Carlin Romano Is Racist. And So Is The National Book Critics Circle.

On June 11, 2020, Hope Wabuke — a distinguished Ugandan American poet who was on the National Book Critics Circle board — published screenshots from a disturbing internal conversation that involved how the NBCC would respond to Black Lives Matter. At issue here was how a seemingly august body of professional book critics would answer to recent events. One board member — a man by the name of Carlin Romano, who once opened a review expressing his fantasy of raping a woman author — was determined to “speak up” and claimed that he wasn’t the only board member who felt that racism and police brutality didn’t particularly concern him.

Romano took umbrage with the idea that white gatekeeping “stifles black voices at every level of our industry,” declaring this to be “absolute nonsense.” Never mind that The New York Times recently reported that the esteemed author Jesmyn Ward had to fight for a six-figure advance even after winning a National Book Award. Never mind Malorie Blackman sharing details about how a publisher had rejected a novel because a story featuring two black magical siblings wasn’t “believable.” (Meanwhile, Knopf publishes white author John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas, which features three white siblings engaging in magic, to say nothing of the family-oriented magic contained in white author Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic books.) Never mind that Dorothy Koomson tweeted on June 2, 2020 that her books were rejected because they “weren’t about ‘the black experience'” and how she was asked to make characters racist. No, as far as Romano was concerned, the struggles that African-American writers face to tell their stories was “ridiculous,” despite numerous examples.

Romano got even uglier, claiming that black writers would “never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.” Amber Books? Black Classics Press? Third World Press? Triple Crown Publications? Life Changing Books? Any of the far too few African-American publishers who have stepped up to redress the systemic racism that the largely white-owned publishing industry has failed to remedy? That Romano applies “ecumenical” to his atavistic statement says much about his condescending views of writers of color. Apparently, in his view, any publisher who puts out a worthy novel that happens to be written by an African-American is an act of charity rather than an act of merit. James Baldwin? Toni Morrison? Octavia Butler? Ta-Nehisi Coates? Well, you’re lucky that your ass got through the door because Whitey decided to let one or two of you through the gates. Does Romano’s repugnantly racist sentiment here not reinforce the problems of white gatekeeping and not buttress the need for any and all literary organizations to be more inclusive? As far as Romano was concerned, the fact that countless people of color had to fight to be published — despite the fact that African-American novels have continued to be financially successful (Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren sold one million copies, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple sold five million copies, even Ann Petry’s The Street selling one million copies in 1946, the list goes on) — did not get in the way of his sentiment that black people needed to be fawning and grateful, much in the manner of slaves, to white publishers. Romano doubled down on this racism by writing, “In my 40 years in literary and publishing life, I’ve seen far more of [sic] white people helping black writers than of people black people helping white writers.” In other words, Romano believes that black people should devote their already disadvantaged positions to spending all their time promoting white writers.

In short, Romano articulated in very clear terms just what he wants the system to be. And his deplorable viewpoint here is no different from an antebellum slaveholder. Romano’s despicable vision is this: White editors serving as gatekeepers. Black authors dancing with joy at the honor of having their neutered visions “represented.” Romano’s statement is, in short, a racist screed against literary merit and inclusiveness. That Romano cannot acknowledge any white bias that has prevented great literature from being published, even as he demands that African-American writers jump up and down over concessions that their white counterparts would never have to face, is nothing less than a pompous white xenophobe revealing his true colors.

But Romano didn’t stop at mere racism. It is a common truth that atavistic barnacles like Romano often feel the need to tout their own superiority, irrespective of its shaky foundations. In perhaps the most risible part of his vulgar message, Romano claimed, “I myself have probably written more articles and reviews about Philadelphia’s black literature and traditions in my 25 years at the Inquirer than anyone living, black or white.” Do you hear that, Black Writers Museum? Do you hear that, African American Children’s Fair? Do you hear that, Hakim’s (the oldest Philly black bookstore, since 1959)? Even though all of you have done far more for black Philadelphia than Romano, Romano wants you to bow down at his professed magnanimity! It’s Romano who’s doing the heavy lifting here, not you!

One would think that the NBCC Board of Directors would instantly denounce such atavistic viewpoints. But President Laurie Hertzel, a white woman who would appear to be the NBCC’s answer to Amy Cooper, was nothing less than fulsome about these backwards views. She claimed, “Your objections are all valid, of course.” She also claimed that Romano’s views “shine unlike anyone else’s.”

I emailed Hertzel about her unquestioning support of Romano’s racism. She replied, “Rest assured that I do not and have not endorsed anyone’s racist comments.”

In other words, Hertzel and nearly the entire NBCC board are not so much interested in looking inward as they are gaslighting the narrative entirely. Nor can the NBCC actually name and hold Romano accountable — as was seen in this self-serving and half-hearted announcement posted on Thursday night.

I attempted to contact many of the NBCC Board of Directors — in large part because the only board members to acknowledge the exchange and take something of a stand against this racism were Carolyn Kellogg and Richard Z. Santos.

The remaining twenty NBCC Board Members have said nothing. In fact, shortly after I contacted Michael Schaub about his neglectful duties to stand against racism, this self-serving Texan, who was recently criticized for his insensitivity to trans human rights, blocked me on Twitter.

The NBCC Board has a duty to denounce Romano’s racist remarks. With their silence, one can only conclude that the following National Book Critics Circle board members are more than happy to uphold systemic racism. Systemic racism butters their bread. It ensures that they can continue to get gigs. That these people fail to call out racism and that refuse to do so even as Party City has done a better job firing racists speaks to their willful and open advocacy of white supremacy in the National Book Critics Circle.

Here is a list of the NBCC Board Members who presently advocate racism and white supremacy with their silence:

Laurie Hertzel, NBCC President
Kerri Arsenault, VP Awards
Jane Ciabattari, VP Events
Connie Ogle, VP Communications
Carlin Romano, VP Grants
Michael Schaub, VP Online
David Varno, VP Tech
Marion Winik, VP Treasurer
Jacob Appel
Colette Bancroft, The Tampa Bay Times
Gregg Barrios
Lori Feathers
Charles Finch
Megan Labrise
Jessica Loudis
John McWhorter
Katherine A. Powers
Madeline Schwartz
Elizabeth Taylor

Should any of the above individuals make a public statement against Carlin Romano and the NBCC’s systemic racism, I will remove them from the list. But I doubt that any of them will.

[6/12/2020 10:15 PM UPDATE: The NBCC Board page has dropped the following names: Laurie Hertzel, Connie Ogle, John McWhorter, and Katherine A. Powers. Presumably, these are the other four Board members who have resigned. Hertzel has also deleted her Twitter account.]

