The Blank is Dead

Once upon a time, an elephant-sized ego wrote a vapid article about the blank being irrelevant. The article inspired other articles and other blog posts and other comments and other tweets. Never mind that the blank wasn’t dead. Never mind that you could walk into any blankstore and encounter so many blanks that even the most impotent customer couldn’t ignore them. Never mind that you could look upward at the beautiful cerulean sky and see a bountiful blank filled in by the swirling clouds, annotated at ground level by human interpretation. The blank couldn’t be dead. It was like saying that life was dead. And anyone who believed that all human possibilities had halted overnight probably didn’t have much of an existence in the first place.

But for this unnamed and very sad man, the blank was dead. All forms had been filled out. The government had stopped issuing tax forms. There was no more money to collect and no more cash to spend. All calendars had been confiscated. All paper had been taken and filled up with words and scribbles. All pens were removed from homes and offices to prevent any potential blanks from being filled in.

The blank was dead and there was nowhere more for the human race to go. It had ended on June 22, 2010, at 4:53 PM — the very moment that the article had been published. On June 22nd, there was no further need for the human race to feel or think. The human limit had maxed out. It was time for the blankless world to become the new reality.

Humans could no longer feel giddy when they filled in a conversational caesura with a catty quip. They could no longer fill in a crossword puzzle or jot down a liaison with a scandalous lover into a blank square. But weren’t all those feelings trivial? Wasn’t life more comforting when you knew what was happening every damn minute?

Because the blank was dead, every possibility had been prefigured. Every social occasion had been predetermined, down to the guest list and the specific manner in which you dipped a carrot stick into ranch dressing. Every meal had been prepared. If you wanted to order sushi on a whim, well, then you’d have to consult the fatalist texts to see if the decision had already been made. Because the blank was now dead.

Life went on like this for a while. Until people started to understand that the blank had only disappeared because the man had said so. And those who had easily placed their faith in the foolish pachyderm began to wonder why they couldn’t ignore the wrongheaded article that had caused all the fuss. Somehow, the man had willed the blank into dying. Or perhaps he permitted the unimaginative types who couldn’t believe in the blank to come out of the closet — much in the manner that Proposition 8’s passage had revealed dormant homophobia. Fortunately, there were a few doubting Thomases. When those who believed in the elephant felt ashamed by their unthinking leaps forward, it became necessary for some of the more stubborn acolytes to take cold showers. It became necessary for them to find a blank, any blank, with which to funnel their hopes and galvanize their passions. The truly hopeless committed suicide. If the blank wasn’t dead, these sad sacks could demonstrate their commitment to the end in another form.

Of course, for those of us who never believed in the false prophet, there was no such perceptive problem. We were quite happy living our lives, filling in blanks and finding new ones. And for those writers who insist that the blank is dead, one must naturally ask why you’re talking about blanks in the first place if your mind is so blank and your soul is so dead.

(Image: Jo Naylor)

Well, A Good Polka It Is For My Good Friend Lee Siegel

Nathan Burke once said, “Get out of the freight car or I’ll kick your bitchy little ass, Mr. Siegel,” and for Adam Bellow whiny little essays like this one were considered “the spoils of nepotism.” Kafka once asked Max Brod to burn his writing, fearing that a shrimpy little weasel named Lee Siegel would quote him in a century. (What a mess that would make.) We know now thanks to Lee Siegel that you can turn in the world’s most incomprehensibly idiotic essay and still collect a paycheck from the New York Times Book Review. A modest question arises, however: If Lee Siegel is such a legend in his own mind, why is it that his ego continues to be fed by the Gray Lady? When Lee Siegel bangs like an autistic monkey on his keyboard, you’re in big trouble. I mean, big trouble.

Let’s start with a couple of harmless tests. If you’ve read Siegel’s essay and didn’t want to stab yourself after the first paragraph, did you want to stab yourself after the second? First, try to wonder why Siegel feels the need to name-drop six literary names in the first paragraph. Don’t worry, I couldn’t tell you either. Could it be that Siegel has nothing interesting to say about anything? Once you recover this primal state of being after getting past the second paragraph, Siegel tells us, you will then take off your brassiere or your boxers for Mr. Siegel. You will hand him your credit card and he will spend the entire day maxing it out, ruining your hard-earned credit with a spate of 1-900 calls. Volunteers?

Now, I never swallowed when Siegel asked. Nor did I suck him off at any point. Lee Siegel’s downfall was his Dubya-like insistence that he was right, that he was funny, and that he had some scintilla of talent. His undoing arrived — well, how many undoings were there really? The cowardly sock puppet at the New Republic? The tendency to hold any panel or discussion hostage? The inability to act or think like a grown-up?

