In Cold Blood (Modern Library Nonfiction #96)

(This is the fifth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Journalist and the Murderer.)

halmacapoteTruman Capote was a feverish liar and a frenzied opportunist from the first moment his high voice pierced the walls of a literary elite eager to filth up its antimacassars with gossip. He used his looks to present himself as a child prodigy, famously photographed in languorous repose by Harold Halma to incite intrigue and controversy. He claimed to win national awards for his high school writing that no scholar has ever been able to turn up. He escorted the nearly blind James Thurber to his dalliances with secretaries and deliberately put on Thurber’s socks inside out so that his wife would notice, later boasting that one secretary was “the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.” Biographer Gerald Clarke chronicled how Capote befriended New Yorker office manager Daise Terry, who was feared and disliked by many at the magazine, because he knew she could help him. (Capote’s tactics paid off. Terry gave him the easiest job on staff: copyboy on the art department.) If Capote wanted to know you, he wanted to use you. But the beginnings of a man willing to do just about anything to get ahead can be found in his early childhood.

Capote’s cousin Jennings Faulk Carter once described young Truman coming up with the idea of charging admission for a circus. Capote had heard a story in the local paper about a two-headed chicken. Lacking the creative talent to build a chicken himself, he enlisted Carter and Harper Lee for this faux poultry con. The two accomplices never saw any of the money. Decades later, Capote would escalate this tactic on a grander scale, earning millions of dollars and great renown for hoisting a literary big top over a small Kansas town after reading a 300 word item about a family murder in The New York Times. Harper Lee would be dragged into this carnival as well.

mlnf96The tale of how two frightening men murdered four members of the Clutter family for a pittance and created a climate of fear in the surrounding rural area (and later the nation) is very familiar to nearly anyone who reads, buttressed by the gritty 1967 film (featuring a pre-The Walking Dead Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock and a pre-Bonnie Lee Bakley murder Robert Blake as Perry Smith) and a deservedly acclaimed 2005 film featuring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. But what is not so discussed is the rather flimsy foundation on which this “masterpiece” has been built.

Years before “based on a true story” became a risible cliche, Capote and his publicists framed In Cold Blood‘s authenticity around Capote’s purported accuracy. Yet the book itself contains many gaping holes in which we have only Smith and Hickock’s words, twisted further by Capote. What are we to make of Bill and Johnny — a boy and his grandfather who Smith and Hickock pick up for a roadside soda bottle-collecting adventure to make a few bucks? In our modern age, we would demand the competent journalist to track these two side characters down, to compare their accounts with those of Smith and Hickock. Capote claims that these two had once lived with the boy’s aunt on a farm near Shreveport, Louisiana, yet no independent party appears to have corroborated their identities. Did Capote (or Hickock and Smith) make them up? Does the episode really contribute to our understanding of the killers’ pathology? One doesn’t need to be aware of a recent DNA test that disproved Hickock and Smith’s involvement with the quadruple murder of the Walker family in Sarasota County, Florida, taking place one month after the Clutter murders, to see that Capote is more interested in holding up the funhouse mirror to impart specious complicity:

Hickock consented to take the [polygraph] test and so did Smith, who told Kansas authorities, “I remarked at the time, I said to Dick, I’ll bet whoever did this must be somebody that read about what happened out here in Kansas. A nut.” The results of the test, to the dismay of Osprey’s sheriff as well as Alvin Dewey, who does not believe in exceptional circumstances, were decisively negative.

Never mind that polygraph tests are inaccurate. It isn’t so much Hickock and Smith’s motivations that Capote was interested in. He was more concerned with stretching out a sense of amorphous terror on a wide canvas. As Hickock and Smith await to be hanged, they encounter Lowell Lee Andrews in the adjacent cell. He is a fiercely intelligent, corpulent eighteen-year-old boy who fulfilled his dormant dreams of murdering his family, but Capote’s portrait leaves little room for subtlety:

For the secret Lowell Lee, the one concealed inside the shy church going biology student, fancied himself an ice-hearted master criminal: he wanted to wear gangsterish silk shirts and drive scarlet sports cars; he wanted to be recognized as no mere bespectacled, bookish, overweight, virginal schoolboy; and while he did not dislike any member of his family, at least not consciously, murdering them seemed the swiftest, most sensible way of implementing the fantasies that possessed him.

We have modifiers (“shy,” “ice-hearted,” “gangsterish,” “silk,” “scarlet,” “bespectacled,” “bookish,” “virginal,” “swiftest,” and “sensible”) that conjure up a fantasy atop the fantasy, that suggest relativism to the two main heavies, but there is little room for subtlety or for any doubt in the reader’s mind. Capote does bring up the fact that Andrews suffered from schizophrenia, but diminishes this mental illness by calling it “simple” before dredging up the M’Naghten Rule, which was devised in 1843 (still on the books well before psychiatry existed and predicated upon a 19th century standard) to exclude any insanity defense whereby the accused recognizes right from wrong. But he has already tarnished Andrews with testimony from Dr. Joseph Satten: “He considered himself the only important, only significant person in the world. And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or a fly.” I certainly don’t want to defend Andrews’s crime (much less the Clutter family murders), but this conveniently pat assessment does ignore more difficult and far more interesting questions that Capote lacks the coherence, the empathy, or the candor to confess his own contradictions to pursue. Many pages before, in relation to Hickock, Capote calls M’Naghten “a formula quite color-blind to any gradations between black and white.” In other words, Capote is the worst kind of journalist: a cherry-picking sensationalist who applies standards as he sees fit, heavily steering the reader’s opinion even as he feigns objectivity. The ethical reader reads In Cold Blood in the 21st century, wanting Katherine Boo to emerge from the future through a wormhole, if only to open up a can of whoopass on Capote for these egregious and often thoughtless indiscretions.

Capote’s decision to remove himself from the crisp, lurid story was commended by many during In Cold Blood‘s immediate reception as a feat of unparalleled objectivity, with the “nonfiction novel” label sticking to the book like a trendy hashtag that hipsters refuse to surrender, but I think Cynthia Ozick described the thorny predicament best in her infamous driveby on Capote (collected in Art & Ardor): “Essence without existence; to achieve the alp of truth without the risk of the footing.” If we accept any novel — whether “nonfiction” or fully imaginative — as some sinister or benign cousin to the essay, as a reasonably honest attempt to reckon with the human experience through invention, then In Cold Blood is a failure: the work of a man who sat idly in his tony Manhattan spread with cadged notebooks and totaled recall of aggressively acquired conversations even as his murderous subjects begged their “friend” to help them escape the hangman’s noose.

In 2013, Slate‘s Ben Yagoda described numerous factual indiscretions, revealing that editor William Shawn had penciled in “How know?” on the New Yorker galley proofs of Capote’s four part opus (In Cold Blood first appeared in magazine form). That same year, the Wall Street Journal uncovered new evidence from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which revealed that the KBI did not, upon receiving intelligence from informant Floyd Wells, swiftly dispatch agent Harold Nye to the farmhouse where Richard Hickock had lodged. (“It was as though some visitor were expected,” writes Capote. Expected by Hickock’s father or an author conveniently tampering his narrative like a subway commuter feverishly filling in a sudoku puzzle?) As Jack de Bellis has observed, Capote’s revisions from New Yorker articles to book form revealed Capote’s feeble command of time, directions, and even specific places. But de Bellis’s examination revealed more descriptive imprudence, such as Capote shifting a line on how Perry “couldn’t stand” another prisoner to “could have boiled him in oil” (“How know?” we can ask today), along with many efforts to coarsen the language and tweak punctuation for a sensationalist audience.

And then there is the propped up hero Alvin Dewey, presented by Capote as a tireless investigator who consumes almost nothing but coffee and who loses twenty pounds: a police procedural stereotype if ever there was one. Dewey disputes closing his eyes during the execution and the closing scene of Dewey meeting Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, in a cemetery is not only invented, but heavily mimics the belabored ending of Capote’s 1951 novel, The Grass Harp. But then “Foxy” Dewey and Capote were tighter than a pair of frisky lovers holed up for a week in a seedy motel.

Capote was not only granted unprecedented access to internal documents, but Capote’s papers reveal that Dewey provided Capote with stage directions in the police interview transcripts. (One such annotation reads “Perry turns white. Looked at the ceiling. Swallows.”) There is also the highly suspect payola of Columbia Pictures offering Dewey’s wife a job as a consultant on the 1965 film for a fairly substantial fee. Harold Nye, another investigator whose contributions have been smudged out of the history told Charles J. Shields in a December 30, 2002 interview (quoted in Mockingbird), “I really got upset when I know that Al [Dewey] gave them a full set of the reports. That was like committing the largest sin there was, because the bureau absolutely would not stand for that at all. If it would have been found out, he would have been discharged immediately from the bureau.”

haroldnyeIn fact, Harold Nye and other KBI agents did much of the footwork that Capote attributes to Dewey. Nye was so incensed by Capote’s prevarications that he read 115 pages of In Cold Blood before hurling the book across the living room. And in the last few years, the Nye family has been fighting to reveal the details inside two tattered notebooks that contain revelations about the Clutter killings that may drastically challenge Capote’s narrative.

Yet even before this, Capote’s magnum opus was up for debate. In June 1966, Esquire published an article by Phillip K. Tompkins challenging Capote’s alleged objectivity. He journeyed to Kansas and discovered that Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend was hardly the ace athlete (“And now, after helping clear the dining table of all its holiday dishes, that was what he decided to do that — put on a sweatshirt and go for a run.”) that Capote presented him as, that Nancy’s horse was sold for a higher sum to the father of the local postmaster rather than “a Mennonite farmer who said he might use her for plowing,” and that the undersheriff’s wife disputed Capote’s account:

During our telephone conversation, Mrs. Meier repeatedly told me that she never heard Perry cry; that on the day in question she was in her bedroom, not the kitchen; that she did not turn on the radio to drown out the sound of crying; that she did not hold Perry’s hand; that she did not hear Perry say, ‘I’m embraced by shame.’ And finally – that she had never told such things to Capote. Ms. Meier told me repeatedly and firmly, in her gentle way, that these things were not true.

(For more on Capote’s libertine liberties, see Chapter 4 of Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.)

Confronted by these many disgraceful distortions, we are left to ignore the “journalist” and assess the execution. On a strictly showboating criteria, In Cold Blood succeeds and captures our imagination, even if one feels compelled to take a cold shower knowing that Capote’s factual indiscretions were committed with a blatant disregard for the truth, not unlike two psychopaths murdering a family because they believed the Clutters possessed a safe bountiful with riches. One admires the way that Capote describes newsmen “[slapping] frozen ears with ungloved, freezing hands,” even as one winces at the way Capote plays into patriarchal shorthand when Nye “visits” Barbara Johnson (Perry Smith’s only surviving sister: the other two committed suicide), describing her father as a “real man” who had once “survived a winter alone in the Alaskan wilderness.” The strained metaphor of two gray tomcats — “thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits” – wandering around Garden City during the Smith-Hickcock trial allows Capote to pad out his narrative after he has exhausted his supply of “flat,” “dull,” “dusty,” “austere,” and “stark” to describe Kansas in the manner of some sheltered socialite referencing the “flyover states.” Yet for all these cliches, In Cold Blood contains an inexplicably hypnotic allure, a hold upon our attention even as the book remains aggressively committed to the facile conclusion that the world is populated by people capable of murdering a family over an amount somewhere “between forty and fifty dollars.” As Jimmy Breslin put it (quoted in M. Thomas Inge’s Conversations with Truman Capote), “This Capote steps in with flat, objective, terrible realism. And suddenly there is nothing else you want to read.”

That the book endures — and is even being adapted into a forthcoming “miniseries event’ by playwright Kevin Hood — speaks to an incurable gossipy strain in Western culture, one reinforced by the recent success of the podcast Serial and the television series The Jinx. It isn’t so much the facts that concern our preoccupation with true crime, but the sense that we are vicariously aligned with the fallible journalist pursuing the story, who we can entrust to dig up scandalous dirt as we crack open our peanuts waiting for the next act. If the investigator is honest about her inadequacies, as Serial‘s Sarah Koenig most certainly was, the results can provide breathtaking insight into the manner in which we incriminate other people with our emotional assumptions and our fallible memories and superficially examined evidence. But if the “journalist” removes himself from culpability, presenting himself as some demigod beyond question or reproach (Capote’s varying percentages of total recall memory certainly feel like some newly wrangled whiz kid bragging about his chops before the knowledge bowl), then the author is not so much a sensitive artist seeking new ways inside the darkest realm of humanity, but a crude huckster occupying an outsize stage, waiting to grab his lucrative check and attentive accolades while the real victims of devastation weep over concerns that are far more human and far more deserving of our attention. We can remove the elephants from the lineup, but the circus train still rolls on.

Next Up: The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly!

The Journalist and the Murderer (Modern Library Nonfiction #97)

(This is the fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Taming of Chance.)

mlnf97One of the mistakes often made by those who immerse themselves in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is believing that MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is what matters most. But Malcolm is really exploring how journalistic opportunity and impetuous judgment can lead any figure to be roundly condemned in the court of public opinion. Malcolm’s book was written before the Internet blew apart much of the edifice separating advertising and editorial with native advertising and sponsored articles, but this ongoing ethical dilemma matters ever more in our age of social media and citizen journalism, especially when Spike Lee impulsively tweets the wrong address of George Zimmerman (and gets sued because of the resultant harassment) and The New York Post publishes a front page cover of two innocent men (also resulting in a lawsuit) because Reddit happened to believe they were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Yet it is important to approach anything concerning the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case with caution. It has caused at least one documentary filmmaker to go slightly mad. It is an evidential involution that can ensnare even the most disciplined mind, a permanently gravid geyser gushing out books and arguments and arguments about books, with more holes within the relentlessly regenerating mass than the finest mound of Jarlsberg. But here are the underlying facts:

On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald reported a stabbing to the military police. Four officers found MacDonald’s wife Colette, and their two children, Kimberley and Kristen, all dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald went to trial and was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences. Only two months before this conviction, MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss — the author of The Selling of a President 1968, then looking for a comeback — to write a book about the case, under the theory that any money generated by MacDonald’s percentage could be used to sprout a defense fund. MacDonald placed total trust in McGinniss, opening the locks to all his papers and letting him stay in his condominium. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, was published in the spring of 1983. It was a bestseller and spawned a popular television miniseries, largely because MacDonald was portrayed as a narcissist and a sociopath, fitting the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty public. MacDonald didn’t know the full extent of this depiction. Indeed, as he was sitting in jail, McGinniss refused to send him a galley or an advance copy. (“At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advance look at the book six months prior to publication,” wrote McGinniss to MacDonald on February 16, 1983. “As Joe Wambuagh told you in 1975, with him you would not even see a copy before it was published. Same with me. Same with any principled and responsible author.” Malcolm copiously chronicles the “principled and responsible” conduct of McGinniss quite well, which includes speaking with MacDonald in misleading and ingratiating tones, often pretending to be a friend — anything to get MacDonald to talk.)

wallacemacdonald

On 60 Minutes, roughly around the book’s publication, Mike Wallace revealed to MacDonald what McGinniss was up to:

Mike Wallace (narrating): Even government prosecutors couldn’t come up with a motive or an explanation of how a man like MacDonald could have committed so brutal a crime. But Joe McGinniss thinks he’s found the key. New evidence he discovered after the trial. Evidence he has never discussed with MacDonald. A hitherto unrevealed account by the doctor himself of his activities in the period just before the murders.

Joe McGinniss: In his own handwriting, in notes prepared for his own attorneys, he goes into great detail about his consumption of a drug called Eskatrol, which is no longer on the market. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 1980 because of dangerous side effects. Among the side effects of this drug are, when taken to excess by susceptible individuals, temporary psychosis, often manifested as a rage reaction. Here we have somebody under enormous pressure and he’s taking enough of this Eskatrol, enough amphetamines, so that by his own account, he’s lost 15 pounds in the three weeks leading up to the murders.

eskatrolnoteWallace: Now wait. According to the note which I’ve seen, three to five Eskatrol he has taken. We don’t know if he’s taken it over a period of several weeks or if he’s taken three to five Eskatrol a day or a week or a month.

McGinniss: We do know that if you take three to five Eskatrol over a month, you’re not going to lose 15 pounds in doing so.

Jeffrey MacDonald: I never stated that to anyone and I did not in fact lose fifteen pounds. I also wasn’t taking Eskatrol.

Wallace (reading MacDonald’s note): “We ate dinner together at 5:45 PM. It is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember and do not think I had one. But it is possible. I had lost 12 to 15 pounds in the prior three to four weeks in the process, using three to five capsules of Eskatrol Spansule. I was also…”

MacDonald: Three to five capsules for the three weeks.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: Right.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: And that’s a possibility.

Wallace: Then why would you put down here that…that there was even a possibility?

MacDonald: These are notes given to an attorney, who has told me to bare my soul as to any possibility so we could always be prepared. So I…

Wallace: Mhm. But you’ve already told me that you didn’t lose 15 pounds in the three weeks prior…

MacDonald: I don’t think that I did.

Wallace: It’s in your notes. “I had lost 12-15 lbs. in the prior 3-4 weeks, in the process using 3-5 capsules of Eskatrol Spansules.” That’s speed. And compazine. To counteract the excitability of speed. “I was losing weight because I was working out with a boxing team and the coach told me to lose weight.” — 60 Minutes

One of McGinniss’s exclusive contentions was that MacDonald had murdered his family because he was high on Eskatrol. Or, as he wrote in Fatal Vision:

It is also fact that if Jeffrey MacDonald were taking three to five Eskatrol Spansules daily, he would have been consuming 75 mg. of dextroamphetamine — more than enough to precipitate an amphetamine psychosis.

Note the phrasing. Even though McGinniss does not know for a fact whether or not MacDonald took three to five Eskatrol (and MacDonald himself is also uncertain: both MacDonald and McGinniss prevaricate enough to summon the justifiably hot and bothered mesh of Mike Wallace’s grilling), he establishes the possibility as factual — even though it is pure speculation. The prognostication becomes a varnished truth, one that wishes to prop up McGinniss’s melodramatic thesis.

* * *

Malcolm was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson over her depiction of him in her book, In the Freud Archives. In The Journalist and the Murderer, she has called upon all journalists to feel “some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship,” yet claims that her own separate lawsuit was not the driving force in the book’s afterword. Yet even Malcolm, a patient and painstaking practitioner, could not get every detail of MacDonald’s appearance on 60 Minutes right:

As Mike Wallace — who had received an advance copy of Fatal Vision without difficulty or a lecture — read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer, the camera recorded his look of shock and utter discomposure.

Wallace was reading MacDonald’s own notes to his attorney back to him, not McGinniss’s book. These were not McGinniss’s passages in which MacDonald was “portrayed as a psychopathic killer,” but passages from MacDonald’s own words that attempted to establish his Eskatrol use. Did Malcolm have a transcript of the 60 Minutes segment now readily available online in 1990? Or is it possible that MacDonald’s notes to his attorney had fused so perfectly with McGinnis’s book that the two became indistinguishable?

This raises important questions over whether any journalist can ever get the facts entirely right, no matter how fair-minded the intentions. It is one thing to be the hero of one’s own story, but it is quite another to know that, even if she believes herself to be morally or factually in the clear, the journalist is doomed to twist the truth to serve her purposes.

It obviously helps to be transparent about one’s bias. At one point in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm is forthright enough to confess that she is struck by MacDonald’s physical grace as he breaks off pieces of tiny powdered sugar doughnuts. This is the kind of observational detail often inserted in lengthy celebrity profiles to “humanize” a Hollywood actor uttering the same calcified boilerplate rattled off to every roundtable junketeer. But if such a flourish is fluid enough to apply to MacDonald, we are left to wonder how Malcolm’s personal connection interferes with her purported journalistic objectivity. In the same paragraph, Malcolm neatly notes the casual abuse MacDonald received in his mailbox after McGinniss’s book was published — in particular a married couple who read Fatal Vision while on vacation who took the time to write a hateful letter while sunbathing at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. This casual cruelty illustrates how the reader can be just as complicit as the opportunistic journo in perpetuating an incomplete or slanted portrait.

The important conundrum that Malcolm imparts in her short and magnificently complicated volume is why we bother to read or write journalism at all if we know the game is rigged. The thorny morality can extend to biography (Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is another excellent book which sets forth the inherent and surprisingly cyclical bias in writing about Sylvia Plath). And even when the seasoned journalist is aware of ethical discrepancies, the judgmental pangs will still crop up. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (contained in the marvelous collection, Forty-One False Starts), Malcolm confessed her own disappointment in how Ingrid Sischy failed to live up to her preconceptions as a bold and modern woman. Malcolm’s tendentiousness may very well be as incorrigible as McGinnis’s, but is it more forgivable because she’s open about it?