[6/15/2020 12:00 PM UPDATE: This morning, Carolyn Kellogg announced on Twitter that she had resigned from the Board. She cited “microaggressions and delays” in advance of drafting the Black Lives Matter statement. She also noted that the Board, instead of focusing on Romano’s racist sentiments, “focused on Hope’s breach of confidentiality in sharing a damning account of a poetry prize discussion.” Additionally, Kellogg noted that Hertzel called for the board to be dissolved following Wabuke’s leak. Following this call to dissolve the board (and efforts on other members’ part to facilitate discussion), Hertzel and two other members resigned in protest — not because of Wabuke’s concerns about racism, but because of the breach in confidentiality. Three more people — including Kellogg — have now resigned, including David Varno.

The instigator for this imbroglio was Romano. Romano has threatened to sue the NBCC and, according to Kellogg, even “shouted down a new board member on a Zoom call.”

Romano remains on the Board because the current NBCC bylaws, which can be found at this link, prevent the board from removing a member. The only way to do so is through a special meeting, which the bylaws declare can be called upon at the request of the president (for which the NBCC does not presently have one), any vice president (who would presently include Kerri Arsenault, Jane Ciabattari, Carlin Romano, Richard Z. Santos, Michael Schaub, and Marion Winik), or any five directors. As of early Monday afternoon, there has been no movement to call a special meeting. (UPDATE: Santos also noted that genera members can also call for a Board Member’s removal.)

As such, until there is a special meeting, Romano will remain on the board until 2022.

Kellogg concluded her message by stating, “I want to go on to point out that as the sole Black woman on the board, Hope should have been given extra support and liberty in leading our effort to craft an anti-racism statement. She was not.”

Further investigations into Romano have revealed a troubled history of abusive behavior. According to Ellen Akins, a friend of Hertzel’s, Romano went out of his way to target Hertzel, who is not a confrontational person. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2000, Romano was fired from his professorship at Bennington due to an “action of sufficient severity” directed at the president, Elizabeth Coleman. An insider at Ursinus College has also reported that there are numerous stories about Romano’s misconduct there.

Should anyone wish to share any stories about further Romano incidents, feel free to email me at and I will offer an update. Unless you specifically give me your consent, any and all communications with me will be kept in confidence.]

[6/15/2020 12:45 UPDATE: Ismail Muhammad, one of the board members who was actively working for diversity within the NBCC, announced his resignation from the board shortly after Kellogg’s announcement. He offered further details about what happened: “We were on the verge of winning a vote to release that statement by a solid majority, when Carlin Romano, at the last minute, derailed the process.”]

[6/15/2020 1:30 PM UPDATE: In an article filed by PW‘s John Maher, some new information has come to light. Anonymous board members noted that of the five members who resigned from the board (Hertzel, Victoria Chang, John McWhorter, Connie Ogle, and Katherine A. Powers), only one did so in support of Wabuke. The remaining four did so because of the breach in confidentiality. We know that this was Hertzel’s reason. So that leaves three inside Chang, McWhorter, Ogle, and Powers who resigned in opposition to Wabuke.

Amazingly, Romano himself is quoted in the article. In relation to the lawsuit threat, Romano said that he “alerted the Board I might sue it if I’m voted off the Board in violation of our bylaws and commitment to free discussion.” He denied shouting down the new board member, merely claiming, “We talked over each other at one point.”

Despite the racist tenor of Romano’s email, Romano claimed, “I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. Quite the contrary. I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims. A few Board members in recent years have sought to turn the Board, for decades committed to fair-minded judging of books from every political stripe, into a ‘No Free Thought’ zone, an ideologically biased tool for their own politics. In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them. I’ll attempt to stay on the Board, despite concerted opposition, in the hope that I can help NBCC return to its earlier, better self.”]

[6/18/2020 UPDATE: Michael Riley, President and Editor-in-Chief of The Chronicle of Higher Education, was good enough to confirm with me that Romano is not involved with his august publication: “Carlin Romano has not written for The Chronicle of Higher Education since 2018, and, while he was a critic-at-large for The Chronicle a long time ago, he has not been in that role for many years. He holds no official title or standing with The Chronicle.”]

The Situation in American Waffles

In 1939, The Pancake Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent waffle eaters, asking them about waffles, maple syrup, and their breakfast-eating identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten (right now, a Henry Darger type in Chicago hasn’t finished his response to the initial survey; an excerpt of this man’s ongoing 12,000 page work, In the Realms of the Waffles will be published next year by New Directions), we felt that these breakfast-related questions were rarely being asked of today’s waffle eaters. Considering that 2011 was a year of significant waffle eating and that most questionnaires are inherently pointless, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Pancake Review’s questions.

In pursuing these vital questions with today’s breakfast experts, some figures were forced to recuse themselves or offer short answers to mimic recent breakfast austerity measures in Europe. Susannah Breslin pointed out that her gluten allergy prevented her from consuming them, even as she recognized that “everything hinges on waffles.” Elizabeth Crane Brandt professed to be “blind to this plight.” Lev Grossman insisted that he was “a French toast man.” Sheila McClear didn’t quite answer our questions, but she did inform us that she didn’t eat waffles in regular New York diners. “I will say I had a waffle at a semi-upscale breakfast place about three years ago,” reported McClear. “I was with my boyfriend, and I was cheerfully dousing it with syrup. He found this display so repulsive he actually walked. out. of. the. restaurant. on me.”

Ed Park claimed that he didn’t eat waffles anymore, but revealed that he sometimes eats a bit of leftover Eggos if they remain on other people’s plates. Dan Chaon said that he didn’t believe in the existence of breakfast, and, wishing to respect his beliefs, we didn’t press him further. Emma Straub pointed out that the New Kids on the Block “always have their after-parties at Waffle House restaurants, which tells you all you need to know about the state of American waffles.” She followed this astute observation with a Rita Coolidge quote.

But many of the waffle experts we consulted were both confident and comfortable with our questions, very frequently answering all of them.


Megan Abbott is most recently the author of The End of Everything.

Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise. She is known for writing food-related prose that makes her readers very hungry.

Adrienne Davich is a writer, journalist, and editor based in Brooklyn.

Marcy Dermansky is most recently the author of Bad Marie.

Jesus Angel Garcia is the author of badbadbad.

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

Michael Schaub is a writer and a critic in Austin.

Andrew Shaffer has claimed to be evil, but is also the author of Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett are the editors of Full Stop and are presently carrying out a questionnaire called The Situation in American Writing.

Jacob Silverman is a writer and critic in Brooklyn.

Laurel Snyder grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and now makes her haome in Atlanta. She does not miss scrapple, but neither does she bother with grits.

Sarah Weinman is an author, journalist, and freelance adventurer.


2011 was the year of the Sectarian Breakfast. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Experts now say that the pancake/waffle conflict shows no sign of abatement in 2012. Does breakfast have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?

Marcy Dermansky: This is a serious issue. Breakfast does have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval, now more than ever. My concern, rather than the waffle or the pancake, is the bagel. The bagel needs to made its presence known in Europe. I say this, currently living in Europe and feeling increasingly deprived.

Laurel Snyder: Honestly, my emotional response to the current situation is one of sadness and loss. I know that in my youth, my parents’ generation engaged loudly in the breakfast debate. They marched and demanded. They were such dreamers… but it always felt smart too, like an exchange of ideas. There was respect back then. Now it seems like we’ve lost sight of breakfast itself — and what it really means, what it stands for — almost entirely. I think it says something about this generation, about what America has become. Don’t you?

Sarah Weinman: Indeed it does. Breakfast preferences alter with time and as a result of economic hardship and revolutionary fervor. A waffle is more appropriate for boom times while pancakes thrive in recessions. But then it is also more likely for people to shout “let them eat pancakes!” So the conflict continues, unresolved.

J. Robert Lennon: I think breakfast has more integrity than that, don’t you? It can remain aloof.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Absolutely. In the United States at least, breakfast owes it to the people to listen to their needs. The people cannot survive on lunch and dinner alone.

Megan Abbott: Part of me wants to say that breakfast is in fact a part of that popular upheaval. It’s the thing we all share, after all. Where would we be without breakfast? How would anything begin? How would we know how to get through the day? That said, I rely primarily on legacy media to provide me with my information, and so I guess that marks me a dinosaur when it comes to breakfast considerations. But I am from Michigan.

Michael Schaub: It would be foolish not to. What we’re seeing in the world isn’t just, as some have posited, an inchoate anger. It’s not just a movement of bored young people who don’t fully understand the breakfast system. It’s the expression of population — several populations, actually — who have decided that enough is enough, that the old system is unsustainable. And they have a point — for too long the powers that be have forced their narrow-minded idea of breakfast on people who are just now deciding they want — they need — to think for themselves. If that means rejecting the eggs/bacon/pancakes model in favor of a gingerbread waffle with pecans, or even just a lowly Eggo, thrown in the toaster and eaten on the way to work, then that’s what is bound to happen. Huxley told us all we have the right to be unhappy, and if that means Toaster Strudels with alarmingly-colored frosting, then so be it. That is democracy; we expect no less.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The best thing a waffle eater can do at a time of unrest is what he does best: eat waffles. In tumultuous times, people need something constant to remind them what really matters. Waffles provide that comfort. Sure, the way we take our waffles may change -— I gave up my beloved banana-nut waffles after reading Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” -— but as long as we continue to eat, life goes on.

Andrew Shaffer: Conflicts within the breakfast community are unfortunate but inevitable. Breakfast eaters tend to be emotionally engaged and passionate in their food preferences than non-breakfast eaters. The pancake/waffle conflict is minor compared to the eternal war between the breakfast eater and the non-breakfast eater. While skirmishes such as the pancake/waffle conflict break out from time to time (the ugly oatmeal/grits showdown during the Kennedy administration comes readily to mind), we need to be aware that pancake and waffle eaters are more alike than different.

Jacob Silverman: Yes, absolutely. For too long breakfast has allowed other meals to do the heavy-lifting when it comes for the lobbying of political rights and social change. If one takes the time to look at the burden borne by brunch during the aughts, frankly, it’s a scandal. We have much catching up to do.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Well, clearly this is the year of the Waffle Spring. After years of being marginalized — even vilified — as a kind of forbidding yet exclusive terrain, the “Waffle Street,” they’re making their way into the main stream, with all its inherent complexity.

* * *

Do you think that waffle eating should be directed towards a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious waffle eating (along with all related activities) has grown or contracted in the last ten years?

Jacob Silverman: We are long removed from the days when waffle eating was a serious social activity, when Buckley and Mailer ate waffles together on television, locked in mortal intellectual combat over which vintage of syrup reigned supreme. (Unsurprisingly, National Review, in its latter day jingoistic incarnation, has scrubbed from its archives all mention of Buckley’s preference for Canadian maple.) I do not expect the audience for serious waffle eating to recover. Like my friend Philip Roth, I anticipate that it will one day have all the popularity in this country of epic poetry. Unfortunately, that day may not be long in coming.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Like all good consumption, true waffle eating will always finds its audience.

Sarah Weinman: That’s a good question. The number of Waffle Houses have increased but the number of Eggo commercials are on the wane. I guess that means waffles are directed more towards those with disposable income, or who wish to celebrate their waffle-eating in public instead of heating up the frozen ersatz kind at home. So then: Waffles are So 1 Percent.

Laurel Snyder: I don’t think we can really talk about “the waffle” without first defining our terms. What is a waffle today? It isn’t the same waffle my grandmother knew. We eat waffles in our house, but they’re crappy waffles, frozen waffles. They’re an afterthought. We’re just to busy, or that’s what we say. I’d like to think there’s a bigger market out there for waffles, that we just need to find it. But with the current waffle, I’m not sure that’s true. I think of myself as a “waffle person” but half the time, I just eat a Stella D’oro Breakfast Treat on my way out the door.

Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle makers should be distributed at birth. How grateful I would have been if I had been given a waffle maker when Nina was born. I would make her waffles all the time. Instead, I have not made her a single waffle. She is two and a half years old.

Megan Abbott: I’ve never believed in eating only for oneself, for the sating of oneself. What is eating for if not for an audience? That won’t ever change. The way we do it -— the vehicle, the mode, even the time of day may change, but that longing won’t. Appetite is appetite.

Michael Schaub: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Direct waffle consumption toward the traditional audience — the affluent, Wall Street-employed Manhattanites who regularly line up at The Breslin or Fedora for their fix — and you risk extincting the doughy cake if and when the next economic meltdown occurs. But if you try to expand the audience, you risk turning something undeniably special into just another run-of-the-mill breakfast food. Still, I think it’s best to at least try to market the waffle to a slightly larger audience — while most blue-collar, lower-income Midwesterners won’t be willing to give up the foie gras and Almas caviar that constitutes their traditional morning meal, the survival of the cultural icon we call the waffle may well depend on it.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Homemade waffles have certainly taken a hit from Eggos and other pop pastries, frozen or otherwise, but as the video of that riot over $2 waffle irons on Black Friday shows, there will always be a demand for quality.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating is personality driven. People don’t love all waffles. They love particular waffles. Waffles with blueberries & whipped cream.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Look, the Pancake 99 percent has dominated our hearts and imaginations for far too long. Pancakes are Joe the plumber. I say it’s time to occupy the waffle maker — bring the batter to the people.

J. Robert Lennon: I don’t think about audience when I’m making waffles — I’m thinking about waffles. It’s about process for me — the process of baking, and the process of eating.

* * *

Do you place much value on the criticism your waffle eating has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant pancake and waffle magazines, and in response, breakfast criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made breakfast criticism more or less of an isolated cult?

Megan Abbott: I’ve always been a reluctant consumer in that regard. After you are made aware of how your waffles are received, how can one make waffles in a pure way again? Once we know what’s in them, everything changes, the waffles themselves change. You begin to think of them as a product. On the other hand, I count on these magazines to excite me about new waffles and occasionally even pancakes, so I rely on them, depend on them utterly. As one would on any cult.