Well, enough of Lee Siegel. And enough with this parody. My girlfriend pointed me to the article, knowing damn well that I would want to kick this sad sack of a man when he’s down. So let us conclude this entry by pointing out the obvious fact: if Bruno Kirby were still alive, he’d play the role of Lee Siegel in the inevitable movie.

Anders in the Flesh

Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet to the Brain” concerns Anders, a critic so removed from the joys and pleasures of life that he is reduced to niggling over every ontological detail. Because of this, reality trumps his existence. The story is unspeakably tragic in its final paragraphs, as we learn that there are pleasures that Anders is incapable of remembering. I don’t know if Lee Siegel has ever read this tale, but his embarrassing appearance at the New York Public Library on Thursday night revealed a sad sack so detached from life that I could not help but empathize, even as he tried to bait me by declaring to the crowd that I wasn’t a writer.

Siegel was there to talk about Against the Machine, a book so ineptly argued that the Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum was forced to abandon his review, but not without offering his notes. He was joined by Nicholson Baker and Heidi Julavits. But Siegel dominated the conversation, refusing to let even the moderator Paul Holdengraber, who tried to be as gracious and as patient as he could, finish his questions. Seigel’s entitlement was evident in one petulant exchange late in the talk.

“It’s my goddam book,” pouted Siegel.

“It’s my goddam conversation,” retorted Holdengraber.

It should be observed that Siegel is 50 years old.

When the talk was done, I congratulated Julavits for being “part of the supporting cast.”

Another anti-Internet crusader, Andrew Keen, is at least aware that his tirades are something of an act. But Siegel really seems to believe that the Internet is worse than cancer, poverty, and war combined. A true thinker actually considers an adverse viewpoint or is willing to consider that he might be wrong. Siegel, by contrast, refused to accept Nicholson Baker’s examples of items from the Web that depicted art and beauty. “How can I respond to that?” he barked. When the remarkably patient Holdengraber, casually tossing around references to philosophers, attempted to ask Siegel if there was anything good about the Internet, Siegel merely said that he liked email and Amazon, and that everything else was the morass. (There is a certain hypocrisy here in Siegel’s affinity for Amazon, considering that he rails against the Internet as a commerce-driven medium.) Holdengraber tried to frame this question many times and Siegel grew agitated, insisting that he had already addressed the issue. But I must ask: what kind of human being could not find one shred of joy within billions of offerings?

Only a person thoroughly removed from linguistic pleasures would quibble with the semantics of “assclown.” It was a surprise to me to see Siegel taking umbrage with the term. “Assclown is a really funny word, though,” grinned Nicholson Baker, who did his best to try and get through to the pigheaded Siegel. But it quickly became apparent that Siegel would not be moved and I watched with some sadness as the cheery, ruddy-faced Baker shifted to profound and silent empathy for this lost soul.

Lee Siegel belongs to that miserable genus of people who defecate upon any pleasure, tear up any moment of beauty, and who cannot locate the capacity to understand another person’s thoughts or feelings. You’ve probably met a few in your time. And like them, Siegel’s a lesson on how not to live. During the Q&A session, the good Levi Asher tried to engage Siegel in a gracious manner, pointing out that the New Republic hostilities might have been troubling because they at long last revealed what his readers really thought of him. A woman attempted to respond to his points in a fair-minded manner. But Siegel would have none of this. Unable to argue competently, he proceeded to dismiss specific terms and thoughtful angles that others presented. Siegel seemed unaware that such an attitude often causes setbacks.

Spiegel spewed out more straw men than a scarecrow population on a three hundred acre pumpkin patch. At one point, Baker suggested that Siegel once had a fascination with the Internet, pointing out that he had written many articles for Slate.

“That’s a fine conceit,” responded Siegel. “That’s one of the things that makes you a great novelist. Your negative capability.”

“Negative capability? What does that mean?” asked a baffled Holdengraber.

Where Baker hinted at the fun of all of us becoming filterers because of the Internet, Siegel snapped, “I don’t need more filtering.” Ever the hypocrite, Siegel said that the Internet was laden with false personas, but bristled when asked about the sprezzatura incident. He bemoaned being called “asshole,” “douchebag,” “fucktard,” and “shithole” on the New Republic. Being called a pedophile was the last straw. (Never mind that Siegel once called James Kincaid a pedophile.) “They all had it in for me,” cried Siegel. He wanted to give them a taste of their own medicine.

“No,” said Baker, “you cannot overlap.” Baker pointed out that Siegel using the third person while pretending not to be himself went beyond the boundaries of acceptability.

Unable to offer anything of substance, Siegel then began employing inept humor. “My BlackBerry is hooked up to my heart with wires, and to my testicles. I’m on Amazon all the time, and when my numbers go up, I get an erection.”

Siegel had a few supporters in the crowd, but there was, for the most part, an uncomfortable silence after this witless barb, as if they had just observed David Brent dancing.