* * *

It can be difficult for Janet Malcolm’s most arduous advocates to detect the fine grains of empathy carefully lining the crisp and meticulous forms of her svelte and careful arguments, which are almost always sanded against venal opportunists. Malcolm’s responsive opponents, which have recently included Esquire‘s Tom Junod, Errol Morris, and other middling men who are inexplicably intimidated by women who are smarter, have attempted to paint Malcolm as a hypocrite, an opportunist, and a self-loathing harpy of the first order. Junod wrote that “it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are animated by malice than Janet Malcolm” and described her work as “a self-hater whose work has managed to speak for the self-hatred” of journalism. Yet Junod cannot cite any examples of this self-hate and malice, save for the purported Henry Youngman-like sting of her one liners (Malcolm is not James Wolcott; she is considerably more thoughtful and interesting) and for pointing out, in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, how trials “offer unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness,” failing to observe how Malcolm pointed out how words or evidence lifted out of context could be used to condemn or besmirch the innocent until proven guilty (and owning up to her own biases and her desire to interfere).

Malcolm is not as relentless as her generational peer Renata Adler, but she is just as refreshingly formidable. She is as thorough with her positions and almost as misunderstood. She has made many prominent enemies for her controversial positions — even fighting a ten year trial against Jeffrey Masson over the authenticity of his quotations (dismissed initially by a federal judge in California on the grounds that there was an absence of malice). Adler was ousted from The New Yorker, but Malcolm was not. In the last few years, both have rightfully found renewed attention for their years among a new generation.

One origin for the anti-Malcolm assault is John Taylor’s 1989 New York Magazine article, “Holier than Thou,” which is perhaps singularly responsible for making it mandatory for any mention of The Journalist and the Murderer to include its infamous opening line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Taylor excoriated Malcolm for betraying McGinniss as a subject, dredged up the Masson claims, and claimed that Malcolm used Masson much as McGinniss had used MacDonald. It does not occur to Taylor that Malcolm herself may be thoroughly familiar with what went down and that the two lengthy articles which became The Journalist and the Murderer might indeed be an attempt to reckon with the events that caused the fracas:

Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert said of his famous character. The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.

Similarly, Evan Hughes had difficulty grappling with this idea, caviling over the “bizarre stance” of Malcolm not wanting to be “oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.” He falsely infers that Malcolm has claimed that “it is pointless to learn the facts to try to get to the bottom of a crime,” not parsing Malcolm’s clear distinction between evidence and the journalist’s ineluctable need to realize characters on the page. No matter how faithfully the journalist sticks with the facts, a journalistic subject becomes a character because the narrative exigencies demand it. Errol Morris can find Malcolm’s stance “disturbing and problematic” as much as he likes, but he is the one who violated the journalistic taboo of paying subjects for his 2008 film, Standard Operating Procedure, without full disclosure. One of Morris’s documentary subjects, Joyce McKinney, claimed that she was tricked into giving an interview for what became Tabloid, alleging that one of Morris’s co-producers broke into her home with a release form. Years before Morris proved triumphant in an appellate court, he tweeted:

The notion of something “unvarnished” attached to a personal account may have originated with Shakespeare:

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic—
For such proceeding I am charged withal—
I won his daughter.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Othello hoped that in telling “a round unvarnished tale,” he would be able to come clean with Brabantio over why he had eloped with the senator’s daughter Desdemona. He wishes to be straightforward. It’s an extremely honorable and heartfelt gesture that has us very much believing in Othello’s eloquence. Othello was very lucky not to be speaking with a journalist, who surely would have used his words against him.

Next Up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood!

The Bat Segundo Show: Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #382. He is most recently the author of Scenes from an Impending Marriage.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to reconcile the impending with illustrations depicting events from years ago.

Author: Adrian Tomine

Subjects Discussed: Doing time in Sacramento, veiling a personal experience with a sex change, which of Tomine’s characters is least like him, the liberation that comes in fabrication, scratched out names and Victorian literature, the original small audiences for Scenes and 32 Stories, the father’s fund, taking criticisms to heart, the drawbacks of working in the same realist vein, Tomine’s wife as the “first audience,” the artist’s fragile ego, the influence of printed literature and storytelling upon art, humbling versions of inspiration, Tomine’s degrees of aspiration and ambition, living a life in service to the drawing, facing the world, the “strenuous” exigencies of cartoonists, drawing panels without decor, Tomine’s perfectionist qualities, the freedom in pursuing work that isn’t going to be reviewed, feeling highly scrutinized, the pleasure in publishing harsh letters, the look of the ranger, using the fewest lines to get the maximum amount of detail, settling upon the three panel approach, maintaining a private style in secret scrapbooks, varying levels of creative insulation from the public, the very low frequency of sound words, the tongue licking in “Alter Ego,” seeing external details that other characters cannot, the grotesque reality of Chris Ware’s furry cats, the number of people who read books in Tomine’s New Yorker illustrations, the Venn diagram between 1990s subcultures and digital culture, disappearing subcultures, cartoonists who detest hippie and hipster culture, gesture and look, Alison Bechdel’s elaborate photographic process, and the pursuit of “realism” in an “unreal” medium.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to get into the ineluctable autobiographical angle through a different mechanism. Interviewers, critics — they’ve all said, “Oh, well, Tomine is totally autobiographical.” But here, you are tempting fate again with the subtitle of the book: “prenuptial memoir.”

Tomine: Right.

Correspondent: You mentioned in the introduction to 32 Stories that you “learned the useful trick of taking a personal experience and veiling it with a sex change or two.”

Tomine: Right.

Correspondent: So we have to talk about this. But I’m going to ask you: Which of your characters is least like you? How much of Scenes [From an Impending Marriage] emerged out of your reality? Or is there some liberation, so to speak, in the fabrication?

Tomine: Oh completely. I mean, everybody has been focusing on the autobiographical nature of this book and I think some of the promotional materials are talking about how it’s such a personal work or something. But I think in truth, in some ways — well, I wouldn’t say the least personal, but it’s certainly no more personal than the other books. And I think that definitely in the fictional stories, I feel a lot of the freedom that you refer to. And the flip side to that is there’s an inhibition that comes along with drawing yourself as the main character. And I think this book, this current one, is all definitely drawn from real experience, but very carefully edited and selected.

Correspondent: Yeah. Starting with the first story, where we see scratched out words of names and places and the like. Which, to my mind, didn’t necessarily mean privacy, but possibly meant an ode to the Victorian literature, where you have the first letter and the line long after that.

Tomine: Yeah. And also I think that this was the first time I just embraced the idea that this would be intended for as wide of an audience as possible. So it set up the ending, where I have the one swear word of the book scratched out too. So it doesn’t quite jump out as much as it would otherwise.

Correspondent: So wait a minute. I understood that this started out as something to be disseminated to wedding guests.

Tomine: Yes, that’s right.

Correspondent: Okay. So was it always intended for public consumption?

Tomine: No.

Correspondent: No.

Tomine: No. The original version that was slimmer. There were fewer pages. It was basically just Xeroxed and assembled. And it was meant to just be given out at the wedding. So the only audience was really going to be our close friends and family.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because 32 Stories came back in a third life, I suppose, by having that box of minicomics. And it seemed to me from the introduction that it also came about under a certain amount of duress. I’m wondering if people have to push you or kick you into getting things published these days. How does this come about?

Tomine: Well, I think that if someone really wanted to read between the lines and investigate. The dedication of this book explains a lot about why it’s now in stores. Because it’s dedicated to Nora, who’s my one-year-old daughter.