Michael Schaub: I do what I do for the waffles, not the critics, and if they don’t get it, it’s their problem, not mine. I will say that the transition of waffle criticism from print to the Internet is not, in my opinion, a good thing. It’s become saturated with amateurs and bloggers, who think that just because they have an Internet connection and a (usually uneducated) point of view, their opinions are just as valid as the professionals. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to the art — yes, art — of waffles, even to the point of getting advanced degrees (in my case, Ph.D. in Breakfast Pastries, Dartmouth University, 2005), disagree.

J. Robert Lennon: I don’t read waffle criticism. I’m an eater, not a critic.

Sarah Weinman: Well, remember that the rise of breakfast also includes the meteoric commensurate rise of brunch, and lord knows that’s become quite the cult in rarified circles. But I’d like to see more breakfast criticism, not less! We need people to assert their opinions on the best of the best and pan the worst of the worst. Oh wait, I said “pan.” I think that’s a pun.

Laurel Snyder: I think it has value of a sort, because some interesting things have developed from the conversation, but yeah — it’s a closed loop. If you look at the comment threads, it’s easy to see people are just preaching to their own crowds, and occasionally seeking out a fight, to drive traffic, garner some attention.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Those who criticize breakfast wish they were eating breakfast all the time. Period. They’re fat and they’re hungry. You can’t fault them. We live in lean times. A time for foraging and hoarding. That said, it’s tough to take breakfast critics seriously, especially online where bagels with cream on their faces get more play than superdeluxe three — cheese omelettes with diced Kalamata olives, capers, cayenne pepper and cilantro. In print, this would never happen.

Marcy Dermansky: I fear that I am constantly criticized for my lack of waffle eating. I am ashamed to answer these questions. I fear the public outcry when my readership learns that I have never cooked my daughter a waffle. We recently ate freshly cooked waffles at a festival. They came with powdered sugar on top and were delicious.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Thoughtful, constructive criticism should always be well received. If I’m chewing my waffles with my mouth open, by all means let me know. Unfortunately, democratization has, as always, been accompanied by mediocrity. With all the waffle products on the market now, it’s great that they can get individual attention from the smaller presses (no pun intended), but a green webzine writer who has spent one morning watching me eat is not going to provide the type of insights that one could get from the pages of Waffle Aficionado, which I, like many, was sad to see dissolve. I remember reading their review of Wells’ first Belgian waffle baker when I was in high school and being blown away. When was the last time a blog blew you away?

Adrienne Davich: Speaking from no experience, no. The move seems to have made breakfast less of an isolated cult. However, breakfast seems more fractured. I guess there’s more free breakfast too. I’m not sure how I feel about that as an eater.

Jacob Silverman: I do take such criticism to heart, and it may be my downfall as a breakfast eater. I find neither shame nor pride, only a weary sadness, in admitting that many are the days I have wasted rending my clothes and weeping over the vicious barbs of a breakfast blogger (pajama-wearing and basement-dwelling, no doubt!). Through these spells, I have torn apart many wardrobes, soaked all of my handkerchiefs to their very monograms, while Frederick, my Chantilly cat, eyes me, baffled. What can be wrong with him, he must be thinking. If only I had the meows to communicate my torment. Alas, it is bottomless.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Ho hum. Everyone who’s ever held a fork or photographed a plate of cheese grits now claims they’re a breakfast critic! I say, show me the bacon. Apple-smoked.

* * *

Have you found it possible to make a living by eating the types of waffles you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for waffle eating as a profession?

Michael Schaub: Sadly, I’m unable to support myself solely by waffle eating. There was a time, of course, when one could do so — when the nation treasured its breakfast heritage more. Then came the Reagan administration, which abolished the Department of Breakfast and Brunch. (President Obama’s promise to reinstate the department has, sadly, proved to be a false one.) And without the DBB, the profession has faded into, in my case, a hobby. I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m asking them to feel sorry for America.

Andrew Shaffer: One could, theoretically, make a living eating waffles, but what kind of life would that be? Even if the waffles were given to you, it’s a terrifying prospect to even contemplate. While it’s true that you are unlikely to starve by eating waffles, man cannot live on waffles alone. You must also have butter. You must have Vermont maple syrup. You must have non-dairy whipped cream topping. You must have sliced strawberries. You must have crushed pecans. And, if you are doing it correctly, chocolate chips. For these reasons, it is simply not possible to comfortably eat waffles without a steady source of income in the current economic climate.

Laurel Snyder: It’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m hardly a committed full-time waffle person. My husband makes more than I do. I’m more of a hobbyist. I don’t take it as seriously as I should. This is a chicken-and-egg situation though. Am I not doing it full-time because my waffles are sub-par, or are my waffles sub-par because I’m not taking them seriously enough? Who can really say?

Jesus Angel Garcia: Are we being honest here? If so, let’s admit the obvious: Waffles aren’t real food. But that doesn’t mean anyone with a dream shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to succeed as defense contractors, investment bankers and drug dealers. That’s the United States of America I know and love.

Marcy Dermansky: It occurs to me now that perhaps the time has come for me to be a professional waffle maker. It is time for me to have a marketable skill. Thank you for the suggestion.

Megan Abbott: I’ve heard of some waffle eaters believing it can bring them millions, or that it can bring them the waffle-eating life they always dreamed of, as portrayed in popular television programs, where they will be portrayed by David Duchovny, or in motion pictures, such as those of Woody Allen, or fantasies that just, quite frankly, aren’t realistic, like appearing in a Vogue in sexy outdoors gear or having their image splayed across a massive billboard in Times Square. I’ve had dreams like that too. But it’s not the real world.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Of course there will always be a few stars who are able to make a living off waffles. But the majority of us will increasingly have to extend our palates to other meals. There will be more chicken salad sandwich critics, more Salisbury steak critics. Many will even take jobs at IHOP or Denny’s. But some of our best critics were already working there anyway.

Adrienne Davich: I am glad you asked this question. But what about America’s waffle and pancake servers? The tipped minimum wage in many states has stagnated at $2.13 an hour. That means pancake and waffle servers across America are living below the poverty line, sometimes starving, while waffle eaters naval-gaze and intellectualize about breakfast values! At least waffle eaters eat. Have you been to IHOP lately? The people who cook, serve, and clean up your breakfast don’t have health care either.

Sarah Weinman: As I pointed out before, waffles are more for boom times. So when the economy rebounds, there will be much more waffle-eating among the proletariat. Needless to say I’ve supplemented my waffle-eating with a ton of frittatas, parfaits and other petit dejeuner foods to get by. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?

Jacob Silverman: No. The waffle eating economy has been torn asunder, and I assign equal blame to IHOP and the Huffington Post. As to how I sustain my lifestyle, that is between me and my court-appointed attorney.

