The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

Kiese Laymon (The Bat Segundo Show #513)

Kiese Laymon is most recently the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This show is the first of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can also listen to the second part: Show #514 with Alissa Quart.)

Play

Author: Kiese Laymon

Subjects Discussed: Meeting people under bridges, Percival Everett’s Erasure, Mississippi teens who run away from narratives, throwaway culture, the importance of stories carrying you through the day, critiquing storytelling skills as a way of understanding the truth, alternative narrative identities as methods of accounting for unspoken national problems, how New York rappers spoke to Mississippi black boys, black Southerners as the generators and architects of American culture, active listening vs. culture as background noise, lyrics and storytelling, native Mississippians who aren’t familiar with the blues, the acceptable level of American cultural engagement, sorrow songs vs. the Ku Klux Klan, standing up for Mississippian culture, people who don’t care about the origin to the soundtracks of their lives, national cultural awareness through regional cultural awareness, tourist notions of regions through culture, New Jersey’s history of serial killers and crime, blind engagement with the South, the refusal to hear what people are literally saying to us, dying as a backbone for Mississippi music, interrogating death, Bessie Smith and the 1927 flood, Big K.R.I.T., running away from the gospel tradition, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whether time travel stories require a moral equilibrium, America as a crazy-making narration that doesn’t want to accept how crazy it really is, grandmother roles, “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America,” being kicked out of college for not checking out Stephen Crane, how the act of committing everything to memory guides you through life, the desire to hold on to innocence, how Laymon’s early writing was denied and disapproved and disparaged, why all 19-year-olds are lunatics to some degree, satire and observation, the important of implicating yourself, Teju Cole, frat culture, sexism and classism, living with druggie roommates, when certain college kids aren’t incriminated and imprisoned (while others are), how bravery helps you make better decisions, individual guilt and societal guilt, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, sanitizing the truth about racial inequality, the capitalist-commercial nexus and its impact upon airbrushing culture and narrative, why Obama cannot tell the truth, getting the President we deserve, “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” “The Worst of White Folks,” how the state is trying to convince that we are good people (while the community tells the truth), Black Power and nostalgia, Stokely Carmichael, egomaniacal misogynists and ideological commitment, Martin Luther King and token Google Doodles, white folks who don’t share power, why we aren’t able to look at the sentences, interrogating mythology, superficial dissections of pop culture from white people (e.g., Slate Culture Gabfest), Miley Cyrus and the politics of twerking, white appropriation at the MTV Video Music Awards, Brooklyn gentrification, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake taking the Michael Jackson Award, society’s failure to implicate itself, how Bernie Mac, Michael Jackson, and Tupac were eaten alive by American culture, recklessness as spectacle, how Michael Jackson projected what we didn’t want to talk about, Tupac’s hologram at Coachella, living in a world surrounded by digital ghosts of sanitized cultural figures, Tupac’s music before Death Row and the downside of selling tickets, the label “Black Twitter,” white people on Twitter, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, important work that goes on without white people, the slipshod involvement of mainstream feminists, how race changes the moral focus, slavery and the Holocaust, and making deals with evil terms.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s start with Long Division, which is truly a tale of two Cities. You have this kid named City. He’s in 1985. He’s in 2013. There’s a book called Long Division within Long Division. And this reminded me very much of Stagg R. Leigh’s My Pafology in Percival Everett’s Erasure. I’m wondering — just because we have to ask you how this book got started — to what degree were you responding, like Percival Everett, to limited literary representation of the African American experience? And how was this a way for you to explore versions of City in 1985 that you couldn’t pursue in the present day?

