplacement of the hymen in other books. Not romance novels. I think I’ve read a couple of horror novels — and maybe it would have made sense if the girl being devirginized were some kind of filthy alien beast. By hymen, you mean vagina dentata. But you don’t. Oh, oh, it’s infected other genres too! How wonderful! Anatomical craziness all the way around.

Sarah Wendell: And that’s not the only anatomical inaccuracy we’ve discovered. There’s a few one off inaccuracies we’ve discovered that are just mind-boggling. Like there’s one Gaelen Foley where the heroine’s a bona-fide virgin. And I mean bona-fide. Not is she like a virgin, but she’s like a princess or some shit? They haven’t even had sex yet. This is the first time they’re kissing in the woods. And he tastes her milk. Because, you know, virgins spontaneously lactate. Like a postpartum woman going into Target and hearing a baby cry. Yeah, same thing.

Candy Tan: It was the most nipple-tacular moment in all historical romance.

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Percival Everett (BSS #295)

Percival Everett is most recently the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

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[For related links, check out Percival Everett Week over at Emerging Writers Network, as well as my specific thoughts about Everett’s most recent novel.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He is not Percival Everett.

Subjects Discussed: Name-related jokes, puns and internal metaphors, the many ways to pronounce “Le-a,” literal misunderstandings, whether there really is a Ted Turner, Bill Cosby’s Pound Cake speech, Richard Power’s Generosity, the relationship between reality and fiction, truth vs. reality, the “magic” of writing, stress, on not paying attention to the publishing industry, making the next book, not caring about the reader, on not writing commercial successes, the impulse to entertain, Everett’s world of Dionysus, reader reactions and interpretations, having no affection for previous books, becoming a better writer, the “experimental” nature of Wounded, outlandish one-dimensional figures and subdued prose, I Am Not Sidney Poitier as a “novel of ideas,” on not knowing how to write a novel, artistic creation and gleeful sabotage, narrative worlds and anarchy, Everett’s novels as concrete recreations, loving children geniuses and idiots alike, worldbuilding, subverting subjective character understanding, limitations, writing novels as a playground, having an interest in religion while remaining an “apath,” psychics for horses, believing with character belief, laundry list descriptions, strategic use of language, the relationship between story and language.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I recently read Richard Powers’s forthcoming novel, Generosity, which deals with the notion of what a novel really is and what ideas and characters really are. And I’m very curious to put this question to you. To what degree do you need reality to start from? And to what degree do you feel the need to be faithful to reality? Or even faithful to real-life figures? Or can you accept a Percival Everett figure in this who also happens to have a book called Erasure?

Everett: First, I owe nothing to reality. But, of course, for any novel to work, in spite of my disregard — maybe even my disdain for facts — truth is important. If it’s not true, you can’t stay with it. You won’t believe it. And there is no work. But truth has nothing to do with reality or facts.

Correspondent: But you do have names to draw from. Not just in this book, but also in your previous books. Thomas Jefferson, Strom Thurmond. You’re a guy who likes real names like this. And so, as such, I have to ask. Is it just a constant influx of information from newspapers that is your creative muse? Where do you stop from reality and start with the inventive process? Or the misunderstandings we’re talking about?

Everett: Well, it depends on the work. But I read all the time. So it just depends on what comes to me. Some figures just present themselves as too alluring to ignore. How could I go through my life and not at some point address Strom Thurmond? (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Sure. But it can’t just be a simple impulse. Because obviously…

Everett: Why not?

Correspondent: Because I’m thinking when you set out to write a novel — and I’m not you obviously — but when you set out to find a concept or put your finger on something, is it a matter of instinctively knowing that that’s something to riff on or something to expand further? Or do you have any plan like this?

Everett: Sometimes I don’t have a plan. Sometimes it’s hit or miss. Trial or error. Feast or famine. All of those duals. I don’t know. For me, the way novels come together is magic. And I only question it so much.