Diana Abu-Jaber: You really have to hustle if you want to make it in the breakfast rat race. I, for one, have had to subsidize my waffle arts by offering hot iron workshops — mainly online, of course.

J. Robert Lennon: Well, I used to be able to make a living with the waffles, but at some point in the mid-2000’s I realized I would have to go on the job market, and now I’m the Director of Waffle Studies at Cornmeal University.

* * *

Do you find in retrospect, that your waffle eating reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

Diana Abu-Jaber: I discussed waffle allegiances at length with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Mother Theresa. The jury is still out.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: I like to think that my breakfast menu is relatively eclectic, but if I’m being honest, when it’s 8 a.m. and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas with a long day ahead of me, I’m a committed continentalist. After all, waffles, with their trademark grids, are the breakfast food most directly influenced by Descartes. Give me something sweet, something with meat, some coffee, and some juice. (Perhaps I inherited this from my grandmother, who was born in Belgium. She’s American now—also dead). We critics like to split hairs over how many pancakes make a short stack, what diameter makes a silver dollar, but at the end of the day—or the beginning, I should say (an old joke, I know)—we have more in common than not. Breakfast satisfies basic human needs—hunger, nourishment, community—and when all is said and done, what is a crêpe, really, but a thin pancake? And what is a pancake but a Euclidean waffle?

Sarah Weinman: 100 percent individual preference, though now I am might curious about the correlation between waffle-eating and Objectivism. Perhaps a study can be commissioned on this post-haste?

Laurel Snyder: Can I say both? I’m generally a fence sitter. I think of my waffle-life as deeply personal, an extension of my daily life, but how can I separate that from my life as a Jew? Am woman? A mother, above all else? And those things certainly define my politics…

Jesus Angel Garcia: You’re forcing my hand, Mr. Champion. I can’t honestly answer this question. I don’t belong in this conversation. I’m a charlatan, a fraud, but I am flattered that you think of me as a waffle eater. Truth to tell, for breakfast I only eat French toast (and granola).

Marcy Dermansky: It seems like I march alone, eating waffles only when they are available at street festivals in Germany. Truth to be told, I rarely eat waffles or pancakes. Recently, my friend Tami made me pancakes for breakfast and they were so good. Usually, when I go to brunch, I order an omelet.

Megan Abbott: I think if all of us looked inside, we’d see surprising attributes about ourselves that can explain the lure of waffle eating, or particular kinds of waffles. A kind of longing for an imagined idea about American breakfasting we’d like to be a part of. An American breakfast that perhaps never really existed. But it’s very personal, very private—and yet we like to attach larger ideological resonance to it. Maybe because it makes us feel part of something now. Are we the relics of lost civilizations? Are we the last vanguard against The End? Or are we the new revolutionaries, erecting a new challenge to society? All three of those options may all feel infinitely sexier than admitting we just like waffles. They make us feel good. They are delicious.

J. Robert Lennon: I think my waffle making and eating has really strengthened my connection to the Inuit people, and to white Southerners.

Michael Schaub: Of course I try to keep an open mind, and be objective as possible, with regard to my waffle eating. But my heritage necessarily influences my breakfast habits, and I see no point in trying to change that. I’m Southern, so I often put pecans on my waffles. I was raised Catholic, so I usually accompany my waffles with whiskey. I grew up in the suburbs, so quite often I find myself using Aunt Jemima “syrup” instead of the real, hardcore Vermont stuff. And I’m a male in my thirties, so I almost always eat waffles while viewing pornography.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating without any allegiance whatsoever is impossible. Marguerite Duras said, “Every waffle eater is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A waffle eater is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others.”

Jacob Silverman: My waffle eating belongs to me and me alone. And any agribusiness conglomerate that wishes to sponsor me.

* * *

How would you describe the political tendency of American waffle eating, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?

J. Robert Lennon: Politics come and go, waffles are forever.

Michael Schaub: There’s no doubt that 9/11 changed everything. My point of view is that of, I believe, most Americans: if we give up on waffles, if we toss our waffle irons in a box and leave it outside a Goodwill store, if we — God forbid — start eating pancakes, then the terrorists have won. The French toast lobby would like us, of course, to adopt a policy of appeasement. As a real American, I would not.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Now that we’ve got the plodding old biscuit-gummers and egg-boilers out, I’m hopeful that a bold, new, imaginative approach to buttering and syruping may once more hold sway over our fair nation.

Adrienne Davich: Moralizing. Demoralizing. Uncertain.

Sarah Weinman: If waffles are for the 1 percent, as I theorized already, then it’s all about the plutocracy, baby. And money trumps politics.

Laurel Snyder: I don’t think people even notice the waffles in their lives very much. But when they no longer have waffles, they’ll notice. The waffles will become more and more rarified, more underground. One day people will wake up and say, “Where have all the waffles gone?” But by then it’ll be too late.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Since 2001? It’s not French toast!

Marcy Dermansky: Waffle eating is a subversive act. For years when I lived in the South, I went to Waffle House, usually not for breakfast, often in the middle of the night. I rarely ate a waffle or saw others eating waffles. I would order the hash browns, smothered and covered. I don’t think that has changed. In the war against terror, it is best not to eat tagines, delicious as they are.

Megan Abbott: Honestly, I’m surprised to be asked. These questions are rarely posed to those of us who have been placed firmly in the toaster oven category of waffle eating. I’m not sure why that is, precisely, but I try not to think about any of these things when I eat. Maybe those placed in the “artisan” or “slow waffles” categories do. Or maybe it’s just a quality that emerges in the eating, or doesn’t, without a plan or intention. Maybe at its best it is truly organic. Even for us Eggos.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The passionate responses to Michelle Obama’s efforts to restructure the food pyramid, as well as her stance against cereal mascots, are, I think, emblematic of the situation in American breakfast. Yes, many of us take breakfast for granted, but it takes only the slightest change to remind us how much is at stake. Personally, I’m of the mind that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if it’s that important, then it should probably be the best meal of the day as well. And, for me, the best is always homemade. Just ask my mom.

Jacob Silverman: To paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s quite clear that the Bush junta sapped the political life from waffle eating. Its condition is much like blintzes after the Harding administration, and I fear that it faces a similar path towards irrelevance.

* * *

Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with its breakfast. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on breakfast? What do you think the responsibilities of waffle eaters are in general are, in the midst of unending war?

Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle eaters have to realize that they have lost the war. Waffles take too long to make and waffle irons are too expensive for the working class. I would like to start a movement to increase the consumption of New York bagels around the world.

J. Robert Lennon: Look, man, my responsibility is to three things: the waffle, the butter, and the syrup. People who want to repurpose breakfast for their petty political aims should just sleep in and dump their burdens on cheese sandwiches and reheated coffee.

