On the Cowardice of Literary Omphaloskepsis

On July 21, 2014, 3:AM Magazine published the second most preposterous essay about books of this year. It was purportedly a review of Shane Jones’s Crystal Eaters, only to turn out to be a non-review that was purportedly about something else, but that was really about the reviewer gazing at his own navel. While the most preposterous essay about books of this year (published less than a month before) went to the trouble of naming names, thereby allowing all who took offense at it to align themselves into factions and swiftly attack the author, the second most preposterous essay about books of this year attacked Roxane Gay and Justin Taylor in the most pusillanimous manner possible — quoting them without naming them. The second most preposterous essay about books of this year cited Gay’s Goodreads review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (offering the additional claim that Gay never read the book), Gay’s response to an AWP questionnaire, and Taylor’s HTML Giant assessment of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel as “a work of startling interiority.” This was not only disrespectful towards Gay and Taylor, but also greatly unhelpful for anyone wanting to piece together the purported literary world that the essay was trying to map and pinpoint. The essay was written by a middling writer named Lee Klein, who spearheaded an online literary magazine called Eyeshot for several years before running out of gas. Klein’s forthcoming novel, The Shimmering Go-Between, which was sent to me out of the blue a few months ago, is not very good. It is not very good, not because I disagree with Klein’s essay or because of any allegiance I may have for Roxane Gay or Justin Taylor, but because it fails to live up to my extremely high literary standards. Klein’s novel exists so firmly in that “not very good” realm that it isn’t even worth discussing at length — especially because it is published by a small press. This is just one man’s opinion.

By quoting people without naming them, Klein immediately establishes himself as a cowardly dick, yet claims later that, in not divulging his opinion about Shane Jones’s novel, he was somehow avoiding being a dick and a wuss:

Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher.

But Lee Klein is fooling himself. His essay was the kind of gutless and dishonest omphaloskepsis (a fancy word for navel gazing, which I serve up because the look of the word makes me very happy and it slyly acknowledges a literary masterpiece, thus representing an altogether different and more benign omphaloskepsis) that does nobody any favors. The author (in this case, Shane Jones) may be left wondering why the reviewer (in this case, Lee Klein) went to all that trouble, further contributing to needless confusion. The reader has no real idea why the reviewer went to all that trouble. The preposterous essay ultimately becomes little more than performance art, one swiftly forgotten in the kudzu of assholes with opinions, possibly discouraging readers from reading anything more from Lee Klein — including the very novel (again, not a very good one) that he has hoped to get people to read in the first place by writing the provocative essay.

Here’s how I heard about Shane Jones. A number of people told me that his latest novel, Crystal Eaters, was quite good. These people had no vested interest to tell me this, other than their considerable passion for good books. Moreover, they told me this in person, not online. Now I have an independent mind that will form its own opinion, as I’m sure that you (the reader) do. I am sure that some of you are disagreeing with what you’re reading right now. But it is also a completely natural impulse to want to get in on something that other people with smart sensibilities are enjoying, unless you are a nihilist who enjoys being miserable. So if Shane Jones’s book was as good as these people were saying, it seemed worth checking out.

On April 20, 2014, I contacted Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio and asked if he could send me a copy. On May 2, 2014, Obenauf got back to me, apologizing for his delay in response (entirely unnecessary, but Obenauf is a total pro) and telling me that he was out of galleys. I thanked Obenauf and told him that if he had any finished copies to spare, I’d be happy to read the book when it was available. The entire exchange was cordial. I knew Obenauf wouldn’t begrudge me if I didn’t get around to reading the book. Obenauf knew that I had been trying to write something about his excellent outfit, Two Dollar Radio, for quite some time and it was really a matter of waiting for the right book to come along, something that would cause my patch of the earth to tremble. Both of us were doing the best we could. A few weeks ago, a finished copy of Crystal Eaters arrived in my mailbox. But I had ten books I had to finish reading first.

That changed this week. When I read Klein’s essay, I realized that I had to put everything else aside and read Shane Jones’s book. Even if I ended up hating Jones’s book, the only possible remedy to Klein’s vulgar rejoinder was to read Crystal Eaters, feel it and think about it, and perhaps forge these thoughts into a carefully considered opinion. It turns out that I like Crystal Eaters a great deal and that Jones is a smart and imaginative writer. And I hope to write a separate essay extolling his book further.

I knew that it was possible to form an opinion without compromising my tastes or my ethics because, at some point within the past year, I read another book published by Two Dollar Radio. The author and I were bandying about the possibility of him appearing on my podcast, The Bat Segundo Show. While I liked the author, the book itself was not to my liking. I didn’t want to express phony enthusiasm for the book, but I also didn’t want to leave the author in the lurch. So I sent him the following email:

First off, my profound apologies in getting back to you later than expected. I have read ___________ in full and, while I enjoyed a chunk of the neglected perspectives you wrote about (with such details as ___________________ and the wry reference to ________________), its narrative approach didn’t congeal with me. I realize that this is part of the point, but I wanted to let the book sit with me for a few weeks before making a final decision.

I have thought about it and, rather than leave you hanging, I’m going to respectfully decline booking a Bat Segundo interview with you at this time. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I do have to trust my instincts on this one. If I’m not completely passionate about the book, then my listeners will know. And that would be a disservice to you. But I do know that several authors have enjoyed your book. Please understand that this is just one man’s taste.

If you like, I would be happy to introduce you to Gil Roth of The Virtual Memories Show. He also reads all the books before talking with his authors and yields very smart insights from this guests. You can check out his show here:


Please also keep me informed of your future work. There are often authors whose present titles don’t sit with me, but who I end up talking with later on down the line

Again, my apologies that this didn’t work out. Like anyone, I much prefer saying “yes” than “no.” But I hope my respectful candor atones for any disappointment on your part. I do wish you the best.