I now find myself staring at my many notes and feeling extremely sad. Should I tell you about Siegel’s casual racism directed at Indian call centers? Should I tell you about the way that Siegel dismissed Baker’s praise for, a now defunct blog written by an overweight woman trying to make sense of her place in the world, by wondering why anyone would trouble with such pedantic thoughts? Should I trouble you with Siegel’s condemnation of 2 Girls 1 Cup, which he declared the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of the Internet? (And what makes Siegel the final arbiter of what people find interesting? What gives him the right to judge?)

All this nastiness from Siegel overshadowed Baker’s sense of wonder at the photos taken by a tethered camera or Heidi Julavits’s giddy confession of looking up diseases on the Internet to abate her hypochondria. Spiegel’s spite spoiled what should have been an evening of meaningful discussion.

Siegel frequently suggested that criticism of the Internet is a good thing. I think it is too. But when you openly rail against the Web using only a few bad examples without offering a single example of anything that’s good, it’s a fallacy of insufficient statistics. It isn’t a logical position.

I’m tempted to damn Siegel on these pages. But that would involve feeding the very bitterness that Siegel thrives on. So instead, I’ll simply declare Siegel a sad and incurable Anders. A man who might one day find his assumptive illogic greeted by a far less forgiving thug and who will never remember the joys that made him a writer in the first place.

[4/16 UPDATE: In a related story, Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici reports that Lee Siegel is terrified of talking to anybody who even remotely criticizes him. Furthermore, the Bookscan number for Against the Machine, as of yesterday, is a mere 3,038 copies.]

Night at the Boxcar


This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)

You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.


Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.


And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.

Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.

I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.

Sprezzatura the Maligned

It’s been more than a year since the manboy cultural critic Lee Siegel was temporarily suspended from The New Republic for allegedly posting anonymous comments on its blog, under the name “sprezzatura.” And while Boris Kachka has interviewed Lee Siegel, Filthy Habits recently received an email from an individual claiming to be “sprezzatura.” He wished to set the matter straight. Sprezzatura’s email, which contained three mysterious JPEG attachments (among them, a picture of an alpaca in a compromising yet family-friendly position), claimed that he had been misrepresented, that Siegel was not “brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart,” and demanded immediate reinstatement to the New Republic message boards. It remains a mystery to me why sprezzatura thought I had the keys to the New Republic castle. But this was a desperate email written in a desperate time.

“It is there where my shallow invective flowed best,” wrote sprezzatura of the New Republic website. He offered to send me $100 if I would interview him. I declined on moral principle. Then sprezzatura demanded an interview with me gratis by email because “Kachka had proved to be a wuss with his softball questions.” And I agreed, only because I had no wish to receive an email from sprezzatura ever again. I have been unable to confirm whether this “sprezzatura” is the same “sprezzatura” unleashed on Siegel’s blog. Indeed, I do not how many “sprezzaturas” there are. But I suppose it’s pedantic mysteries like this that have many of us wasting long hours on the Internet.

sprezz.jpgWhy don’t you just get a blog?

Because that would be too easy! And if I had devoted a blog just to clarifying my identity, I would have been thought a kook!

Actually, most bloggers are cranks. I speak with some expertise on the subject. But I don’t see how you’re making a case here, Lee.

Do not address me with that name! Those days are far behind me! We must forget that regrettable episode!

So you are Lee Siegel.

If you’ll pardon a metaphorical leap, Lee Siegel is a tuna melt poorly prepared with half-melted cheese. John Battelle never responded to any of my thoughtful queries. Therefore, he is an imbecile who cannot recognize my genius. David Brooks rested his argument on the flimsiest of premises. I do not need to inform you what these premises are. Just trust me. They’re flimsy. And when Cox wanted to draw attention to herself, she used the word “cunt” to make a point. Plus, she made more money than I did. And she’s a woman two decades younger than I am. It’s not fair!

Lots of invective there, sprezza baby. But can you cite any specific examples? Some might argue that you are using “cunt” to make….well, not exactly a point, but to stand out with an irrational Dale Peck-style explanation.

It doesn’t matter! Malcolm Gladwell’s hair was adopted for television as American Idol. I have tried to stop them from supplying him with shampoo, but they keep arresting me!

Lee, step away from the Internet and get some fresh air. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather in January. Go for a walk.

I love the Internet, I’m on it all the time. I couldn’t have written my book so quickly without it. Thanks to the Internet, I didn’t have to think. I could just cut and paste some boilerplate, bang out a book and make a quick book and show those New Republic bastards exactly who mattered. I don’t think it’s making more people connected than they were before, not at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, Lee.

I react very badly when mediocrity is associated with my name.

Well then, write well!

That is hard when you are “sprezzatura” and you have been banned from your own magazine’s message board. Will you give me a hug?

Only if you stop using the moniker “sprezzatura.”