Sarah Weinman; I haven’t considered that question, to be frank. But if I did consider it I’d implore regular waffle eaters to be kinder and gentler to their pancake-eating brethren. The conflict may continue but there’s no need for bloodshed. Not even bloody steaks to go along with the eggs alongside the pancakes and/or waffles!

Laurel Snyder: Just to remember, to value, to continue to engage, to continue to both produce and consume. I want to be part of the dialogue, whatever it is. I’ve promised myself I’m going to try harder this year, do more. But then — I think I said that last year. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Jesus Angel Garcia: As I understand it, America has been at war for 99 out of the last 100 years. This war on breakfast is nothing new to anyone with a basic grasp of history. Now that Obama and the Congress have passed the NDAA, which legalizes indefinite detention for American citizens on American soil for “breakfast transgression,” the definition of which is subject to the whimsical palate of any administration that happens to occupy the White House, no one is safe. The bottom line? If you want to eat — waffles, pancakes, even oatmeal for God’s sake! — if you want your children to be able to choose their own breakfast foods, you need to take a stand now before it’s too late.

Megan Abbott: Well, in the end, the world spins on, but what we need to remember is that we each have a personal relationship with breakfast, one that is primitive and essential. That goes back to our first moments in the world, as babies, as children. We need breakfast because it’s how we’ve always understood the world. Because it reminds us we are not alone because we all need it. And that’s true whether we like our breakfast in pancake form, or waffles, toaster or otherwise. Or any form at all. We need it. It feeds us. Call me old-fashioned, call me a throwback, call me a hopelessly romantic but I really do believe it is the most important meal of the day.

Michael Schaub: “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become a cliche ever since the British poster was made popular again earlier this century. Nevertheless, the sentiment is no less true. We have been through other wars on breakfast. We have sent our troops thousands of miles away, to Antwerp and Brussels, when the Belgian waffle was threatened by the German strudel and the Italian frittata. We have won these wars, and we have become better and stronger because of it. Our responsibility as waffle eaters? Keep the faith. Whether you top your waffles with fried chicken, whipped cream, syrup, butter, whatever — we are all in this together. And it is only through togetherness we can win. In the words of the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin, “This waffle is delicious! Now to find a buxom French whore.” And that’s as true today as it was then.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Breakfast is over when the plate is clean and not a second before. Every crumb of waffle, every drop of syrup. The effects of an incomplete breakfast may not be immediately apparent, but eventually, some time before lunch, that hunger pang is going to strike, and it is going to strike with a vengeance. To ensure the productivity of our work (no trips to the vending machines) and the satisfaction of our lives, it is the responsibility of every man, regardless of what he eats, to clear his plate.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eaters have a responsibility to the truth.

Jacob Silverman: As is the American tendency, the war on breakfast is unlikely to end; it will only assume new forms. We can only bide our time, raise our meek, syrup-slathered fists in protest, and wait for a Predator drone to pick us off as we cram our faces with so many doughy cakes.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Freedom fries, Ed, that’s all I’ll say. Freedom fries.

Sarah Hall Roundtable — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man.)

Other Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five

More on Hall: “The Early Fiction of Sarah Hall” and a one hour radio interview I conducted with Hall in 2008.

Jenny Davidson writes:

hallrt4Ugh, I am feeling awful about this — I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’ve been dragging my heels on finishing the book and writing a few thoughts for your consideration – but now that I’ve finished reading it, I will have to say that I pretty strongly disliked it!  I found both of the Italian “voices” almost intolerably artificial/stereotypical feeling — I particularly loathed the Bottle Diaries, which seemed to me much more like a non-artist’s view of what an artist might think like than anything actually insightful or persuasive or striking about art, but I found the Annette chapters also overly fey and affected.

I had nothing against the second-person voice used for the Susan bits, and I am interested in novels about twins, but I realized that though I felt that voice does an effective job for the novel of establishing mood/sensibility, I would have had a higher tolerance for it had it been used to narrate, say, a thriller/mystery plot.  And the Peter chapters seemed to me the most successful on Hall’s own terms, with a more complex character and voice and narrative structure, only I found him singularly annoying as a character as well!

In short, I am clearly not the ideal reader for this book.  Hall is a very skilled crafter of sentences, of course, and yet there is nothing magical about them for me, they do not take off and become transcendent, there does not seem to be some insight motivating them or even just the sound of language in some striking new way.  Anyway, I’ll now just put together a pair of paragraphs, my least favorite and the one that I liked the best in the book, to show more concretely what I see these weaknesses as being.

A good example of what I really didn’t like about the Bottle Diaries chapter falls on p. 72, the two paragraphs beginning “The room has gained infamy with very little help from me.”  The diction, with its air of having been translated, seems to me portentous but bland; there is something smug or self-satisfied, to my ear, in this ostentatious pondering on art.

A good example of what I liked — a paragraph that definitely stood out to me, although I still don’t think that the sentences themselves (the diction, the style) are as distinctive as what I see in the writers I most enjoy (Peter Temple, for instance, who I have been reading again recently) — the description of Susan and her lover stripping wallpaper and accidentally dislodging an old wasps’ nest (p. 257):

It was a hot summer.  The windows were open and one or two wasps had been drilling about the place.  Then Tom found the grey, cindery pocket in a wall cavity, and, thinking it was disused, he began to chip between its seal and the plaster.  Suddenly the air was swarming.  For a moment he was paralysed as the insects rushed and scribbled above the nest.  Gesu Cristo!  He picked up a decorating sheet, threw it over the two of you, and you stumbled from the room,s lamming the door closed.  Are you stung? No.  Nor am I.  Underneath the sheet he smelled of sweat and dust.  You could hear the wasps as they flew against the other side of the door, rapping softly like fingertips.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Anna and Kathleen: Your posts made me wish that I’d been more careful when writing my first post, and made me rethink some of the points I made altogether.

Anna, when I read your post, I felt an instant camaraderie. Usually, I’m one of those readers for whom the writing style is everything: If the writing is superb, I don’t care about anything else. And I found myself nodding in agreement with everything you said, even as doing so contradicted what I’d already said. Also Kathleen, I agree with you re: plot as well (especially since I stumbled across Lev Grossman’s WSJ piece). Though I like plots as much as the next reader, I’m not a plotmonger the way Grossman appears to be, nor do I think books without them are necessarily somehow inferior. I also realized, as I thought about it more, that my idea of a plot is pretty minimal. Someone mentioned Virginia Woolf; I really like her and think the interpersonal relationships she develops are plot enough. And have y’all seen the movie The Straight Story? Old guy drives across Iowa and Wisconsin in a tractor, meets people. Or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine? Guy rides escalator, thinks about stuff. That’s more than enough plot for me.

So why did I get fidgety? (Because I did, I can’t take that back.) Were I to start my post all over again, I would have foregone the concept of plot (which I ran with as far as I could in my caffeine-addled state) for the looser idea of movement. Which allows me to say a more concise thing about How to Paint a Dead Man than I managed to before.

In essence, Hall’s concept runs into a paraphrase of the old expression: Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture, and it has to do with the way you experience the two forms. You take in a painting, to some extent, all at once. Sure, you may linger over it, examine details, return to it later, but the experience of looking at a painting or photograph is basically one point in time. A novel, meanwhile, is stubbornly linear–you can’t see the whole all at once, and grasping the whole requires time–a lot more time than most people would spend looking at one painting. So using one to mimic the other is, conceptually speaking, pretty awkward (unlike, say, books about music–see the entire 33 1/3 series–or paintings about a specific moment in history). Put another way: What would a single painting that tried to mimic the experience of reading a novel look like?

I’m not saying anything profound here, and I imagine Hall thought about this a great deal as she set herself a kind of impossible task, intentionally picking up the wrong tool for the job, like grabbing a screwdriver when you need to bang in a nail. That she pulled it off at all is a real achievement; that she did it so cleanly is pretty miraculous. (I say this as someone who has actually used a screwdriver to bang in a nail; it’s not a good idea.) But still, the two concepts, writing and painting, are awkward bedfellows, and what made me fidgety, I understand now, was the lack not of plot, but of apparent movement. For so much of the book, the main characters are trapped–Peter literally so, others figuratively, and yeah, the tension definitely builds because of it. Hall does release us from it–in the final sections for each character, each one is freed from whatever has been trapping them–but perhaps the characters were stuck just a little too long for this particular reader.

That said, reading what I wrote, I realize that this is a small complaint about an otherwise quite impressive novel. And the more I hear what others say about the book–both positive and negative–the more HTPADM is growing on me. I suspect, too, that HTPADM is a book that would richly reward a second or third reading. For me, a second reading would be all about exploring the connections among the characters — a few of which I missed the first time (e.g., that Tom is Annette’s brother — that was a real “of course!” forehead-slapper for me when a couple people mentioned it)–and it’s quite possible that this kind of reading would reveal in HTPADM the sense of movement that I like when I read books.

P.S. Miracle, I love that you lumped Atlas Shrugged, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Battlefield Earth together. That’s a beautiful thing. Also, I can’t believe you don’t think Zep rules.

Michael Schaub writes:

While trying to figure out what to write about this, I kept going back to Ed’s suggestion that we all respond to books subjectively, and Brian’s great “ambitious little prick” moment (awesome) where his professor talked about the difference, such as it is, between admiration and love. (Which is not to say the two are mutually exclusive.) After I finished reading How to Paint a Dead Man, I realized that I’d have to read everything else I could find by Sarah Hall. I realized she was an undeniable talent and an extraordinarily gifted young writer. I admire her.

And I admire parts of this book. But I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t enjoy it, though there were parts I found interesting, and sections that were beautifully rendered. My reaction comes closest, I think, to Jenny’s – she and I were bothered by at least one of the same things: the chapters dealing with Annette and Giorgio, which we both found artificial. I did think that Hall did a great job in making Giorgio’s sections sound like English translated from the Italian, which has to be hard to pull off, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the reclusive master painter and the poor blind flower girl were stock characters in an Italy-romanticizing movie from the past. I actually wasn’t convinced at all that Giorgio and Annette were necessary as characters in this novel; they struck me as flat, especially compared to how well Suzie was rendered (and, to a lesser extent, Peter).

I loved, for the most part, Suzie’s chapters. Like Abigail, I wasn’t bothered by the second person – frankly, I didn’t even really notice it for a while – and I thought the conceit made sense given the questions of identity and twinhood (is that a word? It is now!) that the book raised. The most striking parts of Suzie’s installments, I thought, were the sex scenes – not for any licentious reasons; it’s hard to imagine colder, less prurient writing about sex than these. I loved them because they were cold -– I think that’s a word Miracle used, aptly, to describe the book. My problem with the book as a whole was that when it was cold, I wanted it to be colder. And when it was warm and sentimental, I missed the coldness.

I wonder if the book wouldn’t have worked better –- for me, anyway -– if Hall had stuck to just Suzie. Of course, this would have made it a different book entirely, so it’s not the most helpful criticism to make. Peter’s chapters almost worked for me; I lost him, though, when Raymie was introduced as a character, near the end. Raymie couldn’t have been more flat – she came across like the saddest character in the saddest Velvet Underground song ever written. The whole ‘60s reminiscing thing left me unconvinced.

But I want to get back to Ed’s point about judging this book subjectively. I have no doubt that at least 90% of my reaction to this book – both negative and positive – is purely subjective, purely personal. For a long time, I’ve been unable to read books, watch movies, even listen to songs that mention the death of a sibling. I haven’t been as unlucky as Suzie, but I came close, not long ago, and considering this kind of thing still unsettles me, nauseates me, makes me turn away.

Is that why I found the book off-putting? I have no idea. I’ve considered other possibilities, especially after reading the positive reactions from all the intimidatingly smart people taking part in this discussion. There are very few subjects about which I know less than visual art; I love it, but I’m as unlearned as you can possibly be on the subject and still be a high school graduate. I’m an American with a pitiful lack of knowledge of Europe. Did any of that make me miss something?

I don’t know. And I hate to keep saying that -– it sounds, to me, like a critical abdication, but it’s where I am as a reader right now. I wonder, though – to paraphrase the “eggshell skull” rule in law –- if authors and books have to take their readers as they find them, with all their blind spots and vulnerabilities and fields of ignorance.

I do know that Hall is gifted, and I do look forward to reading her other work. I’d love to see her indulge her sense of humor more (did anyone notice the reference to a misheard Stone Roses lyric in one of Peter’s chapters?), and I’d love to see her focus more –- I think my problems with the book stem from the fact that Hall, I’m guessing, thinks quickly, and thinks a lot, and the end result here wasn’t as tied together as I would have hoped.

Maybe, of course, the fractured nature of this book was supposed to be discomfiting. It reminds me of Annette’s mother reassuring her that no furniture would ever be moved in the house: “Nothing will be rearranged. There. Doesn’t that make you feel safe?” Safety, it turns out, isn’t really the point.

Amy Riley writes:

This discussion has been very interesting to read, as I’m fairly certain I would never have even considered the majority of the points raised if I had simply read this on my own.  To be completely honest,  I may not have even finished the book.

Which is not to say I didn’t like it.  There were times I actually looked forward to turning the page.  On a few occasions, I thought about skipping ahead to the next section of whichever narrative I was on, because from a plot standpoint I didn’t think it would make a lot of difference.  

The use of second person didn’t bother me but I don’t know if that’s because I found Suzie’s narrative one of the more tolerable ones to read or not!  It did make sense to use it for her…after all in her opening pages is a discussion of how people don’t use “I’ anymore because they “do not want to be involved in the desperate act of being.’  Suzie fits right into that in her grief she has lost her sense of self and connection.  She was only “I’ in relation to Danny, once Danny was gone who was Suzie?   I also looked forward to Annette’s sections, though I found her death bizarre.  The overall structure…the fact that the individual stories were only loosely linked and spanned years wouldn’t bother me on it’s own and in fact was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. I am generally drawn to explorations of how our lives intersect and how our actions impact each other.  I suppose the very subtle nature of that in this book made it more realistic, but I felt I like I really had to work for it.  And perhaps the loneliness and the isolation were so extreme that the small ways these lives did affect one another never penetrated through that shield.