Correspondent: Magic. Magic through pure work? You’re a prolific guy.

Everett: Yeah, I suppose. Yeah. It won’t get done unless I do it. So I try to do it. And I don’t stress.

Correspondent: You don’t stress? Never stressed at all?

Everett: I try not to be. There’s no reason to get upset about anything. Especially work. And then it happens. And the more it happens, the less stressed I become.

Categories: Fiction

Hal Niedzviecki II (BSS #294)

Hal Niedzviecki is most recently the author of The Peep Diaries. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #47.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: At the 24:03 mark, a woman with a laptop demanded that Our Correspondent talk with less vivacity, suggesting that Our Correspondent was talking in a “disturbing” manner. Never mind that people sitting closer to us did not complain and that someone even approached Mr. Niedzviecki after the interview, wishing to know what the book was all about. Never mind that, prior to Mr. Niedzviecki’s arrival at the cafe, Our Correspondent observed said woman needlessly chewing out a happy couple for daring to laugh at a joke. However, in the woman’s defense, it is true that Our Correspondent did become quite excited when talking with Mr. Niedzviecki and perhaps raised his voice just a smidgen and perhaps should be pilloried in some form for daring to express considerable enthusiasm about Niedzviecki’s book. We are very well aware that, due to the present economy, enthusiasm has worked against us when trying to persuade various editors to hire us. And if this strange prohibition keeps up like this, there won’t be any enthusiastic people left working in media. (Indeed, there are some telling signs that the enthusiastic who are gainfully employed are beginning to lose their enthusiasm, and this saddens us.) But we note this incident in the event that listeners are confused as to why Our Correspondent and Mr. Niedzviecki began to talk quieter during the latter half of this program.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a few definitions of reality.

Author: Hal Niedzviecki

Subjects Discussed: Comparing the collection of online personal data and real-life personal data, data mining and job recruiting, the ostensible dangers of providing too much information, Twitter, being cognizant of the personal, gossip and humiliation, the humiliation of the Star Wars kid vs. pillorying the adulterer in the town square, whether or not a cultural shift is an epidemic, whether reality TV show audiences are a good metric to make a generalization about America, Heather Armstrong, the evolution of gossip and its intertwining with social rules, gossip as a form of entertainment, forgetting the Dot Com Guy, Star Wars kid remixes, whether or not Our Correspondent can emphasize with Hal Niedzviecki, whether a real person glimpsed online is merely “a character,” judging the integrity of a note of sympathy, the ephemeral nature of Facebook, Hal’s unsuccessful Facebook party, genuine intentions and genuine networks, levels of social connection, tracking a spouse using a GPS device, daycare webcams, a review that Hal partially preserved on his site Broken Pencil, private investigators, subjective viewpoints and “invasion of privacy,” wikis and peer review, the capacity for people to uphold virtue, Sturgeon’s law, and Our Correspondent’s optimism vs. Hal’s pessimism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: But you’re assuming that the vulnerability is there because you are inadvertently transmitting information. What if you are cognizant of every single thing that you write? Every single tweet that you post? I mean, I don’t think you quite understood Twitter. I certainly don’t use Twitter in the way that you literally use it — in terms of answering the question, “What are you doing?” A lot of people use Twitter in different ways. I use it to exchange links and to brainstorm with other writers and other thinkers. “Oh, well that’s an interesting thought that you had on this!” And it’s a very valuable tool. In fact, I would say that Twitter is probably responsible for fifty 1,000-word pieces I’ve written in the last year. Or something like that. So I’m saying that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’re assuming that everything you’re putting out there is personal. But if you’re careful about the personal, if you’re cognizant about the personal, this shouldn’t even be a problem.

Niedzviecki: Oh sure. Absolutely. That’s all well and good if you aren’t putting personal information online. The fact is that millions of people every day are putting personal information online. And that’s probably the #1 primary use of the Internet right now. So okay, your experience is slightly different.

