You Should Be Ashamed for Liking [Insert Genre Here]

INSTRUCTIONS TO FREELANCER SELLING MIND AND SOUL FOR PEANUTS: Please circle the appropriate options contained within brackets and provide the appropriate language where specified. Then return this form to Slate Book Review editor Dan Kois. Do not attempt to stray from the formula. While we appreciate your natural writing voice, there’s little that you can contribute to Slate in this brave new world of superficial outrage.

The boilerplate has been carefully perfected to make many readers needlessly indignant, to get the beloved author John Green to react on Twitter and/or get huffy in a VlogBrothers YouTube video, and to otherwise send clicks to our flailing outlet, which has not specialized in useful criticism for quite some time. Ah, but those days are over. As we discussed over the phone, YA seems to be the hot thing right now. It is important for us to impeach its character in the strongest and least subtle terms. We are Slate. These rubes cannot ignore us.

We are counting on angry Tumblr posts and glum Vimeo confessionals and somber Facebook posts and 140 character missives, which we will transform into traffic through the purest methods of outrage alchemy. Please note that you have waived your right to pursue damages against Slate for any nasty insults or death threats hurled at you, but we urge you to retweet it all for maximum exposure. As we both agreed, your credibility as a writer does not matter. Slate, in turn, will incorporate propaganda methods through social media, using the modifiers “thoughtful” and “provocative” in relation to your piece. We don’t have a lot in our budget, but an unpaid Slate intern will arrive at your home to salute your ignoble work with complimentary mojitos if you play ball with us. (Well, not really. But we like to keep hope alive within this soulless operation. We assure you that the joke’s on us!)

So let’s get started. Here are the first four paragraphs of the Slate piece. Please fill out and return by 5:00 PM. We will contact you tomorrow with the next four paragraphs after we have fed your choices into our outrage algorithm.

BODY

As [insert recent hot YA title] [enters into theaters / hits the bestseller list / is discussed by millions on social media], it can be hard to remember that [once upon a time / in a galaxy far, far away / before the Internet], an adult might have [felt embarrassed / consulted a therapist / thrown herself out of a window] to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because [it is bad / it is for kids / the cover contains a strobing light that might harm epileptics / there are no trigger warnings for the dark content contained inside] [OPTIONAL REASSURANCE BREAK WITH DASHES CAN BE PLACED HERE: CONSULT SLATE EDITOR FOR OPTIONS] but because [it was written for teenagers / a handful of conservatives have rightfully protested it / it is akin to eating cultural vegetables / it is less than 300 pages].

[The once-unseemly notion / The commonly critical consensus / The overly stressed sentiment] that [it’s cool / it’s acceptable / it’s a gateway to other titles] is now [INSERT JEZEBEL LINK TO UNITE #YESALLWOMEN CROWD INTO COLLECTED INTERNET OUTRAGE OVER PIECE]. Today, [teenagers write Bella and Edward fan fiction / grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels / baristas hope to be the next Kendall or Kylie Jenner] with pride. There are [INSERT FLAVORWIRE OR BOOