Marisa Meltzer (BSS #328)

Marisa Meltzer is most recently the author of Girl Power.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Liz Phair is running away.

Author: Marisa Meltzer

Subjects Discussed: Mapping out what it means to be a woman, leveling patriarchal playing fields, identity and feminist consciousness, siblinghood fantasies, Sassy Magazine, riot grrls, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, relying too much on pop cultural breadcrumbs, The Spice Girls promoting a message without substance, Beverly Hills 90210, The Babysitters Club, what pop culture teenagers consume, Susan Douglas’s Where The Girls Are, Liz Phair, Bikini Kill, the ultimate distinctions between music of last 20 years and second wave 1960s reactions, postfeminism, real vs. fake empowerment, marketing forces, current generation of thirtysomethings describing themselves as “girls”, generational divides, “lady” used as code for another term, relationship between change in genre and change in terminology, Miley Cyrus, Kathleen Hanna refusing to be interviewed for the book, dangers about being selective with media to get the word out, the Internet as an underground medium, the riot grrl’s core message of girl-friendliness, commenting culture, fringe girl power, the Michigan’s Womyn Music Festival, Nancy Burchalter, Christina Aguilera collaborating with La Tigre, Beth Ditto posing naked on the cover of NME (and backlash), Marcel Karp’s Liz Phair blowjob fantasy, Mick Jagger, ways in which women are allowed to be sexual, Lilith Fair, wider varieties of female musicians with frank sexual desires, Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga as the first superstar of the Internet age, Kanye West’s intervention viewed in a patriarchal light, reading commentary before seeing things happen, reblogging, empowerment through appearance vs. genuine message, Beyoncé’s strong onstage presence, Fiona Apple and Tori Amos referencing victimhood in their work, mining attention and profit from trauma, pop music’s effectiveness at getting under your skin, reaching young people with dissent-based messages, the college-age woman’s lack of interest in feminism (even when she considers herself empowered), living a feminist life, the constant use of irony in relation to feminism’s sincere aims, the irony-oriented pop culture of the 1990s, righteous indignation as a means of bringing back earnestness.


Correspondent: You quote Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, in which Douglas notes that the women performing in the 1960s gave voice to all these inner warring selves. But she also notes later in her book — not quoted by you — that this period of music also captured the way that young women were caught between this entrapment and this freedom. Now some of the examples you use in the book, such as Phair, Bikini Kill, riot grrl culture in general, they tend to suggest more of the latter than the former. What do you think is the ultimate distinction between, say, the music of the last twenty years versus almost this second wave reaction to the 1960s?

Meltzer: That’s a hard question. You know, I’m reading her new book right now. And it’s all about the ’90’s and the past few decades. So I’ve been thinking about her a lot, but not so much the ’60’s. I think the distinction is that there’s so much more feminist rhetoric in culture now that, after the ’70’s, you had this postfeminist era — which is not a word that I’m a fan of. But in everything from advertising to music to television, there’s all this lip service and references to feminism and empowerment. But I don’t know how many actual empowerment there is. To me, that’s the difference. I think it’s really easy to think that we’ve come a long way musically or politically because there’s so much feminism around us. But I don’t know if it’s so substantive.

Correspondent: On the other hand, empowerment has been rather easily co-opted by marketing forces.

Meltzer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And so the question of what empowerment actually provides within this music, I suppose, is subject to the fluctuating market forces that may actually abscond with the inherent self-righteous truth of this message.

Meltzer: Yeah. I mean, the word “empower” is also just one of those words that, at this point, I don’t even know if it has much meaning. I feel like it’s been drained away by marketers. So it’s something that I have a lot of suspicion towards.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it begs the question of whether a phrase or a word — whether it be “riot grrl,” “girl power,” “lady” as you point out later in the book — if the terms are constantly shifting, then are the terms essentially meaningless? Or must one gravitate towards whatever terms are presently fashionable among young girls, or among culture at large, and just attempt to play this game of leapfrog?