Laymon: That’s a great question. I think I had to make it a metafictive book, particularly because I wanted the characters to consciously and unconsciously be exploring not just the lit that came before them, but the literature that they read that came before them. So there’s a literary mechanism in place that I’m critiquing as an author. But I wanted to create two different Cities who are also dudes who are 14 and very aware of the lit that they read. And they’re really aware of canonical lit. So there are important scenes. There’s a scene in a principal’s office. There’s a scene in the library where I think that, with these two Cities, we can see them actually trying to become runaway characters. But if they’re going to be runaway characters, I had to position them as characters in some way fully aware of the lit that they’ve read, but not fully aware of the narratives that they’re running away from. So the narratives that they’re running away from are different from the books that they’ve read. And part of the book is that they’re trying to figure out what constitutes this narrative that they’re running away from. And as a writer, obviously, I’m thinking about a lot of African American/black Southern lit. Black Boy particularly. But I wanted them to be running away from literature that they read. Which is really important for me.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because at one point, City has to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. His reading library there is largely this kind of throwaway culture.

Laymon: Right.

Correspondent: Centered around classical books with a capital C and the Bible. And as you write, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined that they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler…” — his frenemy — “…my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.” So this leads me to ask. I mean, why do you think that in the South, for these characters especially, that their notion of what it is to be alive is so rooted around books? To what extent were you limited in these areas? You and City? Why is that such an important definition?

Laymon: Well, you know, a lot of people have called Mississippi and particularly the South generally the home of American storytelling going way back to Twain and what not. And so story telling and story listening are part and parcel of our culture. Particularly if you grew up in a really religious gospel kind of household. I grew up in stories, but they were stories that were carried through music or language or stories you had to read in the Bible, and stories that my grandmother told me when she came home from work. Stories just carried the day. So I wanted to create two characters that were hyperaware of stories, of storytelling, and really critical of storytelling. The book starts with City critiquing LaVander’s storytelling ability. And LaVander is critiquing City’s storytelling ability. But by the time City gets to that library, what he’s trying to say is “I’m not being completely reactionary. I get that there’s some great cynicism in these books. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that these people never imagined anybody like me reading these texts.” And so for him, at this point, he really believes that audiences are the bedrock of sentence creation. Like to whom are you writing a sentence to? And so when he gets in that library — and it is throwaway culture in a way. So much happens in there. He sees himself for the first time on the Internet, right? He sees the way that he’s presented to other people. And I just wanted to create characters who were not too precocious, too smart, too witty, but in some way wholly aware that stories carry everything.

Correspondent: So what they read is almost an alternative identity that the United States as a whole can’t actually accommodate because of the many interesting questions of race that are in this book.

Laymon: Absolutely. And this is where literature is particularly important. Because with the references to hip-hop early on, hip-hop has been critiqued. I’ve critiqued it. Will continue to critique it. One of the things that hip-hop did, I think, early on for young black boys is that it was an art form that was made popular, that was talking directly to you as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old. At least you thought that. When you get geographically specific, you start to see that a lot of these rappers from New York weren’t talking to Mississippi black boys. But you felt that you were being talked to anyway. So one of the things that these characters are really trying to deal with is what happens to the characterization of a real person and a character who is so often not written to people who look just like them. And as we see early on in the book, we get this narrative imposed on them. And they’re trying to break out. And LaVander sort of does break out. But there’s a price to pay for that breakage. But it’s all about narrative creation.

Correspondent: Yes. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop. Because I wanted to talk about “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” — one of the essays. You point to how black Southerners are “the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” You point out that the South not only has something to say to New York, but it has something to say to the world. And I’m wondering why you think the world is so unwilling to listen. How much of this resistance to Southern innovation has to do with people who remain too caught up in some of these B-boy routines?

Laymon: I think the world is listening. But I don’t think the world knows what it’s listening to. You know what I mean? There’s no doubt the world is listening to really rock, R&B, and I would even argue funk that has its root in the Deep South. The world is listening to gospel music. The world is listening to blues right now that has its roots not just in Mississippi, but that Deep Southern, South Central culture. They’re listening. They’re dancing to it. They’re making love to it. They’re talking to it. It’s the music that scores our movies. But I don’t really think we know or, I should say, I don’t know if I fully know. I don’t think we’ve taken enough time to think about where that music actually comes. Like what people created, originated, innovated that music and why. Do you know what I mean? So I think to me that they’re listening. They have to listen. Because it’s everywhere. There’s no question.

