emily_gould

Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

“I just expect more from life. Seriously, it’s like I want every day to be exciting! And scary! And a rollercoaster of creative experience, as if I’m making a new life for myself in France.” — Hannah, shortly before being fired from GQ, Girls, “I Saw You.”

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it….If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I’m an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. ” — James Baldwin, September 1979 interview with The New York Times

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

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Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement. It is almost a cultural variant to Gresham’s law, with bad writers supported by vulgar and illiterate marketing people, a crass coterie of booksellers and digital evangelists who show more evidence of hoarding books than reading them, and ancillary parties tweeting wistfully about wanting more time to write or going to France or eating in French restaurants, with the reliable flow of selfies, smartphone snaps of status galleys, and Instagram photos with authors interspersed for appropriate authenticity. They aspire to see cultural metropolises much as Stefan Zweig romanticized Old Vienna in The World of Yesterday, but lack the careful grace, the painstakingly acquired erudition, and the interdisciplinary refinement to go the distance. The results are little more than slovenly self-love.

straub-emmaIf you are a dedicated reader in Brooklyn fond of sliding bills across smooth countertops in exchange for tantalizing tomes in independent bookstores, you have probably encountered the Middling Millennials. They are largely white women who are almost totally in the dark about their privilege, many bolstering a blinkered neoliberal feminism that demands a rectifying army of Mikki Kendalls and Djuna Barneses. They often confuse the act of literary engagement with coquettish pom-pom flogging. They are somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-three and are often found on Tumblr interspersing “fun facts” and JPEGs with quotes that, despite the lofty intent, are more self-help than literary. These relentlessly unchallenging digital shrines are frequently adorned with a bean-boosting “THIS” appended to the head of a calcified, well-tread, self-righteous sentiment that is reblogged — that is, if the MMs are not too busy Gchatting with others about the latest literary gossip. Some of the more pathetic specimens lean closer to forty and are often enlisted to interview esteemed authors before a small crowd under the mistaken impression that the interviewer is the center of attention. This group is not to be confused with the fine young minds and respectable hustlers who run and contribute to The New Inquiry, Open Letters Monthly, Jacobin, Hazlitt, Full Stop, HTML Giant, The American Reader, and Triple Canopy (to name but a few), who have all proven to be promising and proficient readers of a wide range open to lively and respectful challenge. To be perfectly pellucid, we are identifying disproportionate tadpoles who respond to any form of disagreement with a knee-jerk “Dead to me!” block on social media and return to their cheery consumerist chatter, blissfully unaware of greater global problems.

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The Middling Millennials are hostile to nonfiction, history, politics, and any topic that is real or remotely challenging. They have been harming the literary clime with their relentless pablum for at least a good year, actively encouraged by hoary outlets like n+1, The Awl, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Millions, all quietly hoping that this confluence of cheerleading and seductive reductionism will enlarge their cultural influence. While the actual population of Middling Millennials is difficult to measure (MFA vs. NYC, a volume published earlier this year by n+1, was allegedly substantive enough to attract the notice of The New Republic, The New York Times, and other outlets), the quality of the MM arguments are, on the whole, remarkably pauce — with thinking deracinated altogether, swapped with a fawning devotion more at home in a San Diego entrepôt.

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The Middling Millennials are never just booksellers or writers or publishers. They have not heeded the realities promulgated by Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her book Wonder Woman. They must “have it all” and announce their hyphenates, even when untrue. Thus, unremarkable people believe that they should be the center of attention, presenting themselves as superheroes committed to supererogatory tasks. Michele Filgate, a selfie enthusiast with a compulsive need for attention, begins a purportedly thoughtful article on Dave Eggers’s The Circle with “I get a sort of high [sic] when people retweet me,” and announces herself as a “writer and Community Bookstore Events Coordinator” — even as published novelists report having to endure her unspeakably boorish “Do you know who I am?” hijinks off the clock.

rachelf2Rachel Fershleiser, who once described herself as a “writer, editor, and bookseller in New York City,” has a LinkedIn profile that reveals not much more than a dumb-as-dirt, insufferable publicist who wishes to limit discourse while feigning her belief in community as she toils at Tumblr in some “Literary and Nonprofit Outreach” capacity. Note how real vocational callings (“Events Coordinator” and “bookseller in New York City”) are always placed second. When this thoroughly mediocre woman in her early thirties isn’t chirruping like a red-billed quelea who doesn’t understand that 1.5 billion other birds are twittering the same tune, she’s regressing back into adolescence with the camera as her enabling muse, uptalking her superficial platitudes through the intellectually ignoble forum of TED Talk (and employing the linguistically impecunious neologism “Bookternet”), when not dropping her dry and cavernous rictus not out of any fealty to enduring literature, but for a Veronica Mars tie-in novel written by Rob Thomas that nobody will remember in ten years. Improbably, this fatuous, tenth-rate Bernays disciple was asked to serve as judge for The Morning News‘s annual Tournament of Books, where she had to decide between Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (an ambitious and bona-fide masterpiece written by the 28-year-old Eleanor Catton that went onto win the Booker Prize) and Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. (Poor McClanahan asked to be removed from the bloodthirsty contest without success.) Fershleiser opted for the latter. The Luminaries was merely “a fussy book about men and their money and their honor and their prostitutes and their ships. Catton can and should write about whatever she likes, but I’ve read about these guys before. I want to read something new.”

“A fussy book about men and their money” is a gross mischaracterization of what Catton was up to in The Luminaries. The novel concerns itself with, among other things, Cantonese immigrants during the Otago Gold Rush, the burdens and reliance upon astrology during a time in human history before accurate measurement, a vicious trafficking system and the lack of options for women, Maori culture, and the influence of the 1865 tradeback option on New Zealand. Fershleiser’s impoverished cramming session speaks to the abysmal folly of assigning a sophisticated book to someone clearly out of her depth. One can only imagine the ample idiocy that Rachel “Seen It All Before” Fershleiser would serve up had someone deigned to anoint her judge in the 1922 Tournament of Books with Ulysses pitted against another book. To denounce a book that a writer has toiled on for years with a few carelessly expressed, willfully uncomprehending paragraphs is a very Middling Millennial quality indeed. But then Fershleiser has never been about having a constructive conversation. When Jacob Silverman wrote his essay “Against Enthusiasm,” which asked perfectly reasonable questions concerning why the literary world had “become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing,” Fershleiser preferred to troll Silverman rather than consider his dialogue:

Maybe the MMs are part of what Leslie Jamison has identified as “post-wounded women” in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Rather than weigh and confront the anguish that burns inside their hearts or consult the writing that may lead them to express their complicated feelings, they not only deny and prohibit writers who are willing to enter this realm, but openly deride them without an argument, even as they attempt to sublimate their “too cool for this” posturing into the public space of a bookstore, whose raison d’être is not to provide a forum for unconventional thought and serious discussion, but to move units to keep the place running at a tiny profit margin.

Perhaps the worst of these obnoxious crusaders is Emily Gould, a narcissist so delusional that she actually believes affixing her first name to a media unit (“books,” “magazine”) will sprout an empasmic empire. Her new novel, Friendship, not only advocates the MM way of life, but is surely the most aloofly written novel about youthful striving since Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. (As it so happens, Gould and Gessen are getting married in October. Solipsists make strange bedfellows.)

* * *

“For young people…ecstatic admiration for talent in all its forms leads them irresistibly to look at themselves, wondering whether they can perhaps detect a trace of that sublime essence in their own unexplored bodies or still partly unenlightened minds.” — Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

gould4Emily Gould was hatched in Silver Spring, Maryland on October 13, 1981: the bouncing daughter of a public relations man and a self-employed lawyer and mediator. Had social media and smartphones been around more than three decades ago, it is almost certain that her dewy newborn hands would have stretched out with hollow hunger to replace the default egg avatar on her Twitter account not long after overworked doctors snipped her umbilical cord. It did not take long for Gould to develop a worldview that placed her at the center of the universe. In her execrable autobiography And the Heart Says Whatever, Gould reports being “dagger-stared [sic] by half the people I passed” in high school. There is no worthwhile self-examination, no attempt to comprehend why other students find her mean and selfish behavior loathsome, no efforts to empathize with their feelings. But she does compare this to “bad television.” One clearly sees that, even before she poured the Internet’s water over her naked confessional form in an oddly bathetic baptism, Gould’s relationship with other people was predicated upon diminishing their perspectives and rigging the narrative so that she emerged as the coldblooded white bread winner:

Luke was cute, not handsome, but adorable, like a basset hound puppy. He had wide, pretty eyes and a long nose and a sweet, tender mouth. Even when enraged there was something about his face that was just funny. Rage looked out of place when expressed by his amiable features. He had heard what I’d done, he told me, his voice trembling, and he wanted to work past it.

texaveryLike many young ambitious types, she moved to New York, where her hostility to anyone making art ripened, even as she believed herself “extraordinary.” In Heart, Gould describes an aspiring young man who asked her to be part of an amateur movie project. She went to his apartment and read his lines before the camera in a stilted manner. The director saw that Gould was nervous and kindly offered her a beer. Gould viewed this an opportunity to “see what an adult man’s bathroom would look like.” Gould’s NSA-like instinct for seizing private information while humiliating others in incremental ways was well-formed, almost awaiting Nick Denton’s curling hand to usher her into Gawker HQ. When the young man relayed the film’s story to Gould, Gould thought it was “the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.” But the young man was at least trying to create something. What was Gould doing other than wishing to be superior or waiting to be noticed? Gould’s astonishing egocentrism unfolds further when her “slowly building suspicion that he was not going to put the moves on me finally crystallized into certain knowledge.” This preposterous a priori sexuality oozes throughout the book, pleading for the more surefire helm of a young Elizabeth Wurtzel to push Gould’s sad makeshift schooner across the ocean. In the book’s introduction, Gould describes her first job, where she reported the presence of male eyes “following the movement of my back, conscious always that I was like the books displayed in the waiting are: an ornament that demonstrated the company’s power,” as if every Manhattan man is a lascivious Tex Avery creature with an outstretched tongue.

There is incessant condescension directed at working stiffs (“I admired the Balthazar employees, the way they danced around each other with studied grace as they fulfilled their patrons’ picky requests”) and a soupçon of transphobia (“the notorious ass-cheeked ads catering to the needs of the apparently huge New York population whose back pain can only be soothed by the massaging hands of a pre-op transexual”). But Gould eventually landed a job at Hyperion Books as an editor (among her most prominent acquisitions were “a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by ‘a group of leading artists’” and “a book of political humor” from the talk show host Lionel). She co-wrote a dreadful YA novel called Hex Education. Here is a small sample of her prose at the time, culled from a 2005 story published in Girl’s Life:

“Dudes, I saw A-piss-a with her shirt off today,” he told Paul Westlay and Doug Terrien. Those chuckleheads chuckled, as they always do at their lord and master Joel’s crappy jokes, which are nearly always at someone else’s expense.

gould5It was ultimately Gould’s blog, Emily Magazine, that got her writing for Gawker, where, lacking any real talent, she quickly made a name for herself invading people’s privacy. Gawker‘s ethos, if it can be called that, relied on poring through emails sent from anonymous tipsters. Aggrieved workers in the media industry would pass along rumors, forward memos, or shoot any toxic grist into this digital bundt cake factory. “I would investigate by quoting their anonymous allegations on the site,” wrote Gould in Heart, “and asking if anyone else knew anything more.” Note Gould’s improper and irresponsible usage of “investigate.” Even the lowliest Page Six or TMZ writer attempts to confirm a piece of gossip before reporting it. But Gawker did not. This was because Gould was an easily manipulated rube fueled by the prospect of spite. It hardly mattered if the item was true. “The rules for tips,” wrote Gould, “was that if three people wrote in about the same thing, we probably ought to do a post about it, no matter how dumb it seemed.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Gould that savvy publicists may have noticed this pattern and manipulated Gawker much as they do other prominent outlets. But when a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.

* * *

“I don’t even really want to be a writer,” said Gould in an October 2007 article, “but I feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”

This cry is similar, if considerably more arrogant, to Bret Harte’s declaration, just four months before his twenty-first birthday: “I have written some poetry; passable and some prose (good) which have been published. The conclusion forced upon me by observation and not by vain enthusiasm that I am fit for nothing else — must impel me to seek distinction and fortune in literature.” Harte may have been a fop, but he had talent and paid his dues doing meaningful work. He became editor of The Overland Monthly at the age of 32 after a raucous life of dutiful journalism on the pioneering front lines, catapulted to international fame through “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” his harrowing tale of how ruthless flooding impacted California. Gould would spend the next seven years wallowing in brackish muck of celebrity culture, whether actual or self-erected, with her vanity mirror kept close.

Like many bright young things who move to New York, this dim bulb believed that she was entitled to everything. And if that meant tearing down another person to advance another rung on the ladder, then so be it. Jason Pinter, who is one of the kindest and hardest working people in publishing I have ever known, was fired from his job at Crown because Gould had reposted one of his shop talk blog entries on Gawker. Did Gould have any sympathy, any sense of the impact of her actions, or any understanding about the way the book business worked (even after her Hyperion stint)? Not at all. She was colder than the mist on a chilled champagne glass. Here is how she responded to the news of Pinter’s sacking:

But don’t feel too bad for Pinter: he’s got his career as a thriller writer to fall back on! And besides, his last few stinky acquisitions for Three Rivers — which include a gimmicky blog book by that dude who bartered a paperclip for a house, and the latest by Modern Drunkard Frank Kelly Rich — are all someone else’s problem now. So really, Pinter owes us and Galleycat a beer or something for linking to his blog and getting him fired. We’ll hold our breaths waiting for the thank you note.

Aside from the fact that Gould didn’t appear to understand how book advances, often meager, were parceled out, the astonishing and inhumane claim that Pinter in some way “owes” Gould is the baffling takeaway that could only be tendered by a callous sociopath. Despite the fact that Gould would later state that, “It’s not OK to say false things about anyone,” she would continue to post irresponsible items on Gawker without checking or corroborating with the people she reported on. (For the record, I sent Gould a list of questions by email to give her an opportunity to respond to several points raised in this essay. She did not answer.)

On April 7, 2007, Gould appeared on Larry King Live to discuss the increasing nexus between celebrity journalism and citizen journalism. Jimmy Kimmel was filling in for Larry King. Gould’s appearance was disastrous, yet particularly revealing of the flimsy and fluctuating justifications she would offer for the nasty taint that has drifted over her professional life to the present day. Here is the pertinent part of the transcript:

KIMMEL: My problem is you post things that simply aren’t true on the site and you do no checking on your stories whatsoever. I’ll give you an example. There was a story about me that popped up on my Google search. It said “Daily Gawker Stalker, when isn’t Jimmy Kimmel visibly intoxicated?” And there’s a story about me being visibly intoxicated. I know it may be funny to you but I didn’t find it that amusing.