Correspondent: Aha! The father’s fund.

Tomine: Yeah, exactly. We know a lot of people are confused. They say that in the book you say your wife’s name is Sarah. Who’s this Nora that this book is dedicated to?

Correspondent: Your mistress, I thought.

Tomine: (laughs) Right. My Irish mistress.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

Tomine: Yeah, my wife was actually joking about that and saying, “Nobody ever has an Irish mistress.” I mean, there were a lot of reasons that went into the decision to actually publish it. But if I’m honest, one of them would definitely be just a bit of that new father panic of “I’ve got a life that I’m responsible for other than mine now.” So that was part of the thought process. At the same time, there was also the element of just how off the beaten path this book was for me. And that was appealing. Because when I finished my previous book, and digested a lot of the reviews and the response, that it was really clear to me that whatever it is that I publish next had to be pretty different. I think people had their fill of that specific tone and that meticulous realistic style of drawing. I don’t think it was — well, I take — the criticisms of that I took to heart. Not that it was poorly done, but that I’d been putting out a lot of that in that same vein for a number of years. So I didn’t really have a plan of what I was going to do next. But then it was kind of a relief to me when I realized that I basically had a complete book just sitting in my sketchbook. And it was as dramatic of a change as I was looking for.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve brought up a number of things just in the first few minutes.

Tomine: Right. I derailed you.

Correspondent: No, no. It’s great. I love this. Working on art for money. Working on art for audience response. And then simultaneously mining from your own personal life to generate narratives that often take an immense amount of time. In the case of Shortcomings, four years. So this leads me to wonder whether there’s possibly a double-edged sword here, if you are revolving your creative process around what the audience is telling you. Clearly, you still read reviews.

Tomine: Yeah.

Correspondent: Clearly, there is an interest to stay in this business. Obviously. But on the other hand, the fact that this book, this latest volume, came from a safe place. Where you were almost buffered by the possibility of critics dissecting every little aspect of your work. I mean, how does this work? How do you gravitate between the two? Or is it all one unified theory here? So to speak.

Tomine: No. I think you touched on a lot of the things that were in my mind really. Because this wedding book was definitely the most breezy and loose and — a word that’s never applied to my work, but — fun. And I think it was because of what you’re talking about. The idea that it basically wasn’t meant to be published. And that no one but a handful of people that I knew and loved would be seeing it. And really, even though I knew the people at the wedding would be seeing it, the only real audience I had in mind when I was creating it was my wife, Sarah. A lot of it was just a question of not “Is this going to be a great strip?” or “Is this going to be beautifully drawn?” or anything like that. But just “Is this going to make her chuckle at the end of the day?”

Correspondent: So really she’s your first audience.

Tomine: For this, especially.

Correspondent: Do you see that being — she’s going to be your future audience? Her and Nora perhaps?

Tomine: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, how do you insulate yourself from the constant probing?

Tomine: Well, I mean, whether I like it or not, she’s going to be my first audience. Just as the nature of working at home, and her curiosity. When she scrolls through my studio each day, she does take a look at what I’m working on. But at least so far, it’s been a real asset to me. Because she’s more well-read than I am. She used to work in publishing. And she has editing experience. She also, along with that, knows the fine art of dealing with the fragile ego of the writer or the artist. And she also just has a really good sense of humor. And I think that she’s, if anything, encouraged me over the years to try and tap into that a little bit more in my work.

(Image: Sarah Brennan)

The Bat Segundo Show #382: Adrian Tomine (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

The Bat Segundo Show: Karen Russell

Karen Russell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #379. She is most recently the author of Swamplandia!

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling alligators that the mean men left in his motel room.

Author: Karen Russell

Subjects Discussed: How “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” transformed into Swamplandia!, origin stories of characters, expanding and embroidering, the tradition of underworld stories, Dante’s percolating possibilities, heroic kids and their totem animals, the River Styx, the Seven Remaining Houses in Stiltsville, bookmobiles as boats, Kiwi as autodidact versus Ava as experiential learner, siblings as id, ego, and the superego, torturing characters, the risks of diverging from the established text, how Russell arranges her ideas, dealing with the constant froth of ideas, the way that time and space relates to the body, writerly tics, the dangers of the word “limn,” the many alligators named Seth, characters who share names close to the writers Louis Auchincloss and Emily Barton, the health benefits associated with not looking back, sentences ending with exclamation marks, child neglect and the places where protective services can’t reach, the early introductions to Sesame Street, grief and denial, “printing the legend,” the amusement park competition between Swamplandia! and World of Darkness, Adventureland, the scarcity of quirky plots, optimistic delusions and the dangers of uncritical faith, belief in the dead as a fantasy, managing opposing fantastical virtues while finding parallels between Ava and Kiwi, the naivete of employing Max Weber’s values in the contemporary world, egotism and genius, including blanks within sentences, knowing the “music” of your own home phone number, facing the blank page, working with Jordan Pavlin, pop culture in Pavlin-edited novels, and fighting for expletives.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Russell: The sprawl. This mimetic mangrove sprawl! I really got carried away with that place. I loved that setting and could see it so clearly. I wanted to just expand and embroider in a way. My agent and editor suggested that I do some serious paring down to what ends up being the dramatic action with Ava and Ossie. And then that just did not seem the plateau to keep those sisters on. I ended up feeling very frightened for Ossie and Ava, and disturbed about both sisters. And I think at a certain point I decided it was going to be an underworld story. I thought it was going to be this underworld Odyssey. There’s a nice tradition to work in there. (laughs)

Correspondent: Certainly.

Russell: That’s not copyrighted by Persephone.

Correspondent: No lawyers involved.

Russell: (laughs) Yeah, right. Don’t tell the Greeks.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, by explicitly referencing the River Styx — as you do about 150, maybe 200 pages into the book — I said to myself as I was reading this, “Oh, why did she have to go ahead and do that?” Because it’s nice to have the reader infer, “Oh!”

Russell: To trust.

Correspondent: “A River Styx-like metaphor.” I’m wondering if, in relying upon a myth like that, there is a danger in being too explicit. On the other hand, a reader can infer almost a Huck Finn-style situation as well.

Russell: Right.

Correspondent: What of this conundrum?

Russell: I really didn’t want it to be a one-to-one correspondence with any one of those stories. Although I’m sure they’re just in our bloodstream. Huck Finn and, as you say, the Odyssey. Dante. I think all of that was definitely percolating. But I think it’s dangerous to say, “Right. This is going to be Hamlet. But in the voice of a parrot!” Any way it reads just as that very direct correspondence.

Correspondent: Yeah. But at some point the decision was made to reference the River Styx.

Russell: Yeah. Well, my thinking there was that Ava, this child, is so glutted on those exact stories. Both the Yearling kinds of tales about heroic kids and their totem animals or whatever, and also the older myths. These older fairy tales. So the River Styx would be something from The Spiritualist Telegraph, which is a book that her sister has found on this wrecked Library Boat. That the kids are autodidacts. They are home-schooled on this island and they go to this wrecked Library Boat to get this magpie view of the reality outside their island. So they do have these piecemeal references coming in. And so much of her vision of the world is by analogy. It’s through the lens of these fairy tales and myths that he’s reading. I didn’t want people — but I do think it’s a danger. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m doing in the octave of the swamp.

Correspondent: Sure.

Russell: Hades.

Correspondent: Well, there is definitely a Stilsville. There’s seven remaining homes. I’m wondering if there was actually a Library Boat system similar to the Bookmobiles. I didn’t get a chance to actually delve into this. I was trying to look around. Because that really captured my imagination.

Russell: No! Wouldn’t that be great?

Correspondent: It would be fantastic!

Russell: What a great idea!

Correspondent: It would make complete sense in an archipelago.

Russell: I’m saying. Get some government funding. I think it would be so wonderful. And I ended up excising a lot of material about in the Library Boat.

Correspondent: Really?

Russell: That didn’t belong. But I thought just because I’m a nerdy bookworm, my god, that would have been my paradise. If there was a wrecked ship full of books. No librarians to nose around what you were reading. You could just take and go. And I love the idea that people would come and leave books. Which, you know, is the system that exists. But there would just be a book with a constantly evolving library.

Correspondent: Add Borges on top of that. Then you’ve got a really interesting idea. (laughs)

Russell: Oh yeah. Get Borges to captain that boat. Seriously.

Correspondent: Well, we got in a bit of a flurry here from the original trajectory. But Kiwi. I’m curious how Kiwi came to life in this. Because he starts off being a side character. And then he becomes, well, this is the other side of the story. And as we pointed out earlier, he’s not in the original story [“Ava Wrestles an Alligator”].

Russell: Right.

Correspondent: Why Kiwi above anybody else? Or rather above Ossie, who just disappears entirely? Because it is interesting that Kiwi is more of an autodidact where Ava is more of an experiential learner.

Russell: That’s beautiful.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about how this came into being.

Russell: Oh, I’m so glad that she reads that way to you. I was thinking the two sisters — you have Ossie, who is the book’s unconscious. I mean, she is totally merged with her idea of herself. This clairvoyant psychic experience. She goes way off the deep end into the occult. And then Ava, I think she’s on a plateau where she hasn’t really committed to any one way of seeing. She’s seduced by this world of the ghosts. But I wanted her to be one more voice, one more force. I almost wanted to think of these three siblings as the superego, the ego, the unconscious almost. Because Kiwi is this hyperarticulate. Self-identifies as a genius. Knows lots of big words, but mispronounces them.

Correspondent: Now, now. Schematic though.

Russell: Thinks meningitis is a compliment. Right. So he has this idea of himself as a really literate, really astute reader. An adult reader of the world. So he is, in many cases, a voice of reason. And I think Ava toggles between these two views. She’s got her brother, her older brother, who’s more rooted in reality. Informed by the mainland. Albeit, also at the same time, stunted and naive. Because he’s grown up on this island forty miles away from the mainland. And then she has this sister, who is this frightening lost character. Sort of deranged character. I don’t know if that answers your question. But I wanted Kiwi because the book really needs a character to work in a more comic register.

Correspondent: To torture. As you did.

Russell: Well, I do in fact torture him?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Russell: Well, I don’t think that I torture him. I think that I just put him in a situation among mainland teenagers and then watch what unfolds.

The Bat Segundo Show #379: Karen Russell (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Zadie Smith: The Literary Material Girl

There are many unpardonable qualities within Zadie Smith’s recent New Yorker confessional, which should bother anyone who has even a shred of empathy for anyone making less than $50,000 a year.

There is the embarrassment in Zadie Smith blabbering about a very private matter with a “friend” in a very public magazine (did further calumny emerge when the New Yorker‘s notoriously thorough fact checkers contacted this woman?). There is Zadie Smith’s callousness in collecting a loan from someone who is clearly impoverished (particularly when the money was “no skin off my nose,” as Zadie Smith reports; it is certainly “no skin off my nose” to buy a homeless man a sandwich from time to time, but one would never consider asking for the sandwich back). There is Zadie Smith using her privileged position as a New Yorker contributor, where she will collect a check she really doesn’t need for an article in which her friend receives no compensation (indeed, if anyone who knows both Zadie Smith and “Christine” connect the dots, Zadie Smith’s friend actually loses some “value” in this Faustian bargain). Zadie Smith characterizes her previous self as “a working-class girl who’d happened upon money” with her “essential character unchanged,” which sets up Zadie Smith, a 34-year-old debutante, to come out to her discreetly charming bourgeoisie demographic. (We do know that Zadie Smith attended the Franzen party, where she was “surrounded” by Nathan Englander, Mark Ronson, and Patrick McGrath. It would be difficult indeed to detect blue-collar bonhomie from this bunch.)

In short, Zadie Smith has written a tremendously insensitive article that is essentially the confession of a selfish and stingy ablutomaniac who seems to possess little desire in comprehending the motivations of anyone outside her bubble. This is the same novelist (“Fail Better!”) who confessed that she couldn’t write fiction after reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger, but who didn’t even have the guts to stand by her words — much as she didn’t have the nerve years ago to stand by her characterization of England as “a disgusting place”. (Go to the Guardian site now and you’ll see that the Shields article “has been removed as our copyright has expired.” And isn’t it interesting that this essay, published in The Guardian, on November 21, 2009, didn’t appear in the paperback version of Changing My Mind, while there’s no such problem with other essays published at The Guardian. One expects such cowardly backtracking from an army of publicists surrounding an overly protective Hollywood actor.)

But it’s this George Sand mess that I feel the overwhelming need to clean up. From Zadie Smith’s article:

Until this episode, I’d thought of myself as a working-class girl who’d happened upon money, my essential character unchanged. But money is not neutral; it changes everything, including the ability to neutrally judge what people will or will not do for it. George Sand: “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.” Well, it needn’t, but it does the way I do it.

Forget the split infinitive. The Sand quote, which Zadie Smith has lazily leeched from the shaky Thinkexist.com website, doesn’t appear in five editions of Bartlett’s Quotations that I consulted. And that’s because the quote doesn’t really come from Sand, but from a character within La Comtesse de Rudolstadt: a youthful-looking, middle-aged Zingara with a beautiful guitar beneath her cloak who is trying to express how she lives and relates to other people. Zadie Smith (like many self-published quotation books before her) leaves out a key part of the passage she’s quoting from. Here is the appropriate context:

Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it. All that is not a true exchange will disappear in the future society. We, I and my mate, practice that exchange and so enter the ideal.

This specific translated phrasing can be found in Joseph Amber Barry’s Infamous Woman: The Life of George Sand (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 284. Barry quotes from a three volume edition that was published in Paris in 1959. Regrettably, he doesn’t indicate whether or not this is his own particular translation from the French. (There was a three volume Classiques Garnier edition of La Comtesse de Rudolstadt published in 1959.) But other translations of the same passage suggest that Sand was getting at much more than some facile “leave them out in the cold because they won’t appreciate your succor” philosophy, as implied by Zadie Smith, the self-declared “financial illiterate.”

Here is the Gretchen Jane Van Slyke translation: “We, on the other hand, we have no need of the rich man’s money, we’re not begging; alms demean the receiver and harden the giver. Everything that is not exchange must disappear in future society. In the meantime, God allows my husband and me to practice that life of exchange and thereby to partake of the ideal.”