Meltzer: Yeah. I do think that there is a certain amount of leapfrog. I think that there is a lot of fashion. I think of my mother’s generation — the baby boomers. And none of them describe themselves as girls. Whereas all of my friends — many of them in our thirties or even in our forties now — constantly use the word “girl” to describe ourselves, to describe other people, to describe people who are older than us, younger than us. And you see some real generational divides. And then you also see in divisions in terms of culture, where there was “grrl” and “girl power,” and suddenly that was taken over, and you had to start calling everyone “lady.” I hope that those terms don’t seem compulsory. But I do think that there can be a certain amount of feeling — it’s kind of like a password or a code. I think that — especially the term “lady” for the past few years — it was “Oh, you’re going to love this great lady.” Or “Have you seen this lady that’s making cupcakes at the flea market or the pop-up shop?” Or whatever. I think there’s a certain shorthand to it. But is it necessary? No. But I think that if it makes you feel good, if it makes you feel as if you’re in on something.

(Image: Shayla Hason)

Categories: Ideas

Chang-Rae Lee (BSS #327)

Chang-Rae Lee is most recently the author of The Surrendered


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the middle-ground between “beat” and “sweet.”

Author: Chang-Rae Lee

Subjects Discussed: The similarities and differences between writing in first-person vs. third-person, the advantages of sitting in the god’s seat, infinite choices within sentences, the difficulties in pursuing the “inner life” on the page, becoming imbued by character consciousness, feeling obliterated when writing about the ravages of war, Brian Evenson, Lee’s ongoing fascination with violence, pursuing time and space within sentences, contending with false starts, agonizing over sentences, Lee’s perfectionism in relation to revision and line editing, the reasons behind the two year publishing delay for The Surrendered, the problems with possessing a hard work ethic and producing slow, writing the first chapter in a swift period of time, distrusting prose results, the difficulty of final chapters, writing as a medium for thinking and character development, character names and historical references, the Battle of Solferino, Hector as a Jean-Henri Dunant type, Hector’s creative origins as a guy from Southwest Texas, the town of Iliad, New York, Hector’s design as an immortal, the double-edged sword of persistence, the influence of Cheever and Updike, and the need to mature (as a writer and as a person) before tackling a serious story.


Lee: I’ve always been very conscious of language. It might seem silly of me to say, given all of the things that have happened in my books. I’m not terribly interested in plot. (laughs) I mean, I enjoy it. But I find, for me, the real action in drama is in the play of the sentences and in the play of the words. That’s what draws me through the story too. I mean, in some ways, unless I hear the sentence, I don’t understand what it really means. And even back in school, when I was writing a lot more essays, I would always try to craft it so that it felt like something and it sounded like something to me, rather than just said something. And particularly vis-à-vis the scenes of violence, I wanted — I think in this book and in A Gesture Life — I tried to think to myself, “What was the most, in some ways, unlikely way to describe this?” With perhaps spare and beautiful language that would add a layer of a different kind of horror to the moment. Just the contrast between how not lovely, but how handsome everything seemed and normal, given what was happening.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. It also makes me ask whether you could ever possibly stop work in the middle of a sentence or whether this would actually drive you insane over the course of a day.

Lee: No, no. I can never do that. That’s my problem as a writer. I work the sentences so long. And even the very plain ones that probably don’t seem to anyone to be worth it. (laughs)

Correspondent: A five-word sentence? (laughs)

Lee: (laughs) I work them and work them until each one satisfies certain requirements and follows up the last sentence, and fulfills and promises something about the next one. You know, it’s not a great way to write in some ways. Because at the end of a paragraph, I often feel, “Okay, this is a pretty good paragraph.” But sometimes that paragraph is completely useless. Because it’s irrelevant or it’s not quite looking at the right thing.

Correspondent: Well, let’s expand this to chapter units. These are rather lengthy chapters. And so this also makes me wonder when you knew the chapter was done, if you’re constantly working and crafting these sentences.

Lee: Well, let me tell you. I threw away chapters. I threw away many chapters. They do get done. But often they’re just irrelevant. And this has been my mode in all my novels. (laughs) And it’s a maddening, frustrating mode. Because I do tend to write chapters that are a little bit longer. It just appeals to me somehow. The rhythm that I get in having a little full narrative in each chapter. A fully detailed scene. And again, for me, they’re all like little tiny books.

Correspondent: Well, this also leads me to ask quite naturally, there has to be an advantage in tossing away a chapter. Because you didn’t get it this time. But you may have had a rough idea of what worked. And you know that you can possibly recapture those particular elements and try again and get it right. Or does the process work like that for you?

Lee: No, no. It definitely helps. I mean, the second time around, you’re much more aware. You have to get over the excruciating pain of having thrown away that chapter and feeling as if there were good parts of it, but that I probably can’t use anymore. Because the whole thing for me is — again, the whole chapter has to feel that it has a certain kind of rhetorical orchestration. And even a musical orchestration, for me at least, that I hear. And maybe it’s because I grew up writing poetry first. And, in some ways, I was raised by poets as I was learning the craft. And I’m still learning. But I’ve always been attuned to meter and a certain kind of stressing and a certain kind of musicality.

Correspondent: So you cannibalize essentially with the subconscious. With these second attempts. Is that how you might put it? You throw it away. You don’t look at it again. The false starts.

Lee: I’ll sometimes look at them. But again, it’s painful to look at them. Because in and of themselves, they seem okay. And that’s what I tell my writing students. It’s not a matter of writing well ultimately. I mean, that’s not the only matter, right? It has to fulfill all the things that you’ve been writing to up to that moment and connect up in a mysterious way, in an ineffable way, with what you’ve laid down and what you might lay down. So I don’t know. Sometimes I feel as if maybe that’s the way I have to do it. I have to write every novel four times. Not four different novels. But in the process of it. Just kind of work it and work it and work it. And I’m a slow writer too. I’m pretty methodical. I’m not the sort of writer who can jam out 2,000 words and then go back and fix them and be happy with it. So it’s coalmining. (laughs)

(Image: Daniel Hulshizer)

Categories: Fiction

David Shields (BSS #326)

David Shields is most recently the author of Reality Hunger.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Settling for a quesadilla or some reality for lunch.

Author: David Shields

Subjects Discussed: The origins of the novel and the pretense of actuality, Shields’s dismissal of Myla Goldberg’s forthcoming novel based solely on a catalog description, the creative possibilities that emerge from mishearing, Sherman’s March, the mutability of text, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, whether a truer creative impulse comes from misappropriation, common reality and the individual reception of a novel, Spenser’s “Mutability Cantos,” espousing work that is true to human consciousness, Shields’s view as the lyrical essay as the best opportunity for investigation, dreamworlds, Shields’s hatred of the exit door within the novel, Shields’s dismissal of Lolita as a “masturbatory book” that is “smug, so sure of itself,” laden with “purple prose” and “full of condescension,” Shields’s boredom with the “monuments,” Shields’s opinion on “formulaic” plot, the Ca’pn Crunch moment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the Huey Lewis and Genesis chapters in American Psycho, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Shields’s view of novel reading as a “childish” and “frivolous” activity, Vollmann’s The Royal Family, challenging Shields on the “fun” of reading, Sarah Waters, David Markson, Shields’s boredom with The Great Gatsby, a lengthy attempt to find a Lou Reed-related quote in the book, the value of the “hyperfake,” the Gormenghast books, China Mieville’s City and the City, Shields’s failure to maintain a “story gene,” Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Sebald, Rothko, quibbling with Shields’s definition of “a great artist,” David Foster Wallace and Tom Clancy, the meshing of high and low culture, Shields’s distaste for DFW’s fiction, Ulysses, “in no way is Infinite Jest a great novel,” Laura Miller’s review, the contradiction of Shields dissing a book without finishing it, and Shields liking Franzen’s The Corrections when sick and then getting over the flu and retrieving his brain to loathe it.


Correspondent: Let’s start with the beginning of the novel. I think that’s pretty appropriate. You write, “The origin point of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” You point to Defoe and Fielding’s efforts to suggest “real” accounts. But I’m wondering if any effort to offer a pretense of actuality in our present age, whether it’s through a remix or a collage, really represents an inevitable return to this antediluvian form. This pretense of actuality.

Shields: Exactly. I’m going to see if I can find this wonderful quote by Adam Gopnik in the book. And maybe you can help me find it. But he basically says that the only kind of — I’ve been trying to find it of late. Let me see if I can find it.

Correspondent: You didn’t memorize all 600? (laughs)

Shields: I’ve memorized most if them. But see if you can find the Gopnik. But anyway, there’s this incredible passage by Gopnik, who says that the only kind of work that can move us is work that is full of a kind of gallows humor and, above all, has an authentic disorder.* I think he’s talking about Francis Bacon. I’m not sure what. But I don’t know. Perhaps later, we’ll find it. But I think that’s right. That in a way, you’ve cut to the core of it. And Gopnik has. And I hope I have. Which is: any such gesture like, for instance, I must admit I was looking at the Knopf catalog. You know, I visited the Knopf office and they send you home with a catalog. That’s their big gift to you. And I’m looking at some of the books described. Various mainstream novels. And I’m just thinking, “You cannot be serious.” That in 2010, you’re publishing this book by this person. It seemed like such an unbelievably antebellum thing. I mean, it’s like, what does this possibly have to do with life lived at the ground right now? It just seemed absolutely preposterous. I just started bursting out in laughter.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Shields: Well, the book that was being described — and no offense to her; I haven’t read her work — but it was a book by somebody named Myla Goldberg. Do I have her name right?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: And, my god, talk about a formulaic text with these little plot points. (to waiter) Thanks a lot.

Waiter: You’re welcome.

Shields: You know, with these little plot points everywhere. (to waiter) Some more water when you have a moment?

Waiter: Sure, I’ll be back.

Shields: And it was just like, I don’t know what. You know, probably an intelligent, well-meaning, well-read writer. It’s like, “Wow!” This is so — you may as well be writing the most formulaic sitcom. And she’s a respected — and I think somewhat respected, somewhat commercially successful writer.

Correspondent: But you’re also…

Shields: And I was like — anyway, this is a longwinded answer of saying.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: You’ve cut to it. Any such gesture now strikes me as antediluvian indeed. Absolutely.

Correspondent: But you’re also judging this not on the book, but on the description of the book. So therefore, we get into meta territory. So how can you make a judgment based off of a catalog description. If I did that, then I would probably avoid most books.

Shields: True.

Correspondent: Because they’re often written in this corporate copy.

Shields: Of course. But I’ve read enough of her other book. I’ve flipped pages to realize that catalog copy was all too relevant to the book. And also I love the line of Borges in the book, where he says something like, “Why write the book? Let’s just write the commentary of the book. The book can be summarized in ten sentences. Let’s write the meta commentary and cut to the point.” So the meta commentary interests me at least as much as the text itself. So in this case, it did not seem to be doing a disservice to the book.

Correspondent: Even though you haven’t actually flipped through the book.

Shields: Well, I’ve read her earlier — I’ve read in and around her earlier books. And it seemed the way — frankly, the way in which the book can be entirely summarized as a narrative machine — seemed to me a very, that very fact meant it was, by definition, for me, a dead text. I mean, there wasn’t a single thing discussed, but “this happened” and “that happened” and “this happened” and “that happened.” I mean, you might as well have had — it was just really embarrassing. It was embarrassing to read.

Correspondent: Embarrassing? You felt embarrassed?

Shields: I felt embarrassed that I was part — I mean, I think it was a Doubleday book. I was embarrassed that I was a publisher that had a relationship to that. I was like, “What does this have to do with the advancement of culture?” You know, nothing.

* — The specific passage Shields is trying to locate can be found in Paragraph 365, and reads: “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity — expressed in general awkwardness, or in an authentic disorder.” It’s taken from Gopnik’s “What Comes Naturally,” The New Yorker, July 20, 1992, pp. 66-69.

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Sam Lipsyte (BSS #325)

Sam Lipsyte recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #325. Mr. Lipsyte is most recently the author of The Ask.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking to ask someone for something.

Author: Sam Lipsyte

Subjects Discussed: Milo Burke as the obverse to Home Land‘s Lewis Miner (and common personality qualities), Lipsyte’s early draft of The Ask getting trashed by his wife, the importance of knowing a character’s job, Stanley Elkin, descriptive dichotomies within The Ask, oscillation between extremes and forward motion in the narrative, digressive impulses, movement by painting yourself into a corner, using linguistic attributes to create distinct dialogue, the plausibility behind student housing and cages, characters who share food, the innate sadness of wraps, breast milk bars, Lipsyte’s methods of collecting information and forgetting to write details down, writing without an outline, Lipsyte’s syllabic form of internal rhyme within sentences, Lipsyte’s previous career as a lyricist, the alternative verb phrases succeeded some sentences, characters who believe that writing a book will solve everything, the purpose of writing a comic novel in a serious age, the elevator pitch motif throughout Lipsyte’s work, Lipstye’s frequent references to Old Overholt and his efforts to get a free case, “home invasion” and Lipsyte’s use of stock phrases, “closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts,” the origin of “toosh dev,” on not keeping notes, the question of whether or not there are any limits to literary movements of the penis, how sequences of events assist narrative, Gordon Lish’s principle of “all the book being the good part,” Lipsyte’s present status in relation to social networks, and Lipsyte’s present relationship with weapons.


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about your sentences. You do something extremely interesting, and this syllabic form of internal rhyme. I’ll just give you a number of examples: “a tawny teen in a cocktail dress of skimpy hemp.” “I started to rub myself and, remembering I would have to retrieve Bernie soon, recalled that I’d once done what I was doing with Bernie in the room.” So there’s the oo, oo. The book’s opening line, of course: “Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp.” So I’m curious whether these particular sounds serve as, I suppose, reference points in your mind to get a sentence right, whether this came from your previous career as a lyricist or possibly the Gordon Lish school rubbing off now after so many books and the like.

Lipsyte: Well, certainly, if there’s a direct rhyme there, I’d be sorry to see it. But I am interested in words that are close to each other, bouncing off of each other, colliding, creating various assonances, and such. I’m very aware of the acoustic properties of the sentences. And I listen to them. And I like to see those different elements playing off of each other. The different sounds. Just on the level of the morpheme or whatever. But, yeah, I think that I was always conscious of it. I think that studying with Gordon Lish made me understand that you could extract some power and attention to the sounds in your sentences. And I don’t know what I was doing a a lyricist, to be quite honest.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Lipsyte: I was screaming cryptic lines that couldn’t be heard because the guitars were too loud. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Maybe this was part of the syllabic quality.

Lipsyte: Yeah, exactly.

Correspondent: But I’m curious. Why syllables more so than words? I mean, there’s also, I recall reading, “Touche, douche!” There’s that as well. But more often, it’s this syllabic ride as opposed to a full word, full tilt boogie.

Lipsyte: Well, I guess that’s how I work. I mean, it’s not a conscious choice. And I think I do it in larger units as well. Or try to. And I’m very much aware. I mean, people talk about sentences. But there’s no such thing even as a great sentence. It’s about which sentences are around it. So I think that I’m trying to work on several levels.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask about another aspect of your sentences, which is this tendency — just when you think the sentence is over, then you add a comma and a verb phrase that’s appended at the end. It’s not quite a comma splice. It’s almost a kind of alternative verb phrase. I’ll offer again some examples for folks who are listening to this. Here’s one: “Now an old man with a ducktail haircut and rolled T-shirt sleeves sauntered by” — you think the sentence is over, but no — comma, “climbed into his wine-dark bearer.” Another one: “Maura did not speak, cut her lemon chicken into rectilinear bites.” And it’s more in this book than the other two novels. And I’m curious as to how this came about.

Lipsyte: I do it as well in my book of stories probably. I just like the way it speeds up rhythm. It changes rhythm. I like the jumpiness of it. And some people say, “Why can’t you just use a fucking ‘and?'” (laughs) And sometimes I do. But sometimes I don’t.

Correspondent: Does it present an almost alternative fate in that action? Is that the idea?

Lipsyte: Yeah. Or kind of compresses time a little bit. It does a few things. And I’ve been fond of it.

Correspondent: Two characters seem to believe that writing a book will cause them to find truth, or find a lucrative career. There’s Charles Goldfarb’s book, in which he tries “to advance a new approach to transcendentalism in the face of technology and interconnectivity.” And then, of course, when Carl at the Happy Salamander tells Milo and Denise to fuck off, he announces that, “I’ll write books!” So you said in a recent interview that you don’t know what the purpose is of writing a comic novel or whether it’s going to fulfill some greater need. But it’s interesting that this reticence is shared by your characters to some degree. And I’m curious if we’re overstating the importance of books or these characters are overstating the importance of books. Or whether this is, again, just a part of the great American compromise. Being a First World bitch or what not.

Lipsyte: I’m curious about my quote. Where I said something.

Correspondent: I read the interview and, regrettably, I failed to note it down before meeting you. I read this days ago. Where you were saying that you’re not sure if the comic novel can be important in any sense. But maybe I should just ask you. (laughs)

Lipsyte; (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: Maybe I hallucinated it. I don’t think I did.

Lipsyte: Well, I’m sure what I meant to say is: I don’t know how many people can see it as important. I do. I mean, I’m not talking about my book, but, in general, I think books that have a comedic element have been the books that have fired up my imagination. No, books are incredibly important to some segment of the population. I’m not trying to say otherwise.

Correspondent: Well, these characters. Going back to them. Their insistence that books will be a vocational savior. Is this a general spitball towards Americana? Or some larger….

Lipsyte: No, I think that there’s a certain delusion about what a book can do for you, as the author. As opposed to what it might do for readers.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you. Because Home Land and The Ask both feature variants on the elevator pitch. You have, of course, Miner’s adventure with that white rapper in the black mink suit.

Lipsyte: Right.

Correspondent: And in this, you have Purdy’s insistence that he can deliver the most perfect elevator pitch. I’m curious how the concern for elevator pitches came about. I mean, it’s a West Coast phenomenon more than an East Coast phenomenon. So that is rather interesting.

Lipsyte: Well, I heard the phrase — maybe first in 1991 from an East Coast person. Who was kind of a businessman. So I think it’s used in all sorts of commercial pursuits. But it’s always been kind of a delightful convention to me. Because here you are in this box with a clock running, and you have to say something that’s going to make somebody else feel something. (laughs)

Correspondent: I have a very important question to ask, and that is in relation to Old Overholt. Now in Home Land, there’s that moment in which there’s the effort by Teabag to get some product placement in there, so that he can get a case of Old Overholt. Now I’m reading this. And I see Old Overholt come up twice in the book. So I’m wondering if you have reached an arrangement with the folks at Old Overholt.

Lipsyte: I’m trying to get a free case. And if it’s going to take me three books, it will be three books. (laughs)

Correspondent: Have you tried contacting them directly?

Lipsyte: No.

Correspondent: No?

Lipsyte: There are always little threads I like to pull from book to book. Just to keep me a bit amused as I work. And I like the sound of Old Overholt. It sort of opens the oral cavity in a nice way.

Correspondent: In two ways, actually.

Lipsyte: So I’m certainly happy to keep naming it until somebody at that company notices.

(Image: Mephistofales)

The Bat Segundo Show #325: Sam Lipsyte (Download MP3)

Categories: Fiction

Marilyn Johnson (BSS #324)

Marilyn Johnson is most recently the author of This Book is Overdue!


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid being arrested by Rusty the Bailiff.

Author: Marlyn Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Why libraries are little regarded by the American public, the preservation of blogs and websites, Josh Greenberg’s efforts at digital preservation, the Firefox extension Zotero, the rickroll video’s removal from YouTube, the Barnard Zine Collection, the reliance upon private entities to preserve information, the lone guy archiving Hunter S. Thompson’s early articles, the French government’s commitment to preserving culture vs. Google, Jessamyn West’s Ubuntu video and copyright problems, the inability for Joseph V. Hamburger’s archives to find a library, a writer’s responsibility to preserve their writing, Salman Rushdie’s digital manuscripts, commenters and obituaries, dead people writing obituaries, the mutability of text, future generations of computer users and libraries, inflatable humans vs. librarians, the New York Public Library consolidation and permanent closing of the Shiochi Noma Reading Room, specialist libraries vs. public libraries, the American Kennel Club Library, librarians within Second Life, vital specialists vs. unpaid volunteer librarians, shaky wifi connections and libraries, the need for out-of-work and underemployed librarians to have online identities, Twitter as a questionable source for librarians, strange construction workers who attempt to hijack the conversation between the Correspondent and Ms. Johnson, street librarians, Radical Reference and whether it provides services those who don’t question authority, and whether the efforts made by the librarians opposing the Patriot Act have fallen short due to harsher prison terms for those hanging helpful signs.


Johnson: The Internet is in the library. Google is in the library. The librarians know how to use that. So you go to those public computers in the library. You have a librarian who can not only do Google, but who can also tell you, point you to any number of other resources that are not included in Google, or that are very difficult to get to through Google. It seems like Google is so simple. “It’s so simple even your grandmother can use it,” is the way it was described to me. Yeah, it’s brilliant for getting the quick hit on the restaurant in the Village that you want to have dinner at. There’s the address. There’s the phone number. There’s the little Google map that will get you there. But when you are actually trying to track back. When I have a clipping of a newspaper, and I’m trying to find the digital version of that, I get lost sometimes. It can’t find it. The bread crumbs don’t take you to where you know it has to be. And I’ve had librarians who have actually shown me how to wend my way through Google, which is, after all, full of redundancies, not weighted in terms of date. You need to put your heavy boots on to wade through it sometimes.

Correspondent: But then again, we are seeing various developments along the lines of what we were mentioning earlier about the mutability of text.

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The Semantic Web, which I can probably go into.

Johnson: Blah blah blah. Yeah, we could go on all night.

Correspondent: Yeah. But to shift it to libraries, are the advantages essentially these informed people, the aspect of physical space, and the aspect of real-life interaction? As opposed to online interaction? Do you think that these elements are strong enough to endure whatever technological developments are emerging in the next four decades?

Johnson: Okay, I’m zipping around the Internet like crazy. I’m not unsavvy. I’ve bent a few corners. I’ve been to the few corners of the Web. I make a telephone call and if there are seven options — the automated answering service that tries to funnel me down one little hall, as opposed to another — I never fit in the categories. I’m never Option 1 through 7. Would you like to hear these options again? I freak out. I go crazy. I need the human. I need the human to help explain it to me. I need the human to help me know what I missed. I need the human to help me phrase the question. And I don’t think humans are ever going to go out of style. Call me crazy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Until, of course, the inflatable human arrives.

Johnson: No, no. You need the librarian. You need the librarian!

Correspondent: The recent New York Public Library consolidation caused the Shiochi Noma Reading Room to be permanently closed on September 8, 2008. You talked with John Lindquist, the former director of this Asian and Middle Eastern Reading Rooms, now curator, who pointed out that his staff had been halved, When the Arabic-language cataloger retires, the library will be without an Arabic-language librarian. So this closing is particularly ironic, given that, in 1997, more than a million dollars were poured into this room to refurbish it and to make it spruced up and the like. So if specialized knowledge like this is so fleeting, if something recently renovated only ten years before is going to be thrown out the window, is it safe to say that the generalists are winning this internecine war within the libraries?

Johnson: They have a really interesting challenge. The New York Public Library. And they’re galloping forward. They’re really trying to take a research institution and preserve as much of the research in it as possible, and also make it a much more tourist-friendly place. People don’t understand that when they come to the library, it is a research institution. That you don’t check things out. So the New York Public Library — the Board — has decided, and the librarians — the chief librarians — that they’ll have a children’s center in the basement there. And they will circulate the books there. And they want more regular users to come to this beautiful building. They want to open it up more. So all of those treasures from the Middle East are there. They’re there. The librarians who administer them and who work with the scholars are not. They seem to be going away. And now John Lundquist has gone away. And this room went away, not because they didn’t like the room or they didn’t like what it stood for, but because it happens to be on a central hall that’s going to provide access for what will now be circulating parts of the library. They took this research library and are melding it with the circulating library. So in the course of making it friendly to people who want to just come and check out a DVD, they’ve had to squeeze some of the other stuff into different places. And those librarian positions that are very scholarly and very specialized, when they come up for retirement, they are not replacing those librarians. They’re putting it into people who can work with the ordinary office/street library user.

Correspondent: Those librarians are part of this big squeeze. So, therefore, will we have to turn to more specialist libraries, such as the American Kennel Club library, which you investigated, or will the onus fall upon universities to pick up the specialized slack?

Johnson: Well, you want to hear a tragic story? I went to the American Kennel Club library. And that librarian is no longer there.

Correspondent: Really?

Johnson: And you know why? Because they’re running out of money. And where are they going to cut it? Where are they going to cut funds? So the librarian is no longer working there. You can go there. There’s an archivist. There are people who work for the American Kennel Club magazine. All the information is still there. All the material. The beautiful skeleton of the old dog looking over the reading tables is still there. But if you want to find something, you’re going to be taking out a flashlight and looking around. It’s just heartbreaking to me. These are really tough times. To lose the human being who is the guide to all this information, and often the architect. Who put it all together. It’s craziness. And we are losing something so valuable right now. This book is overdue, and I wish it had come out last year. Before ever so many of these cuts had been instituted.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that the generalists are winning the war against the specialists. But you do bring up things such as the Second Life librarian. And the scenario there is that it’s largely based up of volunteers. But if you’re relying on volunteers and you’re not relying on compensation, then how can you have enough of a buffer to replace these vital specialists? And not only that, but if a librarian is essentially a persona — a metaphor, if you will — then does that necessarily replace the real thing? Is it something of a ruse? More of a sort of fantasy than a duty to the public?

Johnson: Wow, we’re going to go down some labyrinths here. You know, what’s interesting about Second Life is that there are bona-fide librarians who are out there, in their spare time, doing research and development in the field. Like saying, here’s a really interesting wonky kind of thing that we can do. Let’s see if we can adapt library science to it. And, in fact, when you think about it, any population that you can think of can use a librarian to help it. This brilliant Radical Reference librarians, who said “Street protesters in great numbers coming to New York, a place that does not have public toilets. Let’s go serve up some information. Let’s go make ourselves available. And if they need us, they can ask us hard questions and we’ll do our best to find true answers for them.” You know, combat rumors. Help them navigate the streets, some of which will be closed. In Second Life, they’re saying, “Oh my goodness. Here’s this exciting, cool, weird place. Virtual reality on the Internet.” And anybody can access it by downloading the free software. And you create a little avatar and you go into this world. “I bet they need librarians.” And in fact, they do. Why? Because ever so many little corners of this world are created by the people who go on Second Life as recreations of a time in history. For instance, there’s a Renaissance island that has a replica of Shakespeare’s — what do you call it, the theater.

Correspondent: The Globe, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. There is a Harlem Renaissance world that recreates the 1920s. And so librarians are there doing all this research to help make that world accurate. They’re saying, “This is what fashion looked like. These are what cars looked like. Yes, this existed during that time. This didn’t. This was how a joust went. This is what a lady would wear in her hair.” And these kinds of factual historic questions, librarians are ideally suited to answer them.

Correspondent: On the other hand, when you tried to contact J.J. Drinkwater and these other folks, you had your wifi connection cut out on you. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: What?

Correspondent: You mention this in the book.

Johnson: Okay.

Correspondent: That you were trying to interview the Second Life librarians and that you were doing this in a library in your laptop.

Johnson: Oh my goodness.

Correspondent: And the wifi cut out. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The real thing, which is not going to cut out. At least I would hope that someone would not dissolve before my eyes. Second Life is not exactly the best substitute for that.

Categories: Ideas