Correspondent: But are they actively listening? I think that what you’re suggesting is that it’s music that plays in the background without people actually comprehending that there’s a lot of years and blood and tears that’s put into that music.

Laymon: No question.

Correspondent: And people are just not really curious enough to investigate that. I mean, I’m wondering if that’s a larger societal problem.

Laymon: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this is what I’m saying. I don’t think we take the time to question the ingredients in art generally.

Correspondent: Sure.

Laymon: I haven’t been in many parts of the world. But as an American, I know that we don’t really take the time to consider what we’re consuming. And we definitely don’t take the time to consider the lives of the people who created the music. So even if we think about hip-hop, people who think they love hip-hop have no idea who Kool Herc is. People who think they love hip-hop have no idea who the people who helped create the culture actually were, what they did, and why they did it. So in some ways, it’s not specific to black American/Mississippi culture. But I do think that these particular stories that come out of Mississippi culture — it’s just ironic that the blues, rock, and gospel all come out of this really small part of our country.

Correspondent: I agree. But I’m wondering who to impugn here. (laughs)

Laymon: Well, I think we impugn everyone.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Laymon: And that’s a loose answer. But I was just in Mississippi for nine or ten days giving readings and stuff. There are people in Greenwood, Mississippi and Greenville, Mississippi — black people — who have no clue what the blues is. You know what I’m saying? And what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what it is. But it is expiration that, because of my parents and because of my grandparents, we’ve had to go on. I’m saying that we don’t even want to go that road. Because when you go down that road, you don’t just find sound. But as you said, you find the experience. And you find complicity.

Correspondent: And if you listen very closely to the lyrics, you have all these amazing stories. Listen multiple times. There’s some cadence that you didn’t get.

Laymon: And also what’s important about the lyrics is that I think it’s really important to transcribe, to see the lyrics on the page. But what’s important about those lyrics are being spat or sung or, in some instances even before hip-hop, rapped. This kind of rhythmic hip-hopesque way of approaching music, I think, predates what we call hip-hop. I know New York people hate for me to say it. But what I’m saying is that it’s not just the lyrics. It’s how the lyrics are said and what irony has to do with the way those lyrics are being spat And I think it has so much to do with community. And these books, particularly Long Division, are, among other things, about community storytelling. And so what I’m trying to say is that I really think we need to think about the communities. The people, the stories, and the communities that are at the heart of all the music we listen to.

Correspondent: Well, I agree with you Kiese. But I’m wondering what is the acceptable level of cultural engagement that would actually allow the South to be understood and to be properly respected versus the reality of people wanting to have something in the background. I mean, is it reasonable to expect people to have that level of engagement? Much as I would also love to see that!

Laymon: I mean, it’s not reasonable to expect. It’s reasonable to encourage. And it’s reasonable to ask people to think more about from whence the music they listen to comes.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, kristijann, Reed1415, and ShortBusMusic.)

The Bat Segundo Show #513: Kiese Laymon (Download MP3)

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Teddy Wayne, Miley Cyrus, and Jezebel: White Culture, Free Speech Entitlement, and the Fear of Engagement

“I don’t pay attention to the negative. Because I…I’ve seen this play out so many…how many times have we seen this play out in pop music? You know now. You know what’s happening. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, anyone who perform — you know, anyone who performs. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re wanting to make history. Me and Robin [Thicke] the whole time said, ‘You know we’re out to make history right now.'” — Miley Cyrus, her first post-Video Music Awards interview on MTV News.

mlkgoogledoodle

On August 28, 2013, I fired up my browser on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was appalled. I was glad to see King recognized in a Google Doodle, but why were King’s words reduced to mere text? On January 16th, Google had celebrated Frank Zamboni’s 112th birthday with a game that allowed you to maneuver through an ice rink. On Valentine’s Day, you could click on a heart to rotate two Ferris Wheels. On February 19th, Copernicus’s 540th birthday was recognized with a slowly animated solar system. On June 10th, there had been an elaborate Maurice Sendak Doodle. Even Debussy’s 151st birthday ushered in an impressive animation set to “Clair de Lune.”