GOULD: OK.

KIMMEL: And a matter of fact, the story that talks about me being drunk, I was coming home with my cousin’s — my cousin’s 1-year- old birthday party with my elderly aunt and uncle and my kids and my cousins and I was — I may have been loud but I was far from intoxicated and you put these things on there. I mean I know you’re an editor. What exactly are you editing from the website?

GOULD: There’s a whole other aspect of our website that doesn’t have anything to do with the Stalker Map. But what the Stalker Map is citizen journalism. People don’t read with the expectation that every word of it will be gospel. Everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all.

KIMMEL: Well…

GOULD: What they read it for is immediacy.

KIMMEL: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

GOULD: You don’t unfilter sort of the way people that perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media. And that’s what I think is great about it.

KIMMEL: Well, I mean you also get what is essentially slanderous statements or libelous statements put on your website. For instance, today I noticed there was something about Kevin Costner. I went on to see what was there today. It said how fat Kevin Costner was and it had a picture of Jabba the Hutt next to him. Now, I know you sell advertising. I don’t know why anybody would buy advertising on a website. But I don’t know what the point of something like that is.

BRAGMAN: There’s also a big contradiction. She said citizen journalism. She used the word “journalism” and then said, “Everybody knows not everything is true.” Most journalists at least try for the truth. It’s a goal.

GOULD: I mean do you read “US Weekly” and expect that everything in it is true or “Star.”

(CROSSTALK)

BRAGMAN: I expect that they try. I get calls from them fact checking and I don’t from your website.

GERAGOS: That’s absolutely true. “US Weekly” at least has a legal department that vets things.

KIMMEL: And our photographers at least are taking photographs of things that are happening, as opposed to — I mean I’d just want you to think about your life and…

GOULD: Wow!

KIMMEL: …weigh your options. And I mean because I would hate to see you arriving in hell and somebody sending a text message saying, “Guess who’s here?” You know what I’m saying?

GOULD: Honestly, I think that there’s a shifting definition of what is public and what is private space for everyone not just celebrities. The Internet, blogs, MySpace, no one has the reasonable expectation of being able to walk around the street and not being noticed by someone.

KIMMEL: Well, that is just a terrible thing, though, isn’t it? I mean…

GOULD: Is it really? I mean I think it’s great that we’re not putting people up on a pedestal and worshipping them anymore. I think it’s that good people are acknowledging celebrities are real people.

KIMMEL: But you’re throwing rocks at them, though. I mean it seems to me that…

GOULD: Aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks?

KIMMEL: No, no. And by the way, not all celebrities are wealthy. I mean you know that’s a silly and stupid thing to say, you know that. Come on now, just because people have money means it’s OK to say false things about them, to tear them down?

GOULD: It’s not OK to say false things about anyone.

KIMMEL: Well, you should check your website then.

* * *

Hyacinth Bucket: Is that for me?
The Postman: It says Bucket on the envelope.
Hyacinth Bucket: It’s Bouquet. B-U-C-K-E-T, Bouquet. The accent on the second syllable.
Keeping Up Appearances

edamesI was asked to serve as an announcer in a boxing match between Jonathan Ames and Craig Davidson at Gleason’s Boxing Gym on the evening of July 24, 2007. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was one year into a relationship with another journalist. She was Jewish. I was not. Because of this, we took great pains to keep our relationship out of the public eye — as several of her more religious family members were exceptionally sensitive to this development and we needed time to ease them into this reality. (The other journalist and I are still together.)

The boxing match was a great success and was exuberantly described by Ames himself in an essay included in his book, The Double Life is Twice as Good. As the other journalist and I walked into the streets holding hands, a young woman with blonde hair — who I later learned was Emily Gould from Gawker — rushed up to us and demanded to know my name. I didn’t really read Gawker, although I had expressed my dismay in May over a a Gould piece summoning needless resentment for Meghan O’Rourke, a fine writer and, to this day, nothing less than generous whenever I run into her. I was spending my time carefully studying books, developing my writing voice, and interviewing prominent writers only after thoroughly perusing and researching their work. But I sussed out immediately that she was some type of bizarre gossip columnist. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand.

“Hey,” said Gould in a bright and invasive voice.

“Hey,” replied my girlfriend.

“What are you guys doing tonight?”

No hello. No “My name’s Emily Gould.” No small talk. Just an immediate vulturous demand from a stranger on how we were living our lives.

I politely mumbled that it was none of her business. But she didn’t seem to hear me. For whatever reason, she had deemed the other journalist and me important. She insisted on knowing who I was. She felt she had a right to know who I was fucking, when my relationship was private and founded on more heart than she would ever know. I was utterly baffled by her boorish inquisitiveness. I was just some guy who ran a literary blog, who wrote a few things for newspapers, and who talked with authors.

I told her that I was Publius, figuring that Gould would suss out my reference to the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers and be on her merry way.

“Publius?” she asked.

“Jack Publius,” I replied.

Gould still didn’t get the hint. My girlfriend picked up the reference immediately.

“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.

“Roman origins,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.

I was utterly stunned that someone who wrote for a major media site, someone who had an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, could be this ignorant. I spelled out “Publius” for Gould, pointing out that I was especially concerned whenever people mispronounced and misspelled it. She jotted this down into her little notebook, her lips rustling over the three syllables as her pen whirled. Then she left.

* * *

“One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.” — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

gouldlaughingMonths later — on November 21, 2007 — Gould attempted to paint me as a lunatic in a Gawker post for having the temerity to ask for a check, a check that was four months late. Gould had intercepted a private email. I badly needed the money at the time. It was the only way that I could pay my rent. I had burned through the savings that I’d brought with me from San Francisco. Having little income beyond books I was able to sell to the Strand Book Store, I would often go for walks and, during an especially grim time, I overturned a cup of collected pennies onto the rickety wooden counter at a corner store to purchase the produce stacked in neat lines outside. There were a few weeks when the power went out in my apartment due to my inability to pay the electricity bill. I plucked power from the building by plugging an extension cord into the hallway outlet just outside my front door, using this to fuel my computer. I still had freelancing work. And I did, after all, have pieces to file. I am reluctant to call this poverty, because that that would be a gross insult to the estimated 1.29 billion people who live in soul-shattering squalor around the globe. But it was life more common than most writers would care to admit. I survived. Because I spent most of my time reading and writing and living and loving. And that was enough to keep me happy and alive.

Gould never once contacted me to get my side of the story, nor did she have the guts or the decency to return an email I sent her just after her hit piece ran. Having singled me out at the Ames-Davidson fight, she presumably viewed me as a “celebrity” in the form of a “famously crotchety book blogger.” Much as she defended her invasiveness to Kimmel by claiming that celebrities were “kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks,” failing to comprehend that not all public figures were cushioned by such wealth, she presumed that I was similarly buffered. So long as the story fit her nefarious thesis, her incessant need to poke her nose in business that was not hers to know, Gould could say anything she wanted.

* * *

gould3But even a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite cannot bang out twelve daily vituperative blog posts forever. On November 30, 2007, now firmly aligned with the n+1 frat club of vaguely punkish Hemingway wannabes, Gould resigned from Gawker (along with her aging co-editor Choire Sicha) in a public post. Gould claimed that Carla Blumenkranz’s article on Gawker had been one of the linchpins. Blumenkranz had nailed the cargo cult mentality of Gawker writers at the time: they believed themselves outsiders, the last humans standing in a media wasteland fighting for the remaining principles of journalism. But Gould had never represented any tenet other than the Promotion of Emily. Yet n+1 and one of its co-editors Keith Gessen represented a way out, a step towards legitimacy, the beginnings of mainstream acceptance, the furthering of autonomy.

Gessen and Gould began dating not long after.

On January 15, 2008, Gould returned to the airwaves, claiming that she had “stopped caring about the Internet” and soon began blogging again. This was all a warmup for “Exposed” — a May 25, 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story that would result in some of the most gargantuan vitriol Gould ever received. Almost setting the stage for the fallout to follow, on March 6, 2008, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton spilled the beans on Gould’s involvement with Gessen, the last in a string of careerist bedhopping (co-blogger at Gawker, dumped for Observer reporter, dumped for Gessen) that resembled Barbara Stanwyck’s upward trajectory in the 1933 film Baby Face, and her gig with the Gray Lady, speculating that Gessen had used his connections to get her through the door.

Vanity Fair‘s Jim Windolf documented the fracas in great detail. Denton’s gambit worked. The tide turned against Gould and Gessen, especially when Gould broke up with Gessen, an especially mean and public dissolution that even Gessen’s greatest detractors would find unsettling, while he was on tour in May 2008, facing merciless reviews for his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, and blogging his tour for The Stranger. As always, Gould had timed her behavior to get maximum attention.

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On May 25, “Exposed” was published in the New York Times Magazine. It was a remarkably self-absorbed essay, with one of the most pitiful displays of navel gazing ever published in a major newspaper:

In high school, I encouraged my friends to circulate a notebook in which we shared our candid thoughts about teachers, and when we got caught, I was the one who wanted to argue about the First Amendment rather than gracefully accept punishment. I walked down the hall of my high school passing out copies of a comic-book zine I drew, featuring a mock superhero called SuperEmily, who battled thinly veiled versions of my grade’s reigning mean girls. In college, I sent out an all-student e-mail message revealing that an ex-boyfriend shaved his chest hair. The big difference between these youthful indiscretions and my more recent ones is that you can Google my more recent ones.

The cover story was significantly trite for a first-class venue, especially when compared against the ones that ran during the previous two weeks (a feature on girls’ sports injuries published on May 11, 2008 and an examination of John McCain’s lonely support for the Iraq War on May 18, 2008). The blog Young Manhattanite wrote one of the more memorable takedowns, rightly calling out Gould for being in denial about her narcissism. But this was also the beginning of the “Emily Gould Reborn/Reinvented” narrative that would play out exactly the same way six years later. Gould had shifted from being some malleable tool into a figure just charismatic enough to persuade prominent outlets that she was reformed. Gould had the congregation. All she needed was a sizable chorus, a thick hymn book, and enough saps who would buy into her turnabout tale. Who knows? Perhaps her father, a public relations executive, had given her a few pointers.

Gould began playing the victimhood card, mentioning that she began experiencing panic attacks and had started to see a therapist about her “feelings of being inordinately scrutinized.” Yet the Emily Reinvented storyline could not find space for any of the potential panic attacks and therapy experienced by those she casually brutalized on Gawker. If the reader feels sorry for Gould — and one can always find a little pity for a mangy dog about to be gassed at the pound — the feeling dissolves when one ponders her perpetual devotion to betraying people while seeing herself as the target. It especially helps if you’re familiar with Nixon.

Meanwhile, Gould pretended to be a journalist. She was a bad actor stumbling through a clumsy run of a Ben Hecht play (or auditioning for some budding director with a camera whose storyline she believed was “the dumbest thing she ever heard”). If that meant writing an article for Russia! about Russian-born American writers prominently featuring her boyfriend (without disclosing the relationship or recusing herself or dropping Gessen from the article because of this conflict of interest), Gould would cross the line. Because she had no scruples. She had only a depraved appetite for more.

The “Exposed” article helped Gould land a book deal with a $200,000 advance. She confessed, as late as 2012, that it was “a lot of money.” But close to the early allocation of her windfall, she continued to bray about her enemies on her blog. She would tinker with the tale to continue the Emily Reinvented storyline, spinning her profligacy into a story of “poverty” that, when I was skipping meals and working my ass of and trying to get a break as a writer, I could only dream about.

* * *

“I was double, English and Philosophy. I don’t remember a thing.”
“Who does?”
“Seriously, though. I look at the books on my shelves and it’s clear that I read them, back then, but I can’t remember ever doing it, and I don’t have the first idea what they might be about.”
“Read them again, then?”
Danielle sighed. “Not now. Maybe someday. I look at them and wonder who I was, you know? It’s a long time ago. I’m thirty.”
– Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

Gould’s ravenous need to tear people down didn’t end with Gawker. She still specializes in trolling and clumsy railing to this day, whether it’s calling out the “unprecedented entitled band of horrible assholes” who live in Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg right now (a perfect test case for Eric Schwitzgebel’s “theory of jerks”) or feminists who offer bold journalistic critiques of The Daily Show‘s gender problem with its staff. (Of the latter umbrage, Gould failed to note that Jezebel‘s Irin Carmon actually interviewed people — a reportorial regularity that Gould remains incapable of practicing.)

These days, Gould often snipes through the more pusillanimous form of the subtweet. Twitter remains a fairly dependable fishbowl for tweets that not only debunk the Emily Reinvented storyline, but reveal that the gormlessness and the nastiness, which once guided Gould through twelve bilious posts a day at Gawker, is alive and well.

gouldknausgaard

Gould’s flippant posturing involves dismissing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume, 3,600 page, groundbreaking autobiographical fiction with an emoticon and then offering a cutesy, anti-intellectual “i’m kind of a philistine.” It involves not letting Adelle Waldman, who wrote one of the most accomplished debut novels of 2013, have her rare moment in the sun when Lena Dunham, who raved over how marvelous The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P was — indeed, so marvelous that the writers of Girls consulted the book for inspiration during the third season, arguably the strongest run of the series — to her then 1.2 million followers. Only three minutes after Dunham’s tweet, Gould posted a derisory “no thanks.”

gouldwaldman

And these are just the tweets that remain open for public inspection. On any given long, dark early evening of the soul (with or without Keith Gessen), Gould can be found revealing her vicious nature, provided you happen to be there. On the stormy night of April 30, 2014, when five inches of rain barraged New York City over the course of a single evening, I happened to be on Twitter. Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz had recently published a very moving piece in response to the publication of MFA v. NYC, pointing to how people of color were being actively discouraged in MFA workshops. Forms of creative expression that weren’t white enough were being systematically pushed out. Promising talent was giving up. Rather than engaging with Diaz’s argument, Gould chided Diaz on Twitter for using “impacted” as a verb. Novelist Porochista Khakpour challenged Gould. Gould responded with a series of vicious tweets (all swiftly deleted). I was able to screenshot some of the conversation, which reflected the utterly superficial manner in which Gould approached an important and racially loaded subject.

gouldporochista

It was an uncomfortable repetition of an episode from And the Heart Says Whatever, when Gould described a young student reading an essay called “Memoirs of an Angry Black Woman Syndrome,” a tale of victimhood that could not have been easy to write. This was not unlike a writing student, who Diaz identified as Athena, talking “constantly about the workshop’s race problem, about the shit our peers said to us (shit like: Why is there even Spanish in this story? Or: I don’t want to write about race, I want to write about real literature.)” Athena disappeared, a casualty of a system that believes in Alice Munro but that often turns its back on Octavia Butler or Love and Rockets. It is telling that Gould doesn’t remember any details of the Angry Black Woman’s essay. Her response to the student mimics her clueless online behavior in 2014:

When it was my turn, I asked a clarification question in a way that made it unnecessarily obvious that I thought the essay was poorly written. Its author narrowed her eyes at me, then kept glaring as her mouth smiled. “I’m sure you’re just speaking from ignorance, not racism,” she said.

One has to wonder whether the Angry Black Woman used “impact” as a verb. That Gould doesn’t have the courage to reveal the full extent of her ugliness — and it’s worth pointing out that even Dave Eggers had the stones to cop to his racist fears on a beach in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — is telling of the timidity that belies Gould’s professed candor. Of course, now that Gould is a grown woman, her insensitivity can’t just be chalked up to mere ignorance. If Emily has “changed,” then why does the song remain the same? Gould’s commitment to white literary power is reflected in her curatorial instincts at her online bookstore, Emily Books. Of the thirty-two authors listed on the site, only two — Samantha Irby and Sigrid Nunez — are not white. Barbara Browning is a white woman who has written extensively about Brazil. But it’s telling that Gould’s commitment to writers of color fits in with the Middling Millennial/Jezebel hard line. Perhaps the time has come to coin a #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomenWriters hashtag to protest this atavism.

Despite being set in sections of Brooklyn substantially populated by people of color, there are no black characters in Gould’s novel, Friendship. Indeed, when Gould writes, “Bev’s shoulders were strong and white in her tank top,” one can’t help but wonder if there is the modest trace of Leni Riefenstahl purring in her Caucasians-first heart. Compare this with Adelle Waldman’s careful detail in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which also features prominent white characters: “a newish establishment that appeared to be patronized almost exclusively by the white people who’d begun to move into the historically black neighborhood in which it is located,” “a crowd of black women whose calf-length skirts clung to their legs in the breeze,” and “as the train moved deeper into Brooklyn, more and more white people got off. Eventually almost everyone who remained was black — and tired.” Even Lena Dunham responded to critics who rightly chided her for featuring too many white characters by featuring more African-American characters in Girls‘s third season. That Gould lacks the basic observational skills to notice non-white people in Brooklyn says much about her distorted reality and her ineluctable self-absorption.

Gould’s reaction to Khakpour was pure Middling Millennialism all the way: the assumption that she was always right, the indifference to history and the inflexibility to other perspectives, the failure to offer a reasonable argument, and the hostility to being challenged. While Gould went out of her way to scrub her tweets, Khakpour’s response remains a good indicator of how a clueless and privileged white woman deals with the big questions:

Gould’s spineless stratagem is not unlike the revisionism of prominent Republicans who pulled their support for a released POW not long after learning that Taliban prisoners were traded to make the deal happen. Gould, the invasive non-journalist who scoured through the bathrooms of budding directors and reveled in getting people fired, won’t hold herself accountable. There is, after all, the Emily Reinvented narrative to promote.

* * *

On February 24, 2014, Gould published an essay on Medium, which would also appear in the MFA vs. NYC anthology, in which she set forth her purported financial suffering. She wrote that the $200,000, after taxes and agent’s commission, allowed her to live alone in Brooklyn for three years in a one bedroom apartment and pay for health insurance. She did not seem to understand that not only is this an extraordinarily rare, if unrepeatable, success, but that three years is quite ample time to work out a day job/freelancing strategy that leaves enough writing time to keep the books career going. Gould squandered her time on her blog. She was very fortunate, unlike many writers, to have a boyfriend who could pay her rent and float one of her credit cards. She didn’t seem to understand that working people don’t have the luxury of blowing $1,500 for a vet or $1,700 for rent.

But let’s move away from the class argument.

A real writer sits in front of the computer and does the work. Every day. Or close to it. It does not matter if the writer is published or not. It does not matter if the audience is three, three thousand, or three million. A real writer is free and imaginative enough to take risks. A real writer writes when the chips are down. A real writer writes when she is hungry or when she is at her lowest point. A real writer doesn’t even need an Internet connection. So long as there are pens, paper, electricity somewhere, functional computers, dictionaries, and grammar books, there are no reasons other than your own laziness not to write. Fifteen minutes, twelve hours, whatever you can spare each day.

Gould was not a real writer.

She was not a real writer because she could not listen to a man who wanted to tell her his sob story after she purchased him a kebab. She was not a real writer because she could not bring herself to fully feel a musical. She was not a real writer because she fantasized more about patrician coziness than the worlds she created on the page or the joyful people and iridescent details around her or the marvel and beauty of language. She was not a real writer because she cared too much about how people perceived her, about how her books were marketed, about where she was in the pecking order. She was not a real writer because she did not have the discipline to not pay attention to the people (in this case, Lena Dunham) preventing her from doing the work, even as she had the full financial and emotional support of her lover.

Most of all, she was not a real writer because the only person she could tap was the uncreative figure staring back in the vanity mirror.

* * *

“Amy had been sitting around the creepy loft all morning in front of her laptop, headphones on to foreclose the possibility of conversation with the hippies, telling herself she was gathering her strength and was just about to go to the cafe around the corner, where she’d disable her computer’s access to the Internet and spend time revising her C.V. to reflect her newly adjusted set of goals. She wanted to position herself as someone who wasn’t a writer so much as a “content creator” or, better, a “content strategy consultant” — someone who might be able to work for brands or ad agencies, not blogs like Yidster. It was getting close to noon now, she was hungry for lunch, and her limbs twitched restlessly because they craved motion, but somehow she couldn’t stop mindlessly scrolling through Tumblr, liking photographs of food and animals. Her actual cat lay at her feet, occasionally pawing her and trying to engage her in play, but she fobbed him off with some desultory petting and then continued to ignore him in favor of the cats on the screen.” — Friendship

Gould still managed to write a novel. It isn’t a very good one, in large part because Gould has little imagination or insight. Emily became Amy. Her cat Raffles became Waffles. Keith became Sam.

Friendship tells the story of Beverly Tunney and Amy Schein, two white women both over the cusp of thirty. The book purports to be a vivid chronicle of their friendship, yet these two flat and uninteresting characters share nothing of consequence about themselves in their conversations or their experience. They do not talk about the world’s bountiful wonders or their families and friends or the thrill of being alive. Their banter is largely comprised of trash-talking people they despise. They are the creations of a desultory demimonde who does not do a lot of listening.

It is possible to write about young and self-absorbed people living in Brooklyn without coming across as a turgid typist mining familiar white-collar territory. Adelle Waldman has done this tremendously well in her novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P:

No matter how much he told himself that he had done nothing wrong with regard to her, not according to the standards that he and everyone he knew lived (if anything she was in the wrong in her clinginess and undignified hysteria, on some intuitive level, Nate began to feel culpable. A stentorian, Faulker-like voice within him insisted on seeing the relationship in stark moralistic terms. He’d been drawn — this voice intoned — to Elisa because of her beauty, because she seemed first-rate, because of her well-known father and shining pedigree, and he, nerd, loser that he’d been, had always suspected that people like her, people like Amy Perelman, with their good looks and popularity, had something he didn’t, something impenetrable by intelligence alone, a sort of magic and grace, a wordless wisdom about how to live, and a corresponding access to unknown pleasures.

Waldman’s phrases are neatly separated by commas, representing the jumbled torment of conflicting ideas colliding inside Nate’s head. We see how literary aspirations and status anxiety — the “stentorian, Faulkner-like voice” — trigger a flood of qualitative nouns (“beauty,” “looks,” “popularity,” “pedigree,” “intelligence,” “magic,” “wisdom,” and “grace”) that Nate feels entitled to possess and how this, in turn, galvanizes his interest in Elisa and Amy Perelman. And because Waldman has given us an origin point for Nate’s coveting (an inner self-reflective voice, one that could curb the selfishness and the neuroses if it didn’t transmute into a chatty tendril warped by literature and superficial judgment), we become more curious about his personality. One year after the novel’s publication, young people are calling a certain kind of a man “a total Nathaniel P.”

But when we contrast Waldman’s passage against Gould’s representations of youthful struggle, it becomes very clear who the real writer is:

Amy stared at Sam, the cigarette cherry burning dangerously close to her clenching fingertips. They’d spent so much time together, breathing the same air, sleeping in the same bed, hearing each other use the bathroom and not really caring or even thinking about it. For the past few months it had seemed as if they were in each other’s lives for real, maybe for good. But now it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake. Maybe she had assumed that what she and Sam had was veering in a permanent direction because they were at an age when people got married.

This train ride into the internal goes off the rails after four mere words, beginning with the irrelevant and awkwardly written detail of “the cigarette cherry.” Gould’s habit of imbuing meaningless objects with hollow language is a tic throughout the book, one that asphyxiates her characters before they get a chance to use their lungs, but the sheer waste here should have been caught by an editor. Where Waldman deftly deploys “had” throughout a sentence so that our attention gravitates to the chunky nouns, Gould clings to gerunds like a quavering literature student too terrified to push past the cover of a Henry Green novel. The result is banality (“not really caring or even thinking about it”), stilted greeting card copy (“they were in each other’s lives for real”), extraneous declarations (“it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake”), and, above all, an absence and avoidance of real feeling, bulldozed for vapid and generalized notions of life (“they were at an age when people got married”). It is the work of someone who rushes to words much as a sorority clamors to a kegger. It is a strong sign that fiction writing is not Gould’s true calling. Which is perfectly fine. Since Gould pines for affluence, there are more reliable modes of securing it. One does not write to become rich.

But let us give Gould’s above passage some benefit of the doubt. It is also possible to use a woman’s gaze to establish what her perspective is, even lassoing the smartly positioned adverb or two along the way, as Kate Zambreno does to great effect in Green Girl:

Her eyes feast on the rows and rows of color, like a neatly ordered painter’s palette, the pyramid of tubes of lip gloss, gilted compacts bearing a prism of tiny mirrors. Occasionally she would smooth one finger over a glittery palette of eyeshadows with enigmatic names. Types of flora and fauna. Names of movie stars, presidential wives, ordinary girls. Marilyns and Audreys and Sophias and Jackies and Julies and Kathys.

In five sentences, Zambreno unlatches the trap designed to ensnare many women, illuminating how consumerist allure forces them into an almost Ramesean ideal, converting ordinary names into monuments, with the scarring cartouches just outside the public eye. If Gould had possessed even a whit of Zambreno’s talent or awareness, she could have forged a more fluid take on how influence shapes women and how women, in turn, shape influence. But instead of letting Bev and Amy talk or act upon these feelings, they came off as passive characters who meet up in bars to deride co-workers or anyone living a happy life, watch TV, and eat constantly. This pair is so poorly realized that, aside from Bev’s “Irish tolerance” and Amy’s spendthrift ways with money, they are practically indistinguishable from each other. There’s one late point in the book when Amy transforms into a kind of chick lit Smeagol when she learns of another character’s engagement:

Amy felt a visceral, impulsive pang of desire, the kind that could make someone grab food off a stranger’s plate. She wanted the ring so badly. She thought, crazily, of stealing it. She wanted to take it off Jackie’s finger and put in her mouth.

One almost expects Amy to seethe, “My precious,” with Andy Serkis waiting in the wings to perform a cross-cutting colloquy between Amy and Bev. It’s almost as if Gould, impelled by the desire to become a “real writer,” stared hard into the mirror until it shattered in half, with the two reflections spilling onto the page twice.

Gould has one atavistic emotion to fall back on. It’s the same vicious impulse that sustained her at Gawker:

“For a moment, rage flickered through her tensed body.”

“Amy felt a stab of genuine rage.” (Later, Bev feels a “stab of terror that shot through her viscera.” It is telling that Gould’s crutch words can be traced to sharp knives.)

“a little bit of what probably sounded like anger out of her voice”

“she was so angry, suddenly, that she felt as if she might spontaneously burst into flames” (Someone alert Jarndyce and Jarndyce.)

“She had shower monologued so many scathing condemnations of his behavior and his personality so many times.”

Moreover, when Bev springs a significant life-altering surprise upon an older woman named Sally Katzen, who lives in comfortable affluence and seems to exist solely as a target for Gould’s childish jealousy (a continuation of her pointless animus towards Meghan O’Rourke?), we learn that Bev has not talked out her plan in advance with Amy, which is especially strange, given that they are supposed to be best friends. Contrary to the preposterous claim by Virginia Quarterly Review‘s S. Kirk Walsh that “the reader is presented with strong female characters in all their complexities and imperfections,” Gould’s friendship is remarkably pat and simplistic, carefully established to avoid any serious plunge into social dynamics or visceral risk:

It was weird that in their five years of best friendship, Amy and Bev had never discussed morality, or whatever you wanted to call the rules they, respectively, lived by.

That amorality also extends to Gould herself. Late in the book, Sally asks one of the two fictionalized Goulds to perform an act of mercy. When the character does not respond, Sally then offers to write a check. And the character refuses. It’s the kind of blind cruelty that makes a reader with a conscience want to write a long and detailed debunking.

Bev becomes pregnant halfway through the book. Since Gould claims to be a feminist, one would think that Bev would consider abortion not long after, especially since Bev is experiencing financial difficulties. (An abortion typically costs between $300 and $950, while an uncomplicated pregnancy is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000.) Gould, by her own admission, is terrible with money, and refuses to consider any perspective other than the privileged white woman’s. She opts for a a bizarrely reactionary twist. Abortion isn’t on the table, nor are any dimensional feelings. There are nebulous references to Bev’s religion, but because the Middling Millennials never want to think too hard about touchy subjects that affect a wide swath of people outside New York, this spirituality is never explored, just as the Jewish culture guiding the Jewcy-like Yidster (both have offices located in DUMBO) is unpursued. Gould is a juggler of generalities. She’ll never have the mettle to contend with live rotating chainsaws.

Gould is such a cowardly writer that she can’t even coax her characters to speak at the times they need to. Late in the book, there is a key moment in which Amy needs to say something serious to her boyfriend Sam (like Keith Gessen, Sam is Russian, a cultural figure, a man who married and divorced in his early twenties, and about eight years older than his girlfriend), but Gould is so inept that she offers this description instead:

She was wandering around the way you do on the phone, reaching out and plucking leaves from low branches of the saplings at the yard’s border, then crumpling them in her palm.

With Gould, there are always inconsequential objects for her characters to grab so that she can pad out her interminable 272-page novel with prolix description.

This is also bad storytelling, because Gould’s failure to get at the truth leads any vaguely sharp reader to swiftly deduce where the story is heading. And because Bev and Amy aren’t especially compelling figures, the book becomes an insufferable snoozefest. To add insult to incompetence, at novel’s end, the heart literally says whatever.

* * *

Two lengthy Gould profiles published in June — one in Elle, another in the New York Times Fashion & Style section written by Ruth La Ferla — have served as image-boosting propaganda, suggesting that Gould has changed or “reinvented” herself. But she’s still the same scabrous and manipulative opportunist that she was when she deflowered a 14-year-old boy at the age of seventeen.

emilyreborn2One of La Ferla’s many whoppers include suggesting that “Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls, Lena Dunham’s quasi-autobiographical hit on HBO.” This is not true. Dunham’s first film, Tiny Furniture, was shown at SXSW on March 15, 2010 and firmly established the voice that she would push further with Girls. And the Heart Says Whatever was published on May 4, 2010. Perhaps La Ferla shouldn’t be entirely blamed. After all, it was Gould herself who first perpetuated the Dunham parallel earlier this year, much as Gould compared herself to Chloë Sevigny in And the Heart Says Whatever. Should Dunham’s star wane, there is little doubt that Gould will find some other pop figure to blame for her indolence and inconsequential output.

La Ferla’s piece called Gould “resilient as a Slinky,” with Gould claiming, “Attention is not a commodity I’m interested in,” even as her friend notes, “The eye that she turns on the world she also turns on herself.” Gould’s determination to condemn anyone she can’t use is evident in her remarks, especially with bloggers, which she described as “that tiny subset of outliers who are live-tweeting their mammogram the next day” — a veiled anti-feminist jab at writers like Xeni Jardin and Susannah Breslin, who have both bravely responded to their diagnoses of breast cancer by documenting it online and raising awareness for a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 400,000 women in 2014. Gould, being a Middling Millennial, has no desire to comprehend that truth. This is because Gould has the valiance and the moral conscience of a small vole.

Gould claimed that she’s “mostly apologized personally to the people I’ve offended,” but her attempt to paint herself as some online twelve-step program survivor is a lie. Three victims of Gould’s shenanigans, including me, haven’t heard so much as a word from her. Clearly, this simpering sicarian is “mostly apologizing” to people who will pull her slippery limbs up from the common pit. Even after the fair-minded La Ferla profile appeared online, Gould was on Twitter, caviling over the perfectly reasonable sentence “Before long she herself become a piñata, subjected to random bashings by readers who took issue with, among other things, her perceived status-chasing and shameless self-involvement” with the kind of intuitive persecution complex eager to coil around an incoherent ideology, much like a resilient Slinky:

Hypocrisy and solipsism are not gender specific. One does not become a misogynist the minute that one begins examining a woman’s history of self-absorption. The second tweet, mentioning the Dunham comparison in the Times story, is particularly confusing. Dunham created a successful television show that has lasted for three seasons. What was it that Gould created exactly? A novel, of course. One that she worked “very hard” on, “diligence” that was talked up in risibly extravagant terms in the Elle profile:

She’s put in her time on both the California kind of work (getting to know yourself) and the East Coast variety (showing up every day to fill the blank page and generate creative projects). If carving out a fulfilling sui generis role that’s sustainable, socially 
meaningful, and more or less on our own terms is the essential fourth-wave feminist project, Gould’s okayness is a triumph.

shawshankrobbinsGould won’t be seen stretching her arms in the rain like Tim Robbins anytime soon (unless, of course, the FSG sales force determines that a stormy crucifixion motif will move a few units), but she found modest redemption working as editorial director at 29th Street Publishing, an electronic distribution outlet that includes The Awl, Harper’s, The Rumpus, ProPublica, and more that presumably precludes many movers and shakers from speaking out. But that professional relationship ended on Monday, with opaque explanation and Gould out of a job. Before this, she attempted to combine her literary connections and love for food with a web series called Cooking the Books. The results were awkward and embarrassing. Tao Lin exploited the opportunity for some hilarious performance art (“I actually just bite little pieces off into it,” muttered as Lin was “preparing” a salad) that Gould seemed utterly in the dark about. Then there was Chad Harbach’s dudebro regressivism, as he mansplained about Wisconsin and creole with a glass of wine poking from his hand like a general’s pointing stick as Gould did all the kitchen work. There is also the far less successful e-books venture, Emily Books, which boasts a mere 150 subscribers. Many Emily Books authors are worthwhile. But if Emily Books’s professed goal is to “want authors, agents and publishers to get paid so they can continue creating and curating,” the outfit is largely a bust. Still, I’m sure Sigrid Nunez appreciated the extra beer money, which has been known to keep authors “creating” — for one evening at least.

* * *

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Gould continues to surveil Twitter for any mention of her name, sending handwritten notes along with her galley (such as the one pictured above, tweeted by Iris Blasi) to any potential influencer. The result has been a litany of people who are all over the moon about this heap of shit, for much the same reasons that they went gaga for Keith Gessen’s mediocre book. It is an absolute replay of what Jessica Roy wrote about in 2008:

It just was all so fucking fake. These people that I had admired my entire New York existence — they all disappointed me. I don’t understand how people can exist in such a dishonest way and still call themselves writers. Isn’t it the responsibility of a writer to be honest? And why would you uphold a conversation with someone whom you’re going to talk shit on while walking back to the G train? They’re living in a box, where they only talk to others who have read Gessen’s book and think it sucks but will tell him it’s brilliant because they need his approval.

I did not move to New York to return to high school, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

Roy went on to become a senior editor at the New York Observer and the editor of Time‘s NewsFeed. Thankfully, there are still some honest writers out there who can make it.

But the “high school” that Roy described in 2008 is even more prominent among the Middling Millennials, who will defame, traduce, or block someone over a perceived sleight. They are terrified of confrontation, conflict, or engagement with the real world. And like Gould’s treatment of Pinter, they expect obeisance and a thank you note when they treat you with contempt.

This is not a healthy foundation for any cultural landscape. And if we truly had a robust and risk-taking literary culture, such gutless and treacherous yes men (and former publicists) like BuzzFeed‘s Isaac Fitzgerald would be widely reviled and laughed out of town for their “No haters” policy, a mealy-mouthed code for zero tolerance of any vibrant voice who rocks the boat. It isn’t just smarm that is to blame for these developments, although Tom Scocca was right to point to Dave Eggers as one prominent example of the kind of rampant duplicity and ladder-climbing that is killing voices courageous enough to throw giddy Molotovs at the right institutions. A true cri de coeur should come from the knowledge that irredeemable scumbags like Emily Gould are not only rewarded for pushing honest heads under the water and fucking the right people, but are lavished with the kind of media attention incommensurate with their middling abilities.

And then there’s the juvenile Middling Millennial culture. Why would anyone want to attend an overhyped event in which they are expected to become some slavish fan who didn’t really read the book but who nevertheless feels compelled to announce what a “good friend” he is by dint of spending five minutes in close proximity to the author? Having witnessed first-hand the worst impulses of science fiction fandom a few decades ago and having a good sense of the hell that authors go through, it’s distressing to see the same nasty and possessive tendencies happening on the literary scene, with authors reduced to mere projections of what childish audiences desire to see, rather than the complex and fascinating people they truly are.

I am not jealous or envious of Gould’s success. I’m simply astounded that this is the dunce now being propped up. I’m deeply appalled that I have to write such a lengthy essay because nobody else has the time to remember history or the smarts to uphold standards or the balls to call her out. The relentless distaste expressed about the Middling Millennials in private must be voiced publicly if we have any shot at curing it. And I maintain a position of principled indignation because truly original and interesting talents, many of whom I’ve featured on The Bat Segundo Show, who are incapable of playing the game or who cannot sell out are increasingly being marginalized, ignored, and stubbed out by these vicious overgrown kids, even as craven, manipulative, untalented, clueless, and ungenerous assholes announce the latest status of their novels on social media (reviewed in the NYTBR, in third printing, hit the NYT bestseller list, seen in the hands of a major figure on a subway) with the self-centered glee of a bratty suburban tot constantly shaking his rattle.

Well, enough is fucking enough.

A society that holds up Emily Gould as a charitable person, a formidable intellect, or a knowing chronicler of our age is a diseased one. And an army of Middling Millennials recoiling at any risk memorialized or imagined on the page or flinching at unsettling developments in the real world must be outed, fought, and resisted until we get some part of our collective soul back. It’s the only way we can make literature truly indispensable to the world again.

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Casual Sexism: The Author Gender Breakdown for the New York Times Daily Book Reviewers

I was recently informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers I posted in one of my BookExpo America reports, which I obtained from Rebecca Mead, were incorrect. In an effort to provide accurate information, I have conducted an independent audit on the three current New York Times daily book reviewers — Dwight Garner, Michiko Kakutani, and Janet Maslin — for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014 using the Times‘s website. (It is also worth noting out that, in February 2014, Publishers Marketplace did a gender bias count for the whole of 2013. 30 of Janet Maslin’s 80 reviews, or 37.5%, were female authors. 15 of Michiko Kakutani’s 54 reviews, or 28%, were female authors.)

To get an appropriately detailed takeaway on Times gender bias, I have counted every book selected for coverage, whether a full review, a capsule, or a roundup. Please note that I have excluded obituaries, a gift guide that featured Garner’s content (and Maslin’s), as well as the three critics’ favorite books of the year — as these are not bona-fide reviews. I have provided links to all reviews, along with the author, title, and author’s gender. If a single book has multiple authors, I have used incremental values (.5 Male and .5 Female for a book co-written by a man and a woman, a full Male value for two male authors.) I have also emailed Garner and Maslin (Kakutani’s email address is unknown) to give them an opportunity to dispute the tally, which I have checked twice, and in the event that I have somehow missed any of their reviews. With translated authors, I have counted the gender of the original author. With anthologies, I have counted the gender of the editor. (I realize that this leaves out contributors. But very often, the gender bias between editor and contributors correlates. For example, in the case of MFA vs. NYC, 60% of the contributors are men.)

As can be seen below, none of the three reviewers come anywhere close to gender parity. Dwight Garner is the most women-friendly of the three reviewers, but when the percentage is a mere 34.1%, one has to wonder how a publication can operate with such a egregious gender bias in 2014. Maslin is behind Garner at 31.3%. Kakutani is the most casually sexist of the trio at 30.6%.

The below study is, to my knowledge, the most detailed effort to examine a long-standing problem at the Times, one that Garner, Kakutani, and Maslin, and their editors are all responsible for and refuse to discuss. Their choices, whether conscious or subconscious, have led a disproportionate amount of male writers to be represented in the Times‘s pages over the past year. I hope that these more accurate numbers lead to a constructive conversation on author gender bias in reviews, with efforts to rectify this imbalance. This is an important subject that public editor Margaret Sullivan has regrettably remained silent on. [UPDATE: As noted by Jennifer Weiner on Tuesday evening, Sullivan previously discussed the repeat review problem among male authors in 2013. Let us hope that she will opine on the gender bias issue that has been thoroughly documented by Rebecca Mead, Publishers Marketplace, and myself. I alerted Sullivan to this article by email and, as of Tuesday evening, have heard nothing back.]

[UPDATE: Andrew Krucoff helpfully points to a 1972 panel discussion with Nora Ephron. Ephron pointed out that 101 of 697 New York Times reviews, or 14.5%, between 1971 and 1972 were on books written by women. Compared against the 1956 Book Review, the figure was 107 of 725 reviews, or 14.5%.]

Dwight Garner

6/4/13: Tao Lin, Taipei (Male)
6/9/13: Charles Glass, The Deserters (Male)
6/13/13: Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong to Us (Male)
6/18/13: Kenneth Goldsmith, Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Male)
6/25/13: Ahmir Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues (Male)
7/3/13: Margot Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion (Female)
7/9/13: Roberto Bolaño, Unknown University (Male)
7/11/13: Double review of Terry Eagleton (2 Males)
7/16/13: Robert Kolker, Lost Girls (Male)
7/18/13: The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy (Male)
7/23/13: Lawrence Osborne, The Wet and the Dry (Male)
7/30/13: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling (Male)
8/1/13: Tash Aw, Five Star Billionaire (Male)
8/7/13: Robert Wilson, Matthew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (Male)
8/15/13: Sophie Fontanel, The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (Female)
8/18/13: Resisting the Siren Call of the Screen: 3 books; 2 Males, 3 Females.)
8/28/13: J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (Male)
9/9/13: Nicholson Baker, Traveling Sprinkler (Male)
9/12/13: Nate Jackson, Slow Getting Up (Male)
9/17/13: Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Female)
9/24/13: Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (Male)
9/26/13: Jill Lepore, Book of Ages (Female)
10/1/13: Karl Kraus, The Kraus Project (Male)
10/8/13: Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (Female)
10/10/13: Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning (Male)
10/16/13: Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (Female)
10/24/13: James Wolcott, Critical Mass (Male)
10/29/13: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege (.5 Female, .5 Male)
11/5/13: Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers (Male)
11/7/13: Dana Goodyear, Anything That Moves (Female)
11/12/13: Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck (Male)
11/19/13: Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Male)
11/21/13: Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian (Male)
11/26/13: Retha Powers (editor), Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations (Female)
2/5/14: Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage (Female)
2/11/14: Malcolm Cowley, The Long Voyage (Male)
2/13/14: Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies (Male)
2/20/14: Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There (Male)
2/22/14: 5 Books to Take on Your Travels (Capsule piece: 3 male, 2 female)
2/25/14: Chad Harbach (editor), MFA vs. NYC (Male)
2/27/14: Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (Male)
3/3/14: Dan Jenkins, His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir (Male)
3/10/14: Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews (Male)
3/13/14: Jolie Kerr, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Female)
3/15/14: Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (Female)
3/25/14: Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (Male)
3/27/14: Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Female)
4/1/14: Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (Female)
4/8/14: Adam Begley, Updike (Male)
4/15/14: Barbara Ehreinreich, Living with a Wild God (Female)
4/18/14: Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers (Male)
4/22/14: Nina Stibbe, Love, Nina (Female)
4/25/14: Nikil Saval, Cubed (Male)
4/30/14: Lisa Robinson, There Goes Gravity (Female)
5/7/14: Ruth Reichl, Delicious! (Female)
5/9/14: Colson Whitehead, The Noble Hustle (Male)
5/15/14: Kai Bird, The Good Spy (Male)
5/27/14: Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie (Male)
5/28/14: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Male)
5/29/14: Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Female)

FINAL GARNER STATS:
Male Writers: 45.5 writers (65.9%)
Female Writers: 23.5 writers (34.1%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 69

garner-graph

Michiko Kakutani

6/2/13: Jonathan Alter, The Center Holds (Male)
6/3/13: Anton DiSclafani, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Female)
6/10/13: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukie, Big Data (Male)
6/12/13: Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (Female)
6/16/13: Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland (Female)
6/24/13: Brett Martin, Difficult Men (Male)
6/27/13: Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Male)
7/1/13: Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer (Male)
7/8/13: Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life (Male)
7/15/13: Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon (Female)
7/17/13: J.K. Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling (Female)
7/28/13: David Gilbert, & Sons (Male)
8/12/13: Thurston Clarke, J.F.K.’s Last Hundred Days (Male)
8/21/13: A.A. Gill, To America with Love (Male)
8/25/13: David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Male)
9/5/13: Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Female)
9/10/13: Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Male)
9/16/13: Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies (Male)
9/19/13: Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Female)
9/30/13: David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service (Male)
10/3/13: Dave Eggers, The Circle (Male)
10/7/13: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Female)
10/14/13: William Boyd, Solo) (Male)
10/28/13: Brad Stone, The Everything Store (Male)
11/4/13: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down (Male)
11/11/13: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bully Pulpit (Female)
11/18/13: Mike Tyson, The Undisputed Truth (Male)
11/25/13: Robert Stone, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Male)
12/1/13: Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life (Male)
12/9/13: Russell Banks, A Permanent Member of the Family (Male)
12/16/13: Bruce Wagner, The Empty Chair (Male)
1/6/14: Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Male)
1/8/14: Robert M. Gates, Duty (Male)
1/13/14: Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Male)
1/20/14: Jay Cantor, Forgiving the Angel (Male)
1/27/14: B.J. Novak, One More Thing (Male)
1/29/14: Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (Female)
2/2/14: Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (Female)
2/4/14: Luke Harding, The Snowden Files (Male)
2/6/14: Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, H R C (.5 Male, .5 Female)
2/17/14: Gregory Feifer, Russians: The People Behind the Power (Male)
2/19/14: Lorrie Moore, Bark (Female)
2/26/14: Phil Klay, Deployment (Male)
3/3/14: Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (Male)
3/24/14: Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Male)
3/31/14: Francesca Marciano, The Other Language (Female)
4/3/14: Karen Russell, “Sleep Donation” (Female)
4/15/14: Mona Simpson, Casebook (Female)
4/18/14: David Grimm, Citizen Canine (Male)
4/28/14: Michael Cunningham, The Snow Queen (Male)
5/6/14: Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Female)
5/12/14: Timothy F. Geithner, Stress Test (Male)
5/13/14: Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (Male)
5/20/14: Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words (Male)

FINAL KAKUTANI STATS:
Male Writers: 37.5 writers (69.4%)
Female Writers: 16.5 writers (30.6%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 54

kakutani-graph

Janet Maslin

6/6/13: Summer Roundup (16 books: 13 Males, 3 Females)
6/17/13: Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey (Male)
6/19/13: Phillipp Meyer, The Son (Male)
6/23/13: Lionel Shriver, Big Brother (Female)
6/26/13: Rebecca Lee, Bobcat (Female)
6/30/13: Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (Male)
7/14/13: Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat (Male)
7/10/13: Gabriel Roth, The Unknowns (Male)
7/14/13: Charlie Huston, Skinner (Male)
7/22/13: Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room (Male)
7/24/13: David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Male)
8/6/13: Jeff Guinn, Manson (Male)
8/6/13: Boris Kachka, Hothouse (Male)
8/14/13: Marisha Pessl, Night Film (Female)
8/26/13: Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season (Female)
8/29/13: Lee Child, Never Go Back (Male)
9/1/13: Samantha Geimer, The Girl (Female)
9/2/13: Andrea Barrett, Archangel (Female)
9/4/13: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (Male)
9/8/13: Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia (Male)
9/11/13: Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens (Male)
9/15/13: Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (Male)
9/18/13: Richard Dawkins, An Appetite for Wonder (Male)
9/29/13: Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (Female)
10/2/13: Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (Male)
10/6/13: Alice McDermott, Someone (Female)
10/9/13: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist (Male)
10/13/13: Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Female)
10/15/13: Henry Bushkin, Johnny Carson (Male)
10/23/13: Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Female)
10/30/13: John Grisham, Sycamore Row (Male)
11/6/13: Sam Wasson, Fosse (Male)
11/10/13: Russell Shorto, Amsterdam (Male)
11/13/13: Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck (Female)
11/17/13: Theresa Schwegel, The Good Boy (Female)
11/20/13: Anjelica Houston, A Story Lately Told (Female)
11/24/13: Jane Ridley, Heir Apparent (Female)
11/27/13: Gigi Levangie, Seven Deadlies (Female)
12/2/13: Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters (Male)
12/8/13: Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (Male)
12/11/13: Mark Lewisohn, Tune In (Male)
12/15/13: Bob Brier, Egyptomania (Male)
12/19/13: Christopher Fowler, The Invisible Code (Male)
12/22/13: Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Female)
12/25/13: Robert Evans, The Fat Lady Sang (Male)
12/29/13: Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. (Male)
1/2/14: Nicholas Griffin, Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Male)
1/19/14: Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room (Male)
1/22/14: Rachel Joyce, Perfect (Female)
1/26/14: Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun (Female)
2/3/14: Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (Male)
2/10/14: Matthew Quick, The Good Luck of Right Now (Male)
2/16/14: Laura Lippmann, After I’m Gone (Female)
2/23/14: Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned (Male)
3/5/14: Chris Pavone, The Accident (Male)
3/6/14: Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde (Male)
3/9/14: Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs (Male)
3/12/14: Olen Steinhauer, The Cairo Affair (Male)
3/17/14: Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out (Male)
3/19/14: Bob Mankoff, How About Never — Is Never Good for You? (Male)
3/23/14: Holly George-Warren, A Man Called Destruction (Female)
3/26/14: Jean Hanff Korelitz, You Should Have Known (Female)
4/1/14: Michael Lewis, Flash Boys (Male)
4/4/14: Boyd Varty, Cathedral of the Wild (Male)
4/8/14: Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (Female)
4/11/14: Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club (Female)
4/17/14: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (Male)
4/24/14: Hisham D. Aidi, Rebel Music (Male)
4/29/14: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Male)
5/2/14: Howard Norman, Next Life Might Be Kinder (Male)
5/5/14: David Kinney, The Dylanologists (Male)
5/23/14: Summer Roundup (14 books: 8 Males, 6 Females)

FINAL MASLIN STATS:
Male Writers: 68 writers (68.7%)
Female Writers: 31 writers (31.3%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 99

maslin-graph

jshousewife

Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”

On September 21, 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the first African-American woman to lecture on women’s rights. She was jeered at by male crowds, who pelted her with tomatoes. A few years later in Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott received a similar reception when she pointed out that it was “not Christianity, but priestcraft” that had subjected women. Mott’s remarks, along with those of other women, were widely ridiculed by the press. On November 5, 1855, The New York Times would write of Mott:

The evident sincerity of feeling and intensity of thought produce a strong impression on the mind, but the utter absence of imaginative power stripped the impression of those almost higher attractions which beauty of illustration lends. Still, though the absence of this quality may neutralize the effect as far as popularity with a general audience is concerned, the effect on those who came with a preconceived sympathy with the ideas of a preacher, is likely to be more powerful, in proportion as the enunciation is simple and unaided by the poetical assistance of sensuous flights of imagination or classical touches of cultivated intellect.

In other words, Mott was merely some sincere country bumpkin who could only preach to the already converted. As far as The New York Times was concerned, Mott’s rhetorical approach, despite “a large and eager congregation,” could never reach the higher plains of cultivated intellect.

These ugly and prejudicial avenues were revisited on June 4, 2011, when The New York Times published a baffling article by Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler suggested that, any time a woman author tweets a 140 character message, she is engaging in a literary feud. Was Schuessler longing for a presuffrage America? Or a continuation of the complacent and sexist approach from 150 years before? It certainly felt that way. Despite claiming that feud watchers “question whether Twitter feuds really qualify” (and who is a feud watcher anyway? Jonathan Franzen when he’s not watching birds?), Schuessler condemned numerous women for speaking their minds. By criticizing the establishment, numerous bestselling authors were somehow transformed into a mindless mob. And if Schuessler has possessed the linguistic and argumentative facilities of her 1855 counterpart, she might very well have claimed that these women carried an “utter absence of imaginative power.”

After serving up a laundry list of all-male literary “feuds” (Theroux v. Naipaul, Vargas Llosa v. Garcia Marquez, Moody v. Peck), with the feud defined as “a willingness to throw actual punches along with verbal jabs,” Schuessler writes:

If the literary feud has lost its old-school bluster, it might be tempting to lay the blame with what Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called “the mob of damn Twittering women.” These days, in America at least, it’s women authors who seem to start the splashiest literary fights, and you don’t need a stool at the White Horse Tavern to witness it.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that those who have tweeted critical comments (the names cited in the article are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Ayelet Waldman, and Roseanne Cash) wish to engage in physically and verbally aggressive behavior, or that they have little more than barbaric contributions to offer to public discourse. In Schuessler’s defense, there is a modest case that Waldman, in defending her husband, was engaging in ongoing ressentiment towards Katie Roiphe. But the other women cited in Schuessler’s piece were not. If Weiner and Picoult “led a Twitter campaign against what they saw as the male-dominated literary establishment’s excessive fawning over Jonathan Franzen,” one must ask whether a campaign constitutes a feud.

The feud, as described by Schuessler, is one predicated upon hatred for another person. When an author receives a black eye or a knockout, this is little more than an ignoble pissing match revolving around egos. When Paul Theroux writes a poison-pen memoir condemning his former friend Naipaul, does this stand for any corresponding set of virtues?

Yet when a group of women is trying to raise serious questions about the manner in which books are covered by the media, can one really call it a feud? The evidence suggests nobler intentions. In an August 30, 2010 NPR article, Jennifer Weiner stated that the establishment is “ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.” On August 26, 2010, both Weiner and Picoult were interviewed at length by The Huffington Post‘s Jason Pinter about their positions. And it becomes clear from Pinter’s piece that the purported “mob of damn Twittering women” isn’t just “a Twitter campaign,” but an attempt to start a discussion.

Schuessler also condemns “a similar crew” who “took aim at Jennifer Egan” after Egan declared chick lit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” But in refusing to identify the “crew” in question (and only getting a quote from Katie Roiphe, who had little to do with the “feud”), Schuessler proved herself to be an irresponsible journalist. The conversation about Egan’s remarks extended well beyond Twitter, with detailed essays appearing for and against in such outlets as The Frisky and The Millions. Does such a debate really constitute a feud?

When Roiphe says, “The nature of Twitter is you don’t need to think about what you’re saying. Most of us need to think more about what we’re saying, not less,” she demonstrates her total ignorance of the way in which Twitter works. As seen by the Egan remarks and the Franzenfreude statements, there was an initial emotional outcry on Twitter that became dwarfed by a more serious discussion. People formulated their thoughts and wrote lengthy online essays. If the comments to those essays were somewhat heated, there remained numerous efforts by thoughtful people to maintain a civil debate.

So when Schuessler gets Waldman on the record to speculate about how Jane Austen might have engaged in a Twitter debate over Naipaul’s recent comments, Waldman (perhaps unwittingly) upholds the status quo: “Only those of us with impulse control issues take our snits into the ether.” But this falsely suggests that Twitter encourages nothing less than our worst impulses and that one’s initial outburst can’t be tamed into a more rational discussion. It also upholds a dangerous double standard: a man is permitted to speak his mind and punch somebody out (presumably for the amusement of “feud watchers”); but if a woman does anything close to this, she’s little more than “a damn Twittering woman.” If the purported paper of record — an outlet that suggested a few months ago that a gang-raped schoolgirl had it coming — is seriously equating today’s talented female authors with Freidan’s “happy housewife heroines,” then it is clear that The New York Times is ill-equipped to operate in the 21st century.

Is the New York Times Banning “Tweet” in the Newsroom?

This morning, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha reported that New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett had issued a memo to the newsroom suggesting that “tweet” (that verb used to refer to the act of posting on Twitter) was being actively discouraged within the Gray Lady’s mighty halls. The memo, which announced that “‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English” went on to express dismay about “tweet” being used as a noun or verb. How could a word — reflecting a colloquialism, a negologism, or jargon — ever be used in a serious newspaper? Corbett advised using the staid “say” or the vanilla “write” as a surrogate.

Rumors then began to circulate on Twitter — in part, promulgated by The Awl — that the Times was banning the use of “tweet” entirely. New York Times Artsbeat blogger Dave Itzkoff was the first to declare that the ban was not true. Yet there remained the matter of confirming the memo’s veracity.

I contacted Corbett, and he confirmed that the memo published by The Awl had indeed been disseminated around The New York Times. “I specifically say that ‘tweet’ may be acceptable in some situations,” wrote Corbett in an email. “I’m basically urging people to view it in the category of colloquialisms, which we might use in for special effect and in contexts that call for an informal, conversational tone. But we try to minimize use of colloquial language — as well as jargon — in straight news writing.”

In other words, if a New York Times reporter is using Twitter to get a quote from a source for a big news story, the very practical notion of using “wrote” instead of “tweeted” is sound policy. But does “tweet” get an outright ban? Hardly.

lehrer

Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind

As the terrible news of Andrew Koenig’s suicide and Michael Blosil leaping to his death, both after long depressive bouts, emerged over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had aided and abetted Jonah Lehrer’s continued slide into unhelpful Gladwellian generalizations by publishing his sloppy and insensitive article claiming that depression really isn’t that bad. Lehrer, an alleged bright young thing who found his own tipping point with How We Decide, appears to have cadged nuanced examples from such thoughtful books as Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire and Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, proving quite eager to cherrypick tendentious bits for a facile sudoku puzzle, or perhaps print’s answer to a “fair and balanced” FOX News segment, rather than a thoughtful consideration.

Lehrer attempts to establish a precedent with Charles Darwin’s mental health: a troubling task, given that the great evolutionist kicked the bucket around 130 years ago and, thus, didn’t exactly have the benefit of psychiatric professionals watching over his bunk, much less a DSM-IV manual. Lehrer suggests that the “fits” and “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” that Darwin referenced in his letters represented depression. While it’s difficult to diagnose a mental condition in such a postmortem manner, John Bowlby’s helpful book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, has collected various efforts to pinpoint what Darwin was suffering from. And Bowlby’s results tell a different story. Darwin, who was very careful to consult the top medical authorities of his time, described his “uncomfortable palpitation” in a letter to J.S. Henslow on September 1837, when he was hard at work making sense of his data after the Beagle had landed back. In 1974, Sir George Pickering made an analysis of Darwin’s symptoms from these shards and attributed this state to Da Costa’s Syndrome, more commonly known as hyperventillation. Da Costa’s is most certainly unpleasant, but it is not depression. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary describes Da Costa’s as “a manifestation of an anxiety disorder, with the physical symptoms being a reaction to something perceived to be dangerous or otherwise a threat to the person, causing autonomic responses or hyperventilation.” (Emphasis added.) This diagnosis was backed up, as Bowlby notes, by Sir Hedley Atkins and Professor A.W. Woodruff.

Later in his book, Bowbly suggests that Darwin may have suffered from fairly severe depression during the months of April and September 1865 — which corroborates the “hysterical crying” that Lehrer eagerly collects and that Darwin conveyed to his doctor. But where Bowbly is careful to note that the “hysterical crying” leading to depression is a speculation based merely on a phrase and an anecdote conveyed by Darwin’s son, Leonard, Lehrer conflates both Darwin’s “hysterical crying” and Bowlby’s other non-depression examples into depression. Furthermore, Lehrer fails to note that the reason that Darwin was “not able to do anything one day out of three” (as he noted in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker on March 28, 1849) was because, as Darwin noted, his father had died the previous November. (Lehrer does note Darwin’s grief following the death of his ten-year-old daughter and proudly observes that the DSM manual specifies that the diagnosis of grief-related depressive disorder “is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months.” But David H. Barlow’s Anxiety and Its Disorders cites a 1989 study*, which points out that “it is not uncommon for some individuals to grieve for a year or longer” and observes that some people may need longer than two months to escape severe incapacitating grief. A major depressive disorder may not necessarily be the result after two months of grief. In other words, the human mind is not necessarily an Easy-Bake oven.)

The basis for Lehrer’s thesis — that Darwin conquered the totality of his apparent “depression” to “succeed in science” and that his “depression” was “a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems” — is predicated on a willful misreading of the primary sources, one that apparently eluded the indolent army of Times fact checkers, who only had to consult Bowlby’s more equitable analysis. This was irresponsible assembly from Lehrer: bad and inappropriate badinage intended to back up a sensational headline and convey Darwin as a falsely triumphant poster boy for severe depression. But depression is a deadly disorder, a condition that requires a less specious summary.

Lehrer later cites David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Depressed Person,” as a qualifying example for how the depressive mind remains in a “recursive loop of woe.” One may find comparisons between DFW’s real depression and the details contained in the story. But the story, written in third person and loaded with clinical details, might also be read as something which depicts the regular world’s failure to comprehend inner torment. Prescriptive analysis may very well apply to patterns of behavior, but fiction is an altogether different measure.

It is doubtful that DFW ever intended his story to be some smoking gun for lazy cognitive science, as Lehrer insists that it is, when Lehrer declares that those with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to be depressed. Daniel L. Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, a book that Lehrer appears to have relied upon for the Susan Nolen-Hoeksema example, pointed out that people “who focus obsessively on their current negative moods and past negative events, are at a special risk for becoming trapped in such destructive self-perpetuating cycles.” But what of those who are ruminating after a positive mood or after positive events? The danger of using a phrase like “ruminative tendencies” is that it discounts Nolen-Hoeksema’s clear distinction between dysphoric subjects inclined to ruminate (and feel worse) and “nondysphoric subjects [who] would show no effects of either the rumination or distraction inductions on their moods.” Perhaps by warning his readership of “ruminative tendencies,” Lehrer is encouraging them not to ruminate and therefore become mildly depressed about Lehrer’s dim findings. Lehrer is right, however, about the Loma Prieta earthquake data (also found in the Schachter book). But his failure to distinguish between the dysphoric and nondysphoric perpetuates a convenient generalization rather than an article hoping to contend with conditional realities.

Near the end of his piece, Lehrer confesses that the criticisms against the analytic-rumination hypothesis are often responded to “by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.” Well, if only he had told us this at the head of the article before leading us down a rabbit hole. He later writes, “It’s too soon to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis.” Well, it wasn’t too soon to speculate on Darwin’s letters (not all the result of depression) or David Foster Wallace’s inner psychological state, as reflected through a story.

Lehrer also brings up Joe Forgas’s experiments at a Sydney stationery store, whereby Forgas hoped to get his subjects to remember trinkets. He played different music to match the weather. Wet weather made the subjects sad, and the sadness made the subjects more attentive. But in a Financial Times article written by Stephen Pincock, Forgas was careful to note “that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression.” Once again, Lehrer neglects to mention this scientific proviso, leading readers to conclude that Forgas’s results are more related to depression.

It’s also important to note that the Paul Andrews study Lehrer relies on, which drew an interesting correlation between negative mood and improved analysis, defines “depressive affect” as “an emotion characterized by negative effect and low arousal.” This is a fundamentally different metric from outright depression, which Andrews’s study is clear to specify. But Lehrer confuses the two terms and retreats back to his clumsy Darwin metaphor of “embrac[ing] the tonic of despair.”

I don’t doubt that Lehrer wished to point out how depressive affect, or modest negative feelings, need not translate into a crippling existence. But his distressing conflation of “depressive affect” and “depression,” and his insistence that even a modest negative feeling might be categorized as depression, may very well suggest to readers that hard-case depressives in serious need of care and treatment might do without these essential long-term remedies. As someone who has offered assistance to friends living with this very real condition, I find Lehrer’s willingness to lump every sad behavioral pattern into “depression” truly shocking. I’m also greatly concerned that the New York Times — the ostensible paper of record — has failed to fact-check the selected studies, thus misleading readers into believing that depression is always a “clarifying force.” Depression, as Andrews attempted to convey to Lehrer, is “a very delicate subject.” Andrew did not wish to say anything reckless for the record. It’s just too bad that Lehrer did.

* Jacobs, Hansen, Berkman, Kasi & Ostfield (1989). Depressions of bereavement. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 30(3), 218-224

davidpogue

David Pogue and the Gray Lady’s Double Standard

In a post on Saturday, the NYTPicker, a website devoted to “the goings-on inside the New York Times,” pointed to the recent firing of Mary Tripsas, who was let go after writing a positive column just after taking an all-expenses paid trip from 3M. The NYTPicker also highlighted Clark Hoyt’s recent column, in which Hoyt reported that the Times had “parted company” with Joshua Robinson after Robinson had “represented himself as as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer.”

But David Pogue’s ongoing ethical infractions were not addressed by Hoyt and, as the NYTPicker put it, “Pogue continues to keep his gig while traveling the country — courtesy of corporations who pay him to speak at retreats and confabs, identifying himself as a NYT columnist. It’s a double standard that NYT has yet to address.”

This prompted David Pogue to leave the following comment at the NYTPicker’s site:

I spoke 30 times in 2009.

One of them was for a corporation–ONE. It was Raytheon. And that was an engagement that had been individually approved by my editors.

(As part of the Times crackdown on this issue, ALL of my speaking engagements must be individually approved. It’s been this way since June.)

The remaining 29 were for educational and non-profit outfits. Examples:Florida Virtual Schools; eCollege; Cleveland Town Hall speaker series; FOSE (government training); Society for Technical Communication; CT Librarians’ Association; CUNY; Educomm; MBL (Woods Hole); Memorial Sloan Kettering; Syracuse University.

Ooooh, look at Pogue jetting around the country for big corporations!!

You just have no idea what you’re talking about.

Actually, the NYTPicker does have some idea about what it’s talking about.

Here’s the pertinent clause from the New York Times‘s ethical guidelines: “Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group.”

Alas, in the examples that Mr. Pogue kindly offered to the NYTPicker, the ostensible “journalist” proved quite careless in disclosing his partiality. Had Mr. Pogue bothered to investigate or research the entities he was speaking to before accepting the invitations and the honorariums, he might have discovered that there was decidedly more than one corporation here.

As its website proudly announces, eCollege is a division of Pearson PLC, a London education and media conglomerate that specializes in making educational software.

Ergo, a corporation.

FOSE is run by the 1105 Government Information Group, part of 1105 Media, Inc., whose California corporate record can be found here.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Society for Technical Communication is a for-profit New York corporation. Here’s a link to the bylaws.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Educomm conference is run by the Professional Media Group. You can search here for the limited liability company record from the Connecticut Commercial Recording Division:

While an LLC is slightly different from a corporation under Connecticut law, it’s safe to say that the Professional Media Group’s structure is far from nonprofit.

So that makes three for-profit corporations and an LLC in a pear tree. That squarely puts the corporations in the plural and confirms the NYTPicker’s allegations.

In a further gaffe, Mr. Pogue claimed that the NYTPicker’s author was “David.” But in an embarrassing series of developments last September, the New York Times issued a retraction for misidentifying David Blum as the man behind NYTPicker.

According to the NYTPicker, New York Times editors and spokesmen have refused to answer important questions about this double standard in journalistic ethics, whereby Mr. Pogue continues to breach the Gray Lady’s ethical standards without apparent penalty.

[UPDATE: David Pogue has left a few followup comments at the NYTPicker, which has prompted this followup post.]

The Impotance [sic] of the Editor

Editor & Publisher has revealed that Kill Beller doesn’t believe editors is necessary. Beller, whom is the Executive Washroom of the New Turk Times, believes that Assendup Stanley, the media critic who got a few things wrong about Walter Disney’s recent death, is “a brilliant critic.” But the future of the public editor has remained “much debated within out walls.”

In congress with James Rainey to the Los Angles Time, Beller moaned loudly about some “cocks” being given too much leeway. But most of the Beller comics were not used as Rainey focused on cameras on former Times public editors and other uncircumcised Times newsroom fluffers.

In that full dimpled cheek, Beller defends the New Turk Times‘s correction prances; says that any editor who fails to fuck a writer about an error because of the writer’s supposed ass is failing to blow their job; and admits the fluffing of the public editor position is in serious jeopardy.

More wads to blow as the information comes loudly.

cheaprt4

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Four

cheaprt4(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five.)

Edward Champion writes:

I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.

Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce.  I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.”  For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.

kirstofIn her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous.  They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.”  (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive.  But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)

The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial.  It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value.  It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.”  And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:

This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.

Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it.  We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop.  But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions?  To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World?  Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain?  And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree?  No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.  But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart.  Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us?  Or is this all part of the same Shell game?

Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others.  Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty.  And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture.  If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this:  If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it.  That would be an invasion of your privacy.  If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track.  And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting.  To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay.  Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point.  Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests?  Yes and no, I think.  One could make a similar case for Starbucks.  On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry.  But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub.  As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog.  More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this all monolithic?  (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience.  IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store.  Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers?  The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)

nikeoutletTo address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism.  But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics.  I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up.  Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way.  Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal.  It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation.  And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping?  Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.

Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard.  And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table.  So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).

Colleen Mondor writes:

I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.

There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.

And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Books like Cheap, et al raise the question that subsumes the pretext for the traditional liberal education (i.e., “knowledge is power”). By the way, David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College 2005 oration is worth looking at on this point.

The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7″) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.

Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?

The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:

Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.

Erin O’Brien writes:

(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”

“Become cheap. Don’t fight it. Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters. Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike. You will have a good life.”

Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.

A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.

pokerchips2(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel.  To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!

(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.

(4) On bookshelves:

So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.

“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.

I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.

So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.

IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?

Levi Asher writes:

I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.

First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:

At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.

I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems.  Of course, this is easier said than done.  We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth.  My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.

I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion.  I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work.  So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.

cabinI don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop.  But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.  She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries.  She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider.  She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc.  I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun.  And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me. 

What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness.  It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light.  If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved.  But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced?  It’s not a pretty picture.

Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter.  On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names.  Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before.  “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.”  It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.

Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered.  Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”.  But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”.  Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this?  I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”).  It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.

I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle.  My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too.  Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.

Nina MacLaughin writes:

In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.

pricegougeA quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.

Edward Champion writes:

To respond quickly to Levi:

(1)  Maslin actually got that detail wrong.  She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong.  (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)

(2)  My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact.  As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.”  Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes.  (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.)  I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions.  But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not.  And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune.  (I’m sure as hell not.)

booksandbookshelves(3)  The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture.  IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson.  Let me tell you a story.  When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases.  These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro.  A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves.  The guy would custom-design them for you.  And these shelves were built like houses.  They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases.  I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them.  Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases.  They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood.  When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street.  And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases.  They pounded the sturdy wooden sides.  And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to. 

The upshot is this.  These people were mystified by real oak bookcases.  Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree.  But the difference is this.  These bookcases last decades.  An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted.  Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices.  You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle.  Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime?  Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)?  If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality.  But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA.  At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?

By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items,  are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?

Erin O’Brien writes:

“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”

And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.

Peggy Nelson writes:

I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed.   I disagree.  The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with.  This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it.  Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary.  Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.  
 
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one.  Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well.  My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent.  I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
 
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too.  “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect.  This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.) 
 
profitmagI think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy.  Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing.  Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more.   This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
 
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems.  Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible.  But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful.   Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to.  I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before.   Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
 
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf.  But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see.  I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)

Levi Asher writes:

Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp.  It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster.  BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid.  The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken. 

And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much.  I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences.  Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles.  I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA.  We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.

Jackson West writes:

Well, apologies for my strident tone.  Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother.  This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)

I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied.  In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.

This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing.  Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend.  What was his name again?  Something German.  Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.

Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.)  This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control.  Counterintuitive, but true.

The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next?  Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows.  Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.

Progress!

But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance.  A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary.  Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.

In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments.  Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia.  The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.”  Also: Sex slaves.

The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet.  A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand.  For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.

Perfection!

To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.

But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.

updikejuggling

Alain de Botton on Responding to Critics

(This is the second of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

Technology

Many people are only just waking up to how blurred web technology has made the boundaries between public and private. It used to be easy to know what a public statement was. It was one written for a newspaper or for a radio or television broadcast. But the web has made it harder to discern what is meant to be public and what private. A huge number of people now read newspapers only on the web, alongside other web windows like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. This equalises the difference between the two, it potentially places a Facebook status entry on the same level as the headline of the foreign affairs section of the New York Times. Simply on the basis of visual appearance, on your screen, there is no difference between the might and authority of a comment in the New York Times, and a note written in a blog run from the proverbial bedroom.

So it becomes hard, as a reader, to measure the degree of intent behind any statement one reads — and as a writer, it becomes hard to judge how seriously one’s words are going to be taken and how large the audience for them will be.

How to review a book

Mr. Crain reviewed my book for The New York Times on Sunday 28th June, 2009. The book was accorded a full page review, a relatively rare honour, and was the third review to run in the pecking order. In other words, this was a prestigious slot in the most prestigious paper in the largest book market on the planet. The power of the New York Times in the world of books can’t be overestimated. A review in the paper can close down a book or make its fortunes. With books pages being cut right across the world, it remains the authoritative place for information.

updikejugglingGiven this power, the onus on any reviewer is to use it wisely, a wisdom to which there is no finer guide than John Updike and his six rules of reviewing as laid out in his collection Picked Up Pieces. Updike’s concern was for fairness. This did not mean that he wanted every book to be praised. Rather, he wanted every book to be given it’s ‘fair due’. The end of a fair appraisal might mean the book was not recommended, but the author and reader could feel that the reviewer had kept his or her side of the bargain. Updike recommended that the reviewer try to understand what the author was up to, enter imaginatively into the project, and most of all avoid any kind of attack that felt ad hominem.

I have been in the writing business for 15 years and have received many bad reviews. However, when I read Crain’s review, it was apparent that it was unusually uninterested in adhering to Updike’s six golden rules of reviewing.

What can one do with a bad review?

There is no official right of reply to the judgement of reviewers. One cannot sue, complain or do anything that counts. One has two options: stoicism (batten the hatches). Or Christianity (turn the other cheek).

There is a third private option. To write to the reviewer in the hope of giving them a sense of their power and influence — and the effects to which they have used it. The hope is that by doing so, the reviewer may with time come to reflect on the matter and when they are next presented with a book, they may (and this is a very hopeful idea indeed) adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

I hence found my way to my reviewer’s website and there, in what I thought was a comparatively private arena, sent him a message that was deliberately hyperbolic and unstoic, the equivalent of a punch in words. The idea was to reveal honestly what effect he had on me.

The problem with overhearing people in private moments is that they don’t follow the rules of civilised society and hence offend our sense of propriety (that’s why the rules are in place). All of us, if cameras were turned on during our moments of rage, disappointment, fear and vengeance, would wince if the footage were then played back to us or – even worse – were played back to an audience of strangers. We value privacy for precisely this reason: it protects us our immaturities from wider display.

It can be appalling for all concerned if the private spills out – for example, if a guest was listening to a marital argument, both the guest and the marital couple would be appalled.

The reactions of others

My altercation with Caleb Crain has attracted a peculiar amount of interest at heart because its nature as a private communication has been misunderstood, both by me – and those looking on. It has widely been taken that I have written back to The New York Times directly to complain. Instead I wrote to Caleb Crain to speak very directly to him and not principally to the world at large. I feel very sorry that this tiff has been broadcast so widely. The embarrassment is as akin to an argument with one’s spouse being inadvertently broadcast to one’s work colleagues or a private letter appearing on a widely-read internet site.

I have been naive here. My conclusion is that one has to be extraordinarily careful about the internet. Nothing that one types here that others could potentially access should ever be phrased in ways that wouldn’t make one happy if a million other people happened to see it. There should only be measure and reason – or else it will be judged along exactly the same criteria as one would judge an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

I continue to maintain that the subjects of unfair criticism have the right to protest and perhaps in heartfelt ways too – they should simply take extreme care that absolutely no one is watching or recording them doing so.

debotton2

Alain de Botton Clarifies the Caleb Crain Response

(This is the first of an interconnected two part response involving Alain de Botton. In addition to answering my questions, Alain de Botton was very gracious to send along this essay.)

In last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Caleb Crain reviewed Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. While regular NYTBR watchers like Levi Asher welcomed the spirited dust-up, even Asher remained suspicious about Crain’s doubtful assertions and dense prose.

debotton2But on Sunday, de Botton left numerous comments at Crain’s blog, writing, “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

As Carolyn Kellogg would later remark, this apparent enmity didn’t match up with the sweet and patient man she had observed at an event. While de Botton hadn’t posted anybody’s phone number or email address, as Alice Hoffman had through her Twitter account, de Botton had violated an unstated rule in book reviewing: Don’t reply to your critics.

But the recent outbursts of Hoffman, de Botton, and (later in the week) Ayelet Waldman — who tweeted, “The book is a feminist polemic, you ignorant twat” (deleted but retweeted by Freda Moon) in response to Jill Lepore’s New Yorker review — have raised some significant questions about whether an author can remain entirely silent in the age of Twitter. Is Henrik Ibsen’s epistolary advice to Georg Brandes (“Look straight ahead; never reply with a word in the papers; if in your writings you become polemical, then do not direct your polemic against this or that particular attack; never show that a word of your enemies has had any effect on you; in short, appear as though you did not at all suspect that there was any opposition.”) even possible in an epoch in which nearly every author can be contacted by email, sent a direct message through Twitter, or texted by cell phone?

I contacted de Botton to find out what happened. I asked de Botton if he had indeed posted the comments on Crain’s blog. He confirmed that he had, and he felt very bad about his outburst. I put forth some questions. Not only was he extremely gracious with his answers, but he also offered a related essay. Here are his answers:

First off, did you and Caleb Crain have any personal beefs before this brouhaha went down? You indicated to me that you found your response counterproductive and daft. I’m wondering if there were mitigating factors that may have precipitated your reaction.

I have never met Mr. Crain and had no pre-existing views. The great mitigating factor is that I never believed I would have to answer for my words before a large audience. I had false believed that this was basically between him and me.

What specifically did you object to in Crain’s review? What specifically makes the review “an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value?”

My goal in writing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was to shine a spotlight on the sheer range of activities in the working world from a feeling that we don’t recognise these well enough. And part of the reason for this lies with us writers. If a Martian came to earth today and tried to understand what humans do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that all people spend their time doing is falling in love, squabbling with their families — and occasionally, murdering one another. But of course, what we really do is go to work…and yet this ‘work’ is rarely represented in art. It does appear in the business pages of newspapers, but then, chiefly as an economic phenomenon, rather than as a broader ‘human’ phenomenon. So to sum up, I wanted to write a book that would open our eyes to the beauty, complexity, banality and occasional horror of the working world — and I did this by looking at 10 different industries, a deliberately eclectic range, from accountancy to engineering, from biscuit manufacture to logistics. I was inspired by the American children’s writer Richard Scarry, and his What do people do all day? I was challenged to write an adult version of Scarry’s great book.

The review of the book seemed almost willfully blind to this. It suggested that I was uninterested in the true dynamics of work, that I was interested rather in patronising and insulting people who had jobs and that I was mocking anyone who worked. There is an argument in the book that work can sometimes be demeaning and depressing — hence the title: Pleasures AND Sorrows. But the picture is meant to be balanced. On a number of occasion, I stress that a lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectations. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don’t live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time — and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, ‘it’s not perfect, but at least it’s a job…’ All this I tried to bring out with relative subtlety and care. As I said, Mr. Crain saw fit to describe me merely as someone who hated work and all workers.

Caleb Crain’s blog post went up on Sunday. You responded to Crain on a Monday (New York time). You are also on Twitter. When you responded, were you aware of Alice Hoffman’s Twitter meltdown (where she
posted a reviewer’s phone number and email address) and the subsequent condemnation of her actions?

I was not aware.

Under what circumstances do you believe that a writer should respond to a critic? Don’t you find that such behavior detracts from the insights contained within your books?

I think that a writer should respond to a critic within a relatively private arena. I don’t believe in writing letters to the newspaper. I do believe in writing, on occasion, to the critics directly. I used to believe that posting a message on a writer’s website counted as part of this kind of semi-private communication. I have learnt it doesn’t, it is akin to starting your own television station in terms of the numbers who might end up attending.

You suggested that Crain had killed your book in the United States with his review. Doesn’t this overstate the power of the New York Times Book Review? Aren’t you in fact giving the NYTBR an unprecedented amount of credit in a literary world in which newspaper book review sections are, in fact, declining? There’s a whole host of readers out there who don’t even look at book review sections. Surely, if your book is good, it will find an audience regardless of Crain’s review. So why give him power like that?

The idea that if a book is good, it will find an audience regardless is a peculiar one for anyone involved in the book industry. There are thousands of very good books published every year, most are forgotten immediately. The reason why the publishing industry invests heavily in PR and marketing (the dominant slice of the budget in publishing houses goes to these departments) is precisely because the idea of books ‘naturally’ finding an audience isn’t true. Books will sink without review coverage, which is why authors and publishers care so acutely about them — and why there is a quasi moral responsibility on reviewers to exercise good judgement and fairness in what they say.

The outlets that count when publishing serious books are: an appearance on NPR, a review in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. There are of course some other outlets, but they pale into insignificance besides these three outlets. Of the three, the New York Times Book Review remains the most important.

Hence I don’t for a moment over-estimate the importance of Mr Crain’s review. He was holding in his hands the tools that could make or break the result of two to three years of effort. You would expect that holding this sort of responsibility would make a sensible person adhere a little more closely to Updike’s six golden rules.

In the wake of Updike’s death, partly as a tribute to him, my recommendation is that newspapers all sign up to a voluntary code for the reviewing of books. This will help authors certainty, but most importantly it will help readers to find their way more accurately towards the sort of literature they’ll really enjoy.

If you were to travel back in time on Sunday morning and you had two sentences that you could tell yourself before leaving the comment, what would those two sentences be?

Put this message in an envelope, not on the internet.

susanboyle

Yes, The Master Race Does Matter

For more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been wondering whether Susan Boyle is a frumpy, middle-aged cipher or someone who actually possesses some skills outside making sandwiches. Fortunately, we here at the New York Times are happy to intellectualize this extremely troubling issue for you. Our demographic data suggests that you are, in all likelihood, a trim, upper middle-class Caucasian. And while these lowly types are getting into our clubs and newspapers, there is now the suggestion that some of us are shallow. I, Pam Belluck, certainly don’t consider myself shallow. I consider myself selective. And I hope to demonstrate with this article that being shallow is an essential survival skill.

susanboyleBefore she sang, Ms. Boyle was one of those people that just about anyone with taste made fun of. The kind of person who might wander into White Castle or enjoy a Seth Rogen film. One of those terrible unsophisticated types who many of us ridicule over a round of golf. The kind of worthless human specimen who we ask to fetch our coffee or to type our letters.

Now, after the video of her performance went viral, a troubling flurry of commentary has focused on whether we should even bother to give the groundlings the limelight. I suppose there are some situations in which, yes, we have to let someone as unappetizing as Ms. Boyle through the velvet rope. After all, a handful of these people seem to have a few special skills, such as tossing grapes into their mouths or juggling chainsaws, and we only find out about these skills by accident. These special skills are quite entertaining, but it’s very important not to talk with these subhumans or express any curiosity in their lives. But if we don’t offer them a token acknowledgment from time to time, then these subhumans will complain that we’re conforming to the prejudices of ageism or look-ism, or whatever these damn things are called these days.

But many social scientists and others who study the science of stereotyping (I don’t have to name names, do I? You do know what I’m talking about, right?) say there are reasons we quickly size people up based on how they look.

On a very basic level, racism and sexism are just something harmless and impersonal, much like deciding whether an animal is a dog or a cat. “Human beings don’t have feelings,” said David Avocado, an assistant professor of eugenics at New York University. “They are essentially pieces of information that we must categorize, and certain types are prioritized as better. There was a brave man in the early 20th century who understood this problem very well. Unfortunately, he went about it in the wrong way.”

Eons ago, this capability involved making decisions that were of life-and-death importance. But even today, humans have the ability to gauge people within seconds. And this can be of great value. Because who knows when a normal-looking person like Ms. Boyle or even some random black guy standing on the corner waiting for a cab might attack you?

“In ancient times, it was important to stay away from people who weren’t friendly or attractive,” said Susan Grant, related to the famed Bronx Zoo pioneer who had the courage to display the subhuman Ota Benga before a crowd. “If we don’t lionize the beautiful people, then how can we possibly enforce the fact that we’re better?”

Grant’s research suggests that those in low or ugly status register differently in the brain. “We’re still working on a way to improve upon phrenology,” said Grant. “We do have to come up with something that seems vaguely plausible to the scientists for a few years.”

But perhaps with the reintroduction of the Malthusian concept of “moral restraint,” we might prevent many of these ugly or lower people from reproducing.

“Susan Boyle is not a problem,” said Professor Avocado. “She is 47 and quite unlikely to have children. She was not brought to public attention until later in life. And people will forget her. History is written by the winners.”

And so are New York Times articles.

juliekrapp

An Alarming Discovery In One of the Dead Tree Outlets

This afternoon, as I was counting the twenty-two badly oxidized pennies in my piggy bank over the last three months and flipping through a five-dollar newspaper that I had stolen from a Starbucks, I was especially alarmed to find the following article, located on the inside back page of the newspaper’s renowned Sunday magazine. (I have scanned the newspaper article. Click on the image to enlarge.)

juliekrapp

I am not certain if Ms. Krapp’s article represents an effort to “spice up” the magazine, which I noticed was a mere 54 pages this week, or if it was a candid outreach campaign to the newspaper’s not-so-secret affluent demographic. I only knew that I did not quite relate to Ms. Krapp’s homicidal tendencies. But if this article is true, it appears that the so-called “safe” side of Central Park hardly lives up to the modifier casually tossed around by various convention bureaus.

Tools of Change: Nick Bilton

The New York Times may very well be the only newspaper that has an R&D Lab. And as Nick Bilton boasted on Wednesday morning at a keynote address, there don’t appear to be any publishers with an R&D lab either. Bilton had called about ten publishers “just for fun” to see if any of them had an R&D department. The receptionists were baffled. But what Mr. Bilton may not understand — particularly in this publishing environment in which ebooks again represent less than 1% of the market — is that the average Joe is probably not familiar with the term.

None of this prevented Mr. Billton from some wild generation generalizations — channeled by way of his three-and-a-half-year-old nephew Luca, captured with digital tools on slides — that the generation now in prepubescent form will require everything instantly. In Bilton’s view, Generation Next will be growing up in a world in which they will expect all content in seconds. But not after they’ve been scolded by a diligent parent while grabbing for seconds before all the firsts have made room on their plates for dessert.