The Francis G. Shaw translation: “As for ourselves, we have no need of the money of the rich; we do not beg; alms debase him who receives and harden him who gives. All that is not exchange must disappear from the society of the future. In the meanwhile God permits us, my husband and myself, to practice this life of exchange and thus enter into the ideal.”

The Frank H. Potter translation: “We do not need the money of the rich, we do not beg; alms degrade those who receive them and harden those who give them. All that is not an exchange should disappear from the society of the future. Meanwhile, God permits my husband and me to practice this exchange, and thus to enter into the ideal.”

The Sand quote is one of the article’s most irresponsible components. For it paints George Sand — a literary figure who was very much concerned with charity — as a Reagan Republican. Let the bums starve on the streets. They’ll feel degraded anyway. And you, the benign charity giver, will harden your heart. It’s all about money, which isn’t neutral. Etcetera.

This clearly isn’t what the Zingara suggests at all. The rather idealistic viewpoint being promulgated by Sand’s characters is that all actions should be predicated upon exchange and that life, which does involve giving and receiving, would be more manageable with mutual consideration.

Zadie Smith chooses to view her exchange with her “friend” Christine as one that is centered around material goods. Give the “loan” to a friend and ask for the money back, rather than give the “loan” to a friend because it is the kind thing to do. Whoops! It was never about giving the money back. Christine then performs the charity of forgiving Zadie Smith, perhaps hoping that Zadie Smith will learn that what she did was extremely shitty. A fair enough exchange. But Zadie Smith hasn’t learned at all. Zadie Smith feels “degraded.” So Zadie Smith seeks a new form of exchange by memorializing this incident for the New Yorker in a professional capacity, where, presumably, others reading the incident will be able to pay this “exchange” forward. But it’s not really an exchange at all, because Zadie Smith will be remunerated materially for her inhumane solecism.

Writers routinely mine from their own personal experience. This has been true of artists as far back as Lascaux. But George Sand was very clear about how charity factored into her craft. Here is her epigraph to her autobiography, Story of My Life:

Charity before others; Dignity towards oneself; Sincerity before God. Such is the epigraph of the book I undertake. — April 15, 1847

The date is only five years after she had written La Comtesse de Rudolstad.

In an October 28th, 1854 letter, Sand would write to Armand Barbès:

But let me tell you what my sentiments are. There are actions which are beautiful and good. Charity may impose silence upon honor itself. I do not mean real honor, that which we keep intact and serene in the depths of our conscience, but visible and brilliant honor, honor as a work of art and as an historical glory. (Emphasis in original)

Barbès, of course, was an opponent of the July Monarchy — a period in French history when the haute bourgeoisie very much dealt the cards. When the Society for the Rights of Man was broken up by the police, Barbès created the Society of Avengers and was thrown into prison. There was also the Society of Seasons. In 1849, Barbès was sentenced to life imprisonment after attempting to bring down Auguste Blanqui, a one-time revolutionary collaborator who had become his enemy.

Barbès was, as many histories have shown, a fiery and colorful character. Sand was a friend. She was responding to Barbès’s sentiment (“I acted in a moment of surprise, when thinking more of my own interests than of those in the cause”) in relation to the Blanqui incident. She knew Barbès to be capable of charity.

In a May 11th, 1861 letter, Sand would write to her cousin Pauline Villot, in reference to the possibility of the Academic Francaise proposing Sand as a candidate for the Gobert prize:

I should not think it honest to accept a charity to which others in worse circumstances have real claims. Should the Academy accord me the prize, I would accept it, not without regret, but so as not to pose defiantly and to allow the morality of my works (which are said to be immoral) being openly declared. (Emphasis in original)

In other words, should any writer accept a great honor, they should view the honor as a form of exchange. The charity should be reciprocal. And as far as Sand was concerned, that reciprocity extended to not delimiting the morality contained within her work.

Aside from her experiential blunder, why then is Zadie Smith showing so little charity to the intricate moral questions contained within George Sand’s work? Why does Zadie Smith show so much dishonor not only to her friend, but the moral possibilities of writing?

It is because Zadie Smith does not appear to understand this vital “exchange” component of charity. It is because Zadie Smith blithely assumes that the New Yorker readership does too. It is because Zadie Smith has given George Sand a superficial read.

One must therefore ask how Zadie Smith will be able to take up the Harper’s New Books column with anything less than self-serving motivations. One of Zadie Smith’s predecessors — the late John Leonard, who wrote the same Harper’s column for many years — objected in 2007 to the sense of opportunism and entitlement that afflicted so many young critics. But now those young critics are growing up. Like Zadie Smith, the critics who remain entitled now approach writing not as a calling, but as a way to declare how little they care for viewpoints outside their own. That isn’t charity by any definition. It’s a writing approach that has the rare distinction of both degrading and hardening its practitioners.

The Bat Segundo Show: Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #315. Auletta is most recently the author of Googled and writes the “Annals of Communication” column for The New Yorker.

segundo315

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his Chinese food takeout history can be Googled.

Author: Ken Auletta

Subjects Discussed: Clarifying Auletta’s theory of Sergey Brin and Larry Page as “cold engineers,” responding to Nicholson Baker’s review, whether an engineer’s viewpoint is applicable to business, the efficiency of newspapers, Talking Points Memo, journalism that is translatable to the online medium, addressing the Gray Lady’s deficiencies, the McSweeney’s answer to the newspaper, Coach Bill Campbell, Eric Schmidt, Brin and Page’s apparent insensitivity to the book industry, Al Gore’s observations about Google’s eccentricities, the Google Chrome EULA controversy, user trust, the moral dilemma of Google Book Search, whether Google should be recused to some degree because the world has become increasingly privatized, the CIA and outsourcing, whether or not Google Book Search’s threat to an author’s livelihood has been overstated, Google’s obsession with 150, comparisons between Itek and Google, collapsing computers, Auletta’s affinity for control, Eric Schmidt’s views on promotional value, Rupert Murdoch’s recent dealings with Bing, CBS’s early involvement in YouTube, traditional media and online advertising, when Google is efficient, and investigating the semantics of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

aulettaCorrespondent: There’s one question that is presented in the book, but never actually quite answered. It’s probably something I just observed. And that is Google’s fixation with the number 150. They have 150 projects. They have cafeterias and conference rooms that are max 150. Did you ever get an answer as to why they were obsessed with this number? Numerologists?

Auletta: (laughs) I don’t think they’re obsessed with the 150 products. In fact, now they’re probably below 150 projects. The 150 — Larry [Page] actually did a search. Larry’s fixated on 150. It’s the size of cafeterias. To have people collaborate and talk to each other and not pull back and engage. And he did a Google search and came up with that answer to confirm his instinct. Now have I done that search to check that he’s right? No, I have not. But he, in his scientific way, came up with that answer. And he goes around the cafeterias. And he’ll say, “This is too big. This is the right size.” You know, each of them have little fetishes that they’re passionate about. And they’re insistent on. And that’s one of Larry Page’s. And who’s to say he’s wrong? They’ve done pretty good.

Correspondent: Let’s go back to the three horses you were talking about earlier. Google is developing anywhere from 150 projects to less, as we’ve just established. Search revenue is starting to dwindle. I’m curious if some of the more recent products — like, for example, Chrome OS, which is an open-source scenario, and Google Wave — these are a little bit different from the norm. Because the learning curve is a little bit more. It’s something that’s more designed for geeks than for regular people. Do you see this as a way of them anticipating that more regular people, more lay people, will become power users? Or are they just essentially carrying on with the same instinct that drove their company in the first place? Which was, “Let’s go ahead and do this and the revenue will come later.”

Auletta: Everything’s a jump all. Everything is “Let’s experiment. Let’s try this.” And that’s part of the genius of Google and the genius of the two founders. Their willingness to try things. To basically ask uncomfortable questions. And the why question: “Why not?” They come into every meeting and they say, Why not? So why not do Chrome? Why not do Wave? Why not have cloud computing? We have this computer capacity? Why don’t we utilize it? And why do people have to spend three hundred some odd dollars for Microsoft packaged software? Why not have it in the cloud which will follow you wherever you go on any device you’re on? So they’re asking those questions and they’re trying those things. And I think it’s much more the latter point. It’s basically: Let’s take some risks. We have the resources to do it. And wouldn’t this really be cool?

Correspondent: Or maybe it’s just a natural expansion. For some reason, reading your book, I was struck very much by the history of Itek in the ’60s. You know, Itek, where they were the people behind Project CORONA. And they just gobbled up companies left and right. Similar to what Microsoft did two, three decades later. But Google is a little bit different in the sense that everything is essentially developed in-house. Does this ensure that they won’t implode like Itek and, to some degree, Microsoft?

Auletta: But Google buys. They bought Android.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Auletta: They didn’t invent that. They bought it and took the guy who invented it. And he’s there running Android for them. Mobile device business. One of the dangers they have — and, for instance, the argument is that they don’t have a social network engine. So they’ve been slower in that area. So you noticed yesterday, what they did, they announced that search would extend to social networks in real time. And it’s a weakness they have. And it’s a weakness that any company, if you rely just internally. It can be a weakness if you just go out and acquire, and outsource everything. They’re trying to do both. Will they succeed? I don’t know. No one knows. The game continues and there’s no end in sight. But at some point, we’ll find out. Other great companies failed and then came back. Apple failed and then came back. So I take a long view of this stuff. They are trying things, but they’re getting large. And as you get large, you start losing creative people.

(Image: JD Lasica)

BSS #315: Ken Auletta (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play

Did the New Yorker Make Nicholson Baker Elitist?

Last year, the New York Review of Books had the bright idea of commissioning Nicholson Baker to write an exuberant essay about Wikipedia. Beginning with the simple sentence, “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing,” Baker’s piece went on to chart his participation and subsequent obsession with the well-known website. Baker expressed his genuine horror at cavalierly deleted articles and depicted the many communal surprises he found along the way. It was a journey of self-discovery that permitted many who had used Wikipedia to rediscover the collective pixie dust selflessly sprinkled in the pursuit of knowledge. The essay was widely cited and linked. Here was the man who had once tapped his life savings to preserve newspapers now mining unexpected nuggets from a rich digital deposit. And Baker, under the moniker “Wageless,” continued with his Wikipedia contributions for some months after the article had been published.

Fast forward to today, with The New Yorker — a publication that not a single writer can afford to say no to — commissioning Nicholson Baker to write about the Kindle. But where The New York Review of Books managed to subvert expectations, the New Yorker has applied a marketing team’s craven predictability, with Baker corrupting his voice in the process. Baker’s essay is laden with cheap shots and clumsy generalizations. He’s not interested in seeing the bigger picture, even as he attempts some slapdash journalism when talking with Russ Wilcox on the phone. I’ll defer to Teleread’s Robert Nagle for Baker’s gross technological oversights. The more troubling betrayal here — one I hope that is merely temporary — is that the man who once unapologetically expressed his passion about John Updike, Wikipedia, and the use of “lumber” is nowhere to be found in this piece. He has been replaced by a brazen elitist who — in this essay at least — is closer to Lee Siegel in temperament than the man who once wrote gently and eloquently about card catalogs, or the writer who has devoted his career asking us to find the magic within the quotidian. The man who has subtly beseeched us to commiserate with the lonely and misunderstood people toiling in offices and talking on phone sex lines has momentarily transformed into a cavalier ruffian who scoffs at regular people for having the temerity to express their enthusiasm on Amazon and who likewise suggests that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable.” (That last comment echos a regrettable stance that can also be found within an inexplicably meanspirited passage from Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Anthologist: “You have to hand it to those podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody’s listening to them. And then eventually they puff up and die.”)

For a writer who has been so careful with his sentences, it’s astonishing to see Baker capitulate like this.

I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this. If Baker is going to go after Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, then you’d think that he’d cop to the fact that he’s betrayed his own endearing populism for the New Yorker‘s lucrative word rate and prestige. (It should be observed that this is Baker’s first appearance in the New Yorker in nine years.)

The essay’s apologists will probably point to Baker’s defense of the iPod Touch (via Eucalyptus, ScrollMotion, and Stanza) later in the essay as a pro-technology concession. But aside from Baker’s inherently subjective position (indeed, one that doesn’t seem to consider other viewpoints), there’s Baker’s more troubling elision of class. How many unemployed types can afford either a Kindle 2 or an iPod Touch (costing $70 less than the Kindle 2) right now? Oh yeah. Baker hasn’t bothered with that. I guess one of the deals you make when you now sign on to write for the New Yorker is to act as if any thinking or feeling individual making under $30,000 a year doesn’t exist. Or that anybody who puts long hours into a blog or a podcast, or who uses a Kindle to read, can’t possibly be of societal value.

That’s a far cry from the man who once celebrated the “strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose” and who marveled at the capacity for people to build grand things with merely a keyboard and a desire to help. I hope that the old Baker comes back. But this new guy who can’t be bothered to laugh at a wasp passage because it appears on a screen? He sounds like a guy at a house party who can’t laugh at the Seth Rogen movie because it’s not playing in a movie theater.

[UPDATE: I will let this article stand unmodified and uncorrected as a reflection of how I felt at the time. But after some thought, I believe that I jumped to several needless conclusions, some of which have been cleared up by Nicholson Baker himself in the comments. (This update, incidentally, is not motivated by Baker’s appearance. I should point out that I was all set to respond to several comments before he arrived. But propinquity being what it is, the timing has worked out accordingly.) The upshot is this: I suspect that the rather grumpy tone of this article came about because I wrote it just after coming off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian driver who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive. My girlfriend and I, both in the early leg of this rather hellish journey, had acquired the article through email and read it on a cell phone. Perhaps these reading conditions prove Nick Baker’s point that the medium and the circumstances in which one reads can indeed factor into how one perceives the article, I detected several sentences as troublesome, interpreting them in an emotional way. I presented my findings in rather persuasive terms to my girlfriend, who was somehow persuaded. (I have a regrettable tendency to be able to persuade people of things even when I am wrong.) And the writing of this post occurred not long after we finally decamped from the raving lunatic driving the bus. I still believe that Baker should have used his writing talent for more enthusiastic purposes, but it was wrong of me to suggest some Svengali-like collusion between Baker and Remnick.]