If the mainstream baseline of online culture could not be bothered to offer more than a perfunctory nod to King, what was the point in celebrating?

Days before, the Internet had been aflame with Miley Cyrus’s disastrous twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards. Beyond the trashy bombast, people were bothered by the cultural appropriation, with some commentators comparing the performance to a minstrel show. One of the smartest and most heartbreaking responses came from Tressie McMillan Cottom, who described one summer in which she and her then partner had been the only black couple during happy hour. White men and women approached Cottom with racist suggestions. She wrote about how the dancers behind Miley Cyrus fit into a wretched history of black female bodies as “production units.” She pointed out how “Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being ‘dirty’ without risking her sexual appeal.”

I had thought that white culture’s worst impulses could be curbed for a day with a dignified celebration of a man who, unlike Miley Cyrus, made history for the right reasons. Wasn’t King worth more than a static image or a token acknowledgment? Even with the expensive rights attached to the speech, couldn’t Google, estimated to be worth more than $200 billion, have kicked in a few clams to use the audio in its Doodle? Why had white culture silenced one of black culture’s most indelible icons fifty years after the fact? Wasn’t King worth more than a Zamboni?

* * *

Lindy West has spent the past few years establishing herself as an outspoken pundit on rape jokes and comedy with Jezebel posts such as “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You” and “How to Make a Rape Joke.” She was invited to appear on the May 30, 2013 episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to discuss her views further with Jim Norton. She suffered abusive fallout.

But white culture overlooked one vital element of this regrettable chapter. West did not appear on The View or The Colbert Report, but a television show hosted by an African-American, a show that also happened to be a smart and entertaining corrective to The Daily Show‘s predominantly Caucasian concerns. The show often discussed issues pertaining to race. What’s striking about West’s exchange with Bell is how she adopted a pugnacious tone towards the amicable host from the beginning:

Bell: And so I’ll ask the same question to you, Lindy. Do you think comics should say anything they want without consequences?
West: Uh, well, first of all, I think that question is dumb.
Bell: Thank you. Thank you very much.
[STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
West: Because…
Bell: (nodding his head up and down) Good start for me. This is feminist versus comic, not this comic [pointing to self]. Over there. [pointing to Jim Norton]
West: So sorry. Um, no, because, uh, everything has repercussions. So if you’re talking about legal repercussions, uh, yeah, I do not think that comedy should be censored. And we’re not here to talk about censorship. And I’m pretty sure we agree. Uh, what I’m talking about is the kind of repercussion where you choose to say something that, like, traumatizes a person who’s already been victimized and then I choose to call you a dick. And that’s the repercussion.

Bell asked a perfectly reasonable question for his television audience, many composed of African-Americans who may not have been acquainted with Jezebel, so that everyone could understand West’s position. What was West’s response? “I think that question is dumb.” She then asserted her privilege by stating that she had the right to call anyone a dick as a free speech repercussion.

On June 4, 2013, Lindy West posted a video and a blog post, in which West read a series of terrible threats that she received in response to her Totally Biased appearance. (The only reason the video hasn’t been embedded in this essay is because Jezebel hasn’t allowed it to be embedded at any other site, cheapening West’s response into pageviews and linkbait.)