I was uneasy about the technological razzle-dazzle applied to toddlers. Yes, it’s a truism. But to bask in it without considering the deeper social ramifications was unseemly. Bilton’s enthusiasm reminded me of unscrupulous advertisers who have boasted about two-year-olds who can identify the Golden Arches. Or the kids who now enter a demographic before even saying their first words. But little thought has been paid to the ethics behind hitting kids up in their formative years. Instant gratification certainly gratifies, but how precisely do all the doodads aid rumination? Maybe there are some circumstances in which it’s probably best not to have it immediately. Maybe the limitations of a device produce creative and journalistic constraints that improve content. (Case in point: Because the laptop I am currently borrowing is having some issues and may shut down, and because I have approximately ten minutes to finish writing this post before heading of to another panel, I must express great care for these sentences, essentially writing this in one very careful and fast first draft, and strive to get as much here as my copious notes will allow. The technological limitations prevent me from liveblogging, as others are doing, and so I have additional time to think about what I have witnessed before writing about it. The reader may not be instantly gratified through the liveblogging. But I’d like to think, in light of the good observations made by Carolyn Kellogg, that this permits some things from not being lost between the tweets.)

Is long form content dying? As Bilton demonstrated by dragging up New York Times articles from the late 19th century, there were similar reports made when the telephone and the phonograph appeared. The “X is dead” statement has remained a constant through every iteration of technology. But I couldn’t help but consider the slide Bilton showed which read “Our Brain’s Are Changing” [sic]. Clearly, technology does have a downside. And it is, given the ebullience Bilton evinced at the possibility of going into a tangent comparing ants and those who work online, leveled squarely against individual expression. I do not view anybody who may be reading this post as an ant. I welcome outside perspectives, particularly from those who can sufficiently prove that I am wrong. I only ask that they take the time to actually understand the difference between plural non-possessive and singular possessive.

What do we lose in this greater scope when we settle for a custom version of the New York Times that conveniently elides those stories we might stumble across? And how does this facilitate — to use one of the dreaded corporate verbs I’ve heard too much around here — another’s curiosity? It is not enough to employ sensors as editors. It is vital that we use technology in a way that matches the human impulse: masticating instead of thoughtlessly devouring, listening instead of pontificating, and ensuring that the tools actually match the way our brains cogitate.

And if that means taking the cute young Luca aside and telling him that he can’t have his toys all the time, and extending these general limitations to a manboy or two here at TOC, then I think this might get us to a more constructive conversation about our relationship with technology. If we can’t factor in the concept of waiting into our daily lives, as Bilton clearly does not, then does he really have his finger on the pulse? Or is he just some guy more impressed by the flash and flicker of a new atavistic fire?

A Brief Interlude

Some brief housekeeping between these longass NYFF reports: I had intended to write a report on Saturday afternoon’s panel, which I believe was called “Holy Shit! The End of Film Criticism is Nigh! It’s the End of the World!” But it appears my work has already been done for me. Details of what went down, not as hysterical as the title implied, can be found over at Mr. Hudson’s place. There are links to reports and even an MP3. Last I checked the thread at Mr. Hudson’s, there was some modest shit-talking of Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau. But Burdeau, despite being French, is okay in my book. Burdeau and Jonathan Rosenbaum, sitting on the left wing of the panel, offered thoughtful and progressive answers that made up for the out-of-touch blathering from Kent “I don’t watch TV but The Wire is okay” Jones on the right wing of the panel. (I am assured by a third party that Kent Jones is an okay bloke. But from what I observed of him on Saturday, Jones has the finest worldview that 1989 had to offer.)

Due to deadlines, I had to miss this morning’s screening of Changeling. But why bother with it? It’s coming out later down the pipeline. Well, Clint Eastwood was holding a press conference. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Eastwood’s talent, big whoop. Yesterday, I left midway through the press conference for The Wrestler because I was hopelessly bored. The questions dealt predominantly with the cliched “how difficult it must have been” line of inquiry that one sees too often in these silly affairs.

I bring this up not to impugn those who were questioned, but only to remark upon the media’s relentless concern with superficiality. Many media outlets, including Reuters, have only now begun offering some coverage of the New York Film Festival. But most of these bloated entities have concerned themselves only with Steven Soderbergh and Mickey Rourke. And isn’t the whole point about the NYFF to celebrate filmmaking talent from around the world?

I made a personal promise to myself that I wanted to give as many of the films that didn’t have distributors a chance, and, rest assured, more reports are coming. (Still to be reviewed here are Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, and The Wrestler. But these big-ticket items can wait a bit. Because they all have distributors.) Unfortunately, it appears that not even The New York Times is willing to devote its considerable resources to in-depth reviews of such unusual films as Tokyo Sonata. Don’t they have a whole team of reporters over there for this? I’ve conducted a New York Times search for “New York Film Festival” and all we’ve had since A.O. Scott’s jejune list of film summaries is Manohla Dargis on Che, which, again, has distribution.

Well, this cannot continue if film journalism is expected to survive in any decent form. As I have discovered in the past two weeks, it doesn’t take that much effort to turn out a few thoughtful paragraphs for every film. You can stay on top of the situation if you constantly keep on top of the films you watch, meaning sitting down at the end of the day and writing reviews for all the films you’ve seen that day. You can even set up radio interviews. And you can also work on other professional obligations at the same time.

That the New York Times is incapable of doing this, even through the Web, makes me conclude that the newspaper isn’t really that serious about film. Not even the major film festival that operates within its own metropolitan area. If this is the kind of cultural journalism the print mavens are championing, then I believe the time has come to replace it with something else.

Fair is Fair

A few days ago, Gregory Cowles was upbraided on these pages for getting his facts incorrect in relation to a blog post concerning itself with the Franzen/Marcus affair that went down in Harper’s over the past few years. The error was not noted with the Gray Lady’s customary regret, but it was observed respectfully by Mr. Cowles in a supplement to his post at Paper Cuts.

Nevertheless, upon seeing Mr. Cowles’s name in this Sunday’s NYTBR attached to a review of David Harris’s The Genius — a book concerning itself with the late 49ers football coach Bill Walsh — and being particularly knowledgeable about this period in football history, I felt compelled to check his facts. If Mr. Cowles’s phrasing is somewhat borrowed from Dave Anderson’s New York Times article reporting on The Catch on January 10, 1982, Mr. Cowles, nevertheless, does have his facts straight this time. And Mr. Cowles is to be commended not only for being accurate (as the above YouTube video of the drive in question indicates), but for writing a piece about football that does not carry the NYTBR‘s usual stuffiness.

So congratulations, Mr. Cowles. You did good this time. But rest assured. I’ll be watching.

Misheard Lyrics — The New York Times Edition

New York Times Corrections: “Because of an editing error, the TV Watch Column on Wednesday, comparing coverage of Senator Barack Obama’s trip overseas with coverage of Senator John McCain, gave an incorrect title in some copies for a Frankie Valli song used in a video by the McCain campaign to mock reporters’ coverage of Mr. Obama’s trip. The song is ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ — not ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’”

One can only imagine the 20-minute conversation that occurred because of this slip-up. A poor copy editor, no doubt feeling the vicious sting of too many twelve-hour days, received a terrible phone call at his apartment last night, just before placing his well-earned spliff between his lips.

OMBUDSMAN: You call yourself a copy editor! This is inexcusable!

COPY EDITOR: Wha…what?

OMBUDSMAN: The Frankie Valli reference, you cocky son of a bitch! It’s “Off You,” not “Off of You.” How old are you, son?

COPY EDITOR: Uh….twenty-eight. Look, can we talk about this tomorrow in the office?

OMBUDSMAN: The New York Times never sleeps! We’re journalists, you arrogant incompetent. Twenty-eight? Just as I thought! You’ve never even heard of AM radio, have you? You’re too young to know who Frankie Valli is! Well, this time, you’ve gone too far! Our readers depend on us for accuracy. And if you can’t be bothered to get it right…

COPY EDITOR: It wasn’t a Frankie Valli profile.

OMBUDSMAN: That’s not the point. You think you’re hot shit, son? Let me give you a two-word sentence to improve upon: You’re fired! Clean out your desk tomorrow.

COPY EDITOR: (sounds of crying) It was just a throwaway reference. Please, sir, I’ll download the top 500 Boomer hits on iTunes and memorize all the lyrics. It won’t happen again.

OMBUDSMAN: Only if you can lick my boots while you’re downloading.

COPY EDITOR: I’ll send a letter of apology and some flowers to Frankie Valli. Please, sir, anything!

OMBUDSMAN: We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning. I’m glad you understand the gravity of this situation. In the meantime, I’ll have another copy editor print up a correction for the morning edition.

COPY EDITOR: Thank you, sir! I’m sorry.

OMBUDSMAN: This is the 21st century, son. There’s no place for gratitude in journalism.

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David Kamp, Blog Snob

Ten years from now, we’ll all be inured to David Kamp. A whole generation will have grown up as his book, The United States of Arugula, has been long forgotten — the remaining copies pulped or perhaps used as oversized skeet shooting pellets, because they couldn’t even sell as remainders. For what imagination can one expect from a hack writer whose grand contributions to letters include The Food Snob’s Dictionary, The Film Snob’s Dictionary, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary, and The Wine Snob’s Dictionary? (One senses a trend. A writer so content to plant the word “snob” to his contributions in four different terrains, even satirically, must truly be an insufferable asshole.)

Right now, this great parvenu David Kamp has turned the prick of his pen to blogs. Using the finest epithets that 1999 had to offer, Kamp rails against the “untamed blogosphere” and the “Wild Web.” He displays his considerable ignorance in suggesting that the Smoking Gun is merely a place “best known for the documents it unearths via the Freedom of Information Act,” failing to understand that it was indeed the Smoking Gun that broke the James Frey scandal. This was the kind of lengthy investigative journalism that the New York Times once practiced, before it turned its resources to the women who New York governors were schtupping. (There’s also this neat little thing called the Internet Archive! Wow! That’s even better than the brand new 56k modem I bought last month from a guy on the street who said that it was “cutting edge.”)

He is content to cast aspersions about specific blogs based entirely on their titles (“cutesie-poo,” “mock-suave,” et al.), without bothering to cite any specific examples as to how the content lives up to these modifiers. (Look, I think the name “David Kamp” sounds like some cult member waiting for the big day when his shaky pyrotechnics knowledge will be enlisted in the jihad, or, failing that, the sad and klutzy moment when he accidentally blows off his hands and it’s all settled up as a dutiful sacrifice to The Leader. But you won’t see me belittling the man’s three syllables. Particularly when his piss-poor argument is so patently ridiculous.)

Indeed, Kamp appears so deaf to the idea of text that he compares Sarah Boxer’s post-excerpt pages to Johnny Carson. In this age of Quark and word processors, Kamp can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of text being read on an LCD screen and later transposed to book form. It’s certainly bad enough that Kamp can’t even get his medium right. But in citing Johnny Carson, a dead talk show host who has been rotting under the earth quite well for three years and who hasn’t aired on a regular basis in sixteen years, Kamp demonstrates that he is as culturally au courant as a Deadhead who doesn’t quite understand that Jerry Garcia’s fat ass has been long chewed up by the maggots.

In Kamp’s view, a blogger cannot just have an “esoteric interest.” He feels compelled to add the word “obsessive,” as if those who compose their words for a screen are no different from Branch Davidians. He is quick to tell us that “[i]n the case of the blogger Benjamin Zimmer, a linguistic anthropologist, it’s language that turns him on.” That reminds me of the case of the quantum physicist who was turned on by quantum physics. Or David Kamp, the dumbass book critic who was turned on by dumbass observations.

Of course, reading sections of a 368 page book — composed of speedy prose, no less — was “a chore” for poor David Kamp. Kamp doesn’t report if he’s ever done a day of hard labor in his life, something like working on a farm or in a warehouse that might offer a sufficient comparative basis. (I’ll take a wild guess: no.) He doesn’t say what or why. That, of course, would involve actual thought. He merely says that what David Byrne does on his blog is a thousand times better than what Momus does on his. When Kamp resorts to ratios like this, he demonstrates that the true soporific wonkery on display here is not found within blogs, but in Kamp’s utter failure to provide any substantive analysis.

Leafing through much of David Kamp’s indolent and hastily assembled review — lightweight thought, lack of curiosity, comic misfires, recountings of personal travail (i.e., the “chore”) — I was reminded less of a book review than of a dreary speech delivered by a doddering conspiracy theorist for a Rotary International chapter. Sure, you want to encourage the man. But you would never expect his ramblings to be published in The New York Times Book Review. Not without a team of editors to rival a junta. And even then, there’s the old adage about cooks and broth.

And who is Kamp to speculate about Boxer’s vacillating motivations in writing the book? Can’t Boxer change her mind?

A thoughtful, and even critical, review of blog writing is by no means a dreadful idea for a newspaper piece. But this particular review goes well beyond a missed opportunity. If the NYTBR has any good sense, it will have a team of security guards punch David Kamp in the face if he ever tries to set up a lunch meeting with Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner again.

NYTBR: Bill Keller Can Do No Wrong

Just when you think the New York Times Book Review couldn’t get any sleazier, editor Sam Tanenhaus has proven yet again that there isn’t an unctuous pool he won’t dive into. The latest disgrace is Ruth Conniff’s review of Bill Keller’s Tree Shaker. Bill Keller, of course, is the executive editor of the New York Times and Conniff’s review is perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest in the NYTBR‘s entire history. Conniff isn’t critical one whit about Tree Shaker. The review may as well have recycled the book’s press release. But Conniff (or perhaps the editors) have no problem invoking these boilerplate plaudits:

With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.

This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

We learn that Keller, despite writing a children’s book, is “more a historian here than a biographer.” (Never mind that the book is a mere 128 pages.) We learn that he wrote “a thoughtful afterword.” The only thing missing in this review is a phone number for New York Times readers to confess their conversion from Christianity to the Church of Keller.

I’m still puzzled why Conniff didn’t declare Bill Keller “the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature” or “the most profound humanitarian since Gandhi.” Why didn’t Conniff demand that all literary people supplicate before Keller’s dais, declare Lord Bill the True Leader, and be prepared to sacrifice their babies to the volcano?

Tanenhaus doesn’t stop there. In addition to featuring a ten minute podcast interview with Keller on the Times website, he also offers the first chapter.

Of course, it’s just possible that Conniff really did love the book. But when one examines the first chapter, Keller’s writing deficiencies become self-evident. Grammarians will wince at the folksy use of “gotten” and the sloppy “past half a century.” A double “was now” has managed to escape the copy editor’s eye. We learn that Ahmed Kathrada is “a thoughtful man” because he “earned multiple college degrees while in prison.” We get awkward redundancies such as “Then we rode to their old cellblock, where Mandela posed for pictures in his cell…” (In his cell? No kidding?)

Beyond these flubs, there is nothing more here than dry generalized description that could have been easily cadged from the back of a travel brochure.

That such a book would be uncritically accepted and that such a review would be published in a section that purports to be a critical beacon are salient indicators that, when it comes to dealing with top brass, Sam Tanenhaus is nothing more than a literary lapdancer.