Looking at the book as moving from frame to frame or as a stillpoint in each character’s life was helpful to me in understanding the book or what it aims to be.  I don’t have much understanding of visual art so I do fear much of that went right by me.  While I appreciate the skill this book must have taken, I have to agree it’s not really for the casual reader.  In fact, when I told a friend who had read this book that I’d be participating in a roundtable discussion, she seemed uncertain about what we would actually discuss.

Traver Kauffman writes:

Hey, kids. I just finished the book ten minutes ago, and I’m now ready to make dumb jokes about it. See, I used to have this somewhat credible litblog, and then this and that happened, and now I write limericks and go for cheap laffs. Which is unfortunate, because this is a serious book, right down to the author photo.

Which I love, by the way. It’s standard practice, in some corners, to objectify the attractive lady author, but I’m just not going to do that. Still, and honestly, I’m a little in love with this photo. I want to buy fresh peaches at the farmer’s market, stay up until the wee hours peeling the skins, and bake them into a peach crisp so I can serve it with fresh bourbon whipped cream to my love, this photo. I want this photo to recline on a bed in a cheap motel and unroll its torn black stockings slowly whilst I read Bukowski to it in a cigarette voice. I want to reform the Stone Roses and take this photo to our first show, where I’ll dedicate “I Wanna Be A Dog”…er…I mean “I Wanna Be Adored” to it. Yes.

Is this a good book? Pretty good. Not the sort of thing I’d typically reach for, and something I probably would have tossed aside if not for guilt associated with skipping yet another Eddie Champ-curated roundtable. But it does pick up considerably around page 90 or 100–I believe I made a note about this in my thinkspace at page 99–and wasn’t much of a slog from that point forward.

Cheap and easy judgment: Susan is OK; Peter is better. And, yes, Peter is a man from central casting, in some respects, but he did benefit the most from the novel’s structure, in my view. That is, his character deepened and changed most–benefitted most–from the tellings of the other individuals (save Annette, but more about her later). From the “Fool on the Hill” sections I never would have pegged him as an iconclastic artist–more of your all-purpose crank–but by the time Susan and Giorgio are through telling him, it’s clear he’s a fellow of some (apparently well-earned) genius and prestige.

Susan seems like she could have been interesting, had she not been obscured in fancy prose clouds of florid fucking. Again, this is competently and perhaps well-written sex, depending on your politics, but transcendence-by-prick isn’t my thing. The second person didn’t bother me at all, even though it seems like a curious authorial choice. We’re meant to share in her experience most intimately, even as co-conspirators, and therefore most painfully? I dunno.

(At one point, I had a writing advisor who told me in no uncertain terms that reading second-person narration is like being cornered by a drunk. Of course, he was drunk at the time and I was backed into a corner at the Union Club in Missoula, Montana, so take that as you will.)

Giorgio and Annette: where to begin? I think others have touched on it, so there’s not much point in my running down these sections. Gorgeous writing? OK. But this genteel exoticism didn’t do it for me, especially in the Annette sections. Aside from the kind of relentless otherness (by way of stereotype, as others have noted), these bit in particular suffered from needless obscurity that doesn’t plague the other sections. By the end, I wasn’t sure what had transpired, and, apart from my lifelong stance against anyone being rudely violated by a beast of any sort, I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Boiled down, we have here a book with an interesting structure and a writer of some considerable gifts. I just didn’t love it as much as I love that photo.

I leave the floor to my fellow commentators, both more serious and more estimable than I.

Abigail Nussbaum writes:

Brian mentions plot, and specifically the recent Grossman fracas, which reminds me that I never talked about my own reaction to the book as a whole.  I tend to think of myself as someone who reads for plot, but then a novel like Remainder, or City of Saints and Madmen, or Light, comes along and reminds me that that’s not at all true.  It would probably be closer to the truth to say that I find it easier to read for plot, but I suspect that’s true of most people – a plot-oriented novel carries you along with it, whereas a plotless one requires you to navigate your own way through it.  Still, when I turn the last page of a novel my first response is often to ask what happened there, and if the answer is nothing or very little I often find myself without a handle on the work, which is why I’ve so enjoyed this discussion while fearing that I wouldn’t have much to contribute to it.

All of which is a prelude to saying that, like Michael, I admired How to Paint a Dead Man but didn’t love it.  As reviewer, the novels that I enjoy reading and writing about most are the ones that offer an angle of approach from which to engage with them – not necessarily plot, but some element that fires up my imagination.  I tend to think of if in terms of chinks in the surface, handholds and footholds.  HtPaDM feels very smooth (though it might not to others, and particularly those with a background in visual arts), which leaves me admiring it as an edifice, but unable to grasp its component pieces.  And without doing that, I can’t love it.

That said, I don’t think HtPaDM is a novel that wants to be loved.  As Michael says, this is a cold, cold book, and even those parts of it that might have appealed to sentiment — Giorgio and Annette’s narratives — never achieve enough life of their own to be more than sentimental.  Peter is puppyishly lovable, but his narrative is mainly concerned with describing the worst things he’s ever done, and there’s something almost deliberately off-putting about his predicament – he’s in physical distress and in need of assistance, but we’re encouraged to believe, as he does, that he’s not in mortal danger (in fact we know that he isn’t because he’s still alive and apparently recovered – though he walks with a limp – at the time of Susan’s narrative).  So instead of arousing tension and distress, Peter’s injury is aggravating and frustrating – he’s simply stuck.  Finally, there’s Susan, of all the characters the one who most resists emotional connection, with the readers as much as with the other characters.  The only aspect in which Hall seems to be courting the readers’ affection is with her prose, which is indeed quite beautiful (though she tends to fall flat when describing sex – I don’t have the book in front of me but there were a couple of metaphors for bodily fluids that seemed more than a little off).

All of which brings us back to HtPaDM as a painting in prose – capturing a moment, and attempting to engage the readers’ affection not through plot or character or theme but through beauty and superior technique.  It works, I think, though still in the sense that I can’t love HtPaDM the way I love other novels (it’s not just that I’m unschooled in visual arts but that they don’t appeal to me.  I’m all about narrative arts, and even music isn’t an abiding interest), and I find myself going back and forth about it.  On one hand, I admire Hall’s guts for even making the attempt to court a kind of love that her medium isn’t suited to, much less for having the skill to pull it off.  On the other hand, I’m not sure such a chilly trick ought to be celebrated – it’s brave, to be certain, but in the final accounting the result isn’t really a novel.