The abuse directed West’s way was absolutely unacceptable. It revealed awful misogyny that will take a long time to shake from the American fabric. But this shouldn’t disavow West of her free speech position, which involves another person offering “repercussions” in response to a disagreeable position. Clearly, the people who fired off bilious invective took West up on her offer. The difference here is that West has painted herself, with considerable justification, as the victim. Nevertheless, in her post, West informed her readers who the “correct” people were to abuse. Of Jim Norton, West wrote that he had been “kind and thoughtful throughout this whole thing, so don’t be mean to him.” When comedians, who were understandably ired by West’s politically correct position, expressed umbrage, they too were implicated:

Local comics — whom I know and work with — have told me to shut the fuck up. One hopes I’ll fall down a flight of stairs. (He later apologized—to my boyfriend, not me.)

In other words, West was unwilling to hold herself responsible for her own remarks — which includes telling one of the classiest African-American hosts on television that his question was “dumb” — while simultaneously placing herself in an entitled position in which she was shielded from criticism. She could condemn standup comics who fired off rape jokes, but refused to consider the consequences of her own remarks or biases. (This behavior is quite similar to what Richard H. Cooper observed of Twitter celebrities in 2012, pointing to hierarchies in which the top tier “[dispenses] admonishments to proles who get impudent” while simultaneously avoiding introspection.)

On June 6, 2013, Bell aired a followup segment about the discussion (and its aftermath):

Bell: Thousands of men protested Lindy’s claim that rape jokes encourage a culture of violence against women. And how did they do that? By flooding her inbox with threats of violence against women. Yay! Men! We’re the worst! Come on, men, what are we doing? I feel gross being a part of a group this terrible. Is this what it’s like to be white?…Now people are saying that Lindy is against free speech. She’s not. She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation. Now maybe that point got lost somewhere in the debate. Personally I blame the moderator….All I’m really saying is that this Internet harassment has got to stop. And that’s why I’ve developed the new technology that will put an end to hate speech on the Internet. You guys have heard of CAPTCHA? You know, when you fill in stuff on the Internet? Yeah. Well, I’ve developed SHUTCHA. As in Shutcha Damn Mouth! Exactly. Yes. Basically, before you can send me any tweets, you have to fill out this SHUTCHA to prove that you have basic awareness of black people and black culture. For example, is this word spelled correctly? [“NIGER” flashed on screen.] If your answer is “no,” then I won’t be hearing from you and you’ll have to harass a local black in your area.

Bell’s SHUTCHA joke brilliantly pinpointed the problem with white culture: namely, its willful ignorance of black people and black culture. (This is also seen with such needless concomitant terms as “Black Twitter,” a catchall designate used by clueless white people to casually position African-American voices as some Other to be deprioritized and/or ignored). But because Bell had been put on the spot and was forced to stand up for Lindy West, he was unable to remark on the more severe problem of white culture’s appropriation of other cultures — what Kiese Laymon has referred to as “the worst of white folks”:

The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it had made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to violently discipline us for acting crazy. It had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. The worst of white folks really believed that the height of black and brown aspiration should be emulation of its mediocre self. The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them.

In other words, white culture believes that black people should emulate the very mediocrity that now forms its nostalgia-soaked identity. W. Kamau Bell is not permitted to push back at Lindy West without “repercussions,” but he is allowed to emulate her unexceptional intellectual position (“She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation.”) instead of expanding his shrewder and more sophisticated observations on male abuse and the racial dynamics of expression. Robin Thicke is free to rip off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and turn it into one of this summer’s greatest hits (“Blurred Lines”) and, because he too represents the worst of white culture, he audaciously files a preemptive lawsuit against Gaye’s family to prevent them from seeking damages against Thicke’s pellucid appropriation, claiming, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies, reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists.”

In August, white feminist culture was challenged by Mikki Kendall with the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, largely in response to the now disgraced Hugo Schwyzer:

It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating.

The sole Jezebel blog post on the hashtag is a collection of the best tweets rather than bona-fide intellectual jostling with this very serious grievance. There is also this condescending note at the bottom of the post:

Update: The originator of the hashtag page, Mikki Kendall, has been incredibly influential to this conversation and should have been at the top of this list. See her speak more on the hashtag here. To have not included her in the original post was an oversight. Apologies to Ms. Kendall.

This apology isn’t enough. Because without real commitment to thinking and true acknowledgment of one’s blind spots, there can be neither influence nor meaningful conversation. There can be only white culture, inured from disagreement, that monopolizes the dais and remarks upon black culture with a flip elitist tone that would be offensively facile if it weren’t so damn risible:

White culture doesn’t just want to plunder the best of black folks for callow entertainment. It wants to ensure that black culture is never explicitly identified as black. It wishes to soften any sharp edges. It wishes to promulgate endless articles that, as the podcast The Black Guy Who Tips recently put it, fuck with black people. The disgraceful imbalance of free expression identified by Stokely Carmichael in 1966 is still essentially the same: “the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.”

This is far more insidious than white culture’s mere copycat relationship with black culture, observed by Norman Mailer in the Fall 1957 issue of Dissent. White culture has moved beyond the willful scavenging and sanding of black culture’s best bits because it feels that it must hog the spotlight. White culture is terrified of engagement. In a complicated world of turmoil, white culture continues to cleave to a new political privilege, in which there can be no room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and what Jon Stewart has wrongly identified as “insanity.” There is no space within white culture to cultivate independent, original, provocative, and non-ideological inquiry. But there is relentless racial assumption, limitless listicles, time-eating timidity through hate-favoriting and subtweets on Twitter, and dull depositories for white culture fantasies such as NPR, The Awl, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Jezebel.

White culture is never about taking a step back and allowing another culture to express itself. It is driven by an intuitive imperialism, one that it can scarcely recognize, that involves blaring its own cultural standards through a megaphone manufactured in another century. Indeed, white culture’s most prolific literary spokesperson, Joyce Carol Oates, is not immune from such xenophobic disgrace. Earlier this year, when she remarked upon the complicated political situation in Egypt:

Ironically, many of these sentiments led Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker to urge Oates to stop tweeting. Was a 75-year-old writer revealing the worst of white folks? How long would this be tolerated from the Establishment?

Not long, as it turned out. On Sunday, The New York Times published a satirical essay by Teddy Wayne upholding the the same white culture stereotypes that Miley Cyrus had sought to “make history” with:

Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.

Some of white culture swallowed this up without batting an eye:

But a new and hilarious hashtag, #askteddywayne, started making the rounds on Twitter, fighting back against Wayne’s McSweeney’s-style essay with humorous qualities that had eluded the ostensibly professional writer:

Teddy Wayne sent apologies to some of his detractors in private. But as of Wednesday afternoon, he has not offered a public apology. He has switched his Twitter account from public to private.

White culture has been slow to recognize and atone for Teddy Wayne’s essay. The only outlets that have covered this scrape at length are The Root, The Inquisitor, Galleycat, and The Nation. Even more astonishing, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed her enthusiasm that Wayne’s piece was #2 on the New York Times‘s most emailed list, without appearing to comprehend why (other than that it was “funny”):

Perhaps Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Teddy Wayne, some of the people who write for Jezebel, the editor at The New York Times who allowed Wayne’s piece to run, and the people behind the Google Doodles really don’t comprehend how their responses and appropriation of black culture represent Laymon’s “worst of white folks.” They have seen the battles play out. They are familiar with some unspecified pattern, much as those who listen to a radio program in the background without really listening to it are dimly aware that there is something important being communicated. But they cannot engage with black culture. Like Cyrus, they won’t “pay attention to the negative.” Because to do so would be to confess to their own mediocrity. To do so with grace and candor would be to share the stage. To find true humility and humanity. To learn something.

White culture has had a very long run. But the time has come for those who make it and comment on it to understand that there is more to appropriating culture than the great white lie of “respect and admiration.”