Correspondent: But you’re saying that personal information is…

Niedzviecki: But that’s not really relevant to the question.

Correspondent: I think it is relevant. Is it perhaps a scenario in which you may be, or any of us may be, overstating the importance of our own personal information? Perhaps it really doesn’t matter. If I go ahead and type in “I had a tuna fish sandwich for lunch,” I don’t think that it’s a betrayal to the corporate empire. You know what I mean?

Niedzviecki: Well, I mean, it’s all gradations. I mean, again, this is a topic that I’m not even that excited about. I’m not incredibly hot under the collar. This is just one aspect of the whole phenomena of peep culture. Which is what I call being peeped by the other. We’re peeping ourselves. You know, we should just back up to the whole beginning of this thing, really. Can we do that?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Niedzviecki: Can we back up to this topic? Let’s do that.

Correspondent: Certainly. But if we want to go to the beginning, I mean, it’s not necessarily contingent on the Internet. People were exchanging information and humiliating before the Internet. As you even point out in the book, there was this notion of gossip. There was this notion of spreading rumors about people. We can even talk about the humiliation videos that you mention in this book. Like, for example, the Star Wars kid. Well, is it worse to have the so-called humiliation through a video as opposed to having somebody pilloried in the town square? “Hey, you’re an adulterer and you’re terrible!” And having people throw tomatoes at them? That, to me, seems worse. If you have to go ahead and do it, you may as well go ahead and do it in the form of a middleman here with the Internet.

Niedzviecki: Well, the Star Wars kid’s choice was not being put in stocks in the town square or being forced to wear the dunce cap around the village versus Internet humiliation. It’s not like there was a choice he had to make, right? He never had a choice one way or the other. The basic premise of the book is that pop culture is shifting to peep culture, and that peep culture is the process by which we garner entertainment through watching other people’s vibes. So in pop culture, we watch celebrities and professional entertainers. And now we have peep culture, where we kind of scroll through other people’s lives in the same way we would scroll through TV shows.

Correspondent: Everybody?

Niedzviecki: Not everybody. But a large majority of people. And we’re moving in, you know.

Correspondent: Well, a large majority. Are we talking 51% or 90%?

Niedzviecki: You know, I couldn’t tell you the exact percentage of people.

Correspondent: I think it’s important to have the exact percentage.

Niedzviecki: Well….

Correspondent: Just to get a sense of how much of an epidemic this is.

Niedzviecki: Uh, I’m not an alarmist. I’m not calling it an epidemic. It’s a cultural shift. What we’re doing is — okay, we want numbers. Then, we’ve got to look at reality television. That’s obviously a big part of this, let’s say. We know that ten million people watched the debut — the series debut — of Jon & Kate Plus 8 recently. Previous to that, there was a record five straight Us Weekly covers featuring their eight kids and their marital problems. Okay, that’s ten million people right there. You’ve got in America — you have another ten million people on Facebook. You’ve got your Twitter users. I don’t know how many of those there are. Of course, these categories naturally overlap. You’ve got your Flickr, your Twitter, your YouTube, your Google. I would say that that it’s hard to imagine too many people whose lives aren’t touched in some way by this move to peep culture. The number of people who are actively posting stuff online about their lives and that material is then being used by others for their amusement. It would be hard to give a precise number, but it is certainly — I’d have to say we’re looking at least half the American population who is involved in this.

Correspondent: Half the American population? ‘Cause you said ten million. And the American population is actually 300 million. So that is actually one…

Niedzviecki: I never said ten million.

Correspondent: You said ten million, for example, for this reality TV show.

Niedzviecki: I said ten million people watch that particular show.

Correspondent: Yeah. Ten million. 300 million people. What about the 290 million other people who…

Niedzviecki: But that’s just one show. Then there’s Facebook and Twitter and Google and blogging and every other thing I could think about.

Correspondent: We’re not even in double digits here percentage-wise.

Categories: Ideas