Thanks and all best,


The author sent back a gracious reply, fully understanding that his book would divide people. The two of us can run into each other while respecting our literary differences. Should he write a book that lights my Roman candle, I will most certainly be one of the first guys encouraging people to head to the fireworks stand. There is nothing about this that involves me selling out my principles or being a dick or a wuss. I’m constitutionally incapable of talking up a book I don’t love. This is what’s known as developing a failsafe bullshit detector — something that pinged off the charts when I read Klein’s essay.

3:AM Magazine — How Twelve Years of Literary Content Disappeared in an Instant

On Monday, 3:AM Magazine‘s editorial team made a shocking discovery:

3:AM Magazine, the first literary magazine to champion Tom McCarthy’s work and a pioneering avant vanguard that had published the early work of Tao Lin, Tony O’Neill, and Ben Myers, had vanished in an instant, with the hosting company seemingly disappearing along with it. While a substantial chunk of the magazine’s content was still available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, there was no backup. And according to editor-in-chief Andrew Gallix, the site was held together by little more than “a doctored WordPress system.”

“It never occurred to me that our server could just be switched off without a word of warning and that the owner would do a runner!” wrote Gallix to me by email. Gallix’s efforts earlier in the week to reach the host were unsuccessful. Emails bounced. The phone had been disconnected. Gallix hadn’t received so much as a notice that his valiant magazine was disconnected and no longer in service.

While Gallix had used another host for a site dedicated to McCarthy’s work, he never switched 3:AM over during the twelve years he ran the site. He had a full-time day job. He wanted to read and he wanted to write. If the server crapped out, it would find a way to resurface after a time. “I kept postponing the move in the hope that things would improve,” said Gallix.

There was no reason for Gallix to worry. Because he had experienced very few problems. “The site was down on some occasions,” said Gallix, “sometimes just for a couple of hours; at worst for a whole day: there didn’t seem to be any real cause for concern.”

* * *

3:AM began, as many literary magazines begin, with a short story. Gallix started corresponding with an American named Kent Wilson, and a website was born. 3:AM Magazine, initially a static site comprised of a handful of stories, was founded in 1999. But Wilson had an unanticipated spiritual awakening. And 3:AM, which abided by the motto “Whatever it is, we’re against it,” didn’t fit into these mysterious ways. Wilson asked Gallix to take over 3:AM in April 2000.

“We were the first to really make use of the global dimension of the web,” said Gallix. “All the editors and contributors met online, and it was only after that some of us became friends in real life.”

This commitment to friendship and passion sustained a literary magazine with a distinct and inimical tone. “While in the middle of a feverish pawing at the back-clip of her bra,” begins one typically edgy and entertaining story around this time, “I did not think much of her whispering in my ear that she could not stay for the night because she had to go home feed Satan.”

But as long as the website continued to work, Gallix didn’t rue over the technical logistics. Wilson had given Gallix the name of a host: RMIhost.com, which was run by Reece Marketing Inc. Reece Marketing Inc. was a one man operation run by Brandon Reece. And when I tracked Reece down by telephone on Friday afternoon, he told me that he was stunned that someone was still using it.

“We haven’t done hosting for four or five years,” said Reece, who sounded somewhat surprised at the news that 3:AM had vanished. “I haven’t hosted anybody’s site since 2008.”

Gallix informed me later in the afternoon that he had paid an annual hosting fee, but it was unclear whether someone had taken over from Reece. He received an email every year asking to pay for the next year. So what was RMIhost.com?

“That’s all still up there,” replied Reece. “It’s not doing any business.”

Reece claimed to not know anything about 3:AM Magazine. He said his company had once specialized in website design and had operated out of Dallas. “It was never a successful side company,” said Reece.

Reece recalled a guy named Kent when I asked him. He identified a “born again Christian,” and confirmed that this was Kent Wilson when I provided the surname. But Reece didn’t appear to know what Wilson had given him. Was it possible that he wasn’t even paying attention to RMIHost?

“I don’t ever remember hosting 3:AM Magazine,” said Reece. “I think I would know.”

Reece referred to “a server admin in Bucharest” — a gentleman named Florin — who he promised to email tonight. When I asked Reece if RMIhost had leased any particular server, he seemed baffled.

“DNS,” said Reece. “I haven’t done anything like this in a while.”

Reece was busy “looking for something new right now.” He intimated that he was in a transition period and that the hosting company had been more of an unprofitable sideline. These days, he was living on savings.

“I don’t trust my personal expertise,” said Reece when I asked him about his technical chops. “I don’t even know how to do that myself. You forget everything you do.” But he did promise to get on the case by Monday. He also allowed me to pass along his contact information to Gallix.

As for Gallix, he informed me that he had tech people retrieving what they could off the Internet Archive. But even if 3:AM manages to extract the content, he’s unsure about what “more reliable and reputable host” he’ll offload his content onto. The experience revealed to Gallix “the fragility of online content.”

It remains unclear whether Reece was playing dumb or acting in good faith. But he was willing to pass along his contact info to Gallix, even after I informed him of the significant online outcry that had followed 3:AM‘s server outage. And these efforts do represent a step in the right direction to preserve 3:AM‘s vast archive.

No matter how the 3:AM predicament works out — and there are positive signs that it will — preserving online work may very well be as dangerous as other historical precedents. Or as Tom McCarthy, reached on holiday, declared to me upon learning the news, “My first reaction is: ALEXANDRIA!”

[7/6/2012 6:45 PM UPDATE: As of 6:45 PM EST, 3:AM Magzine has been restored. Many thanks to all who helped out with this story and to Mr. Reece for following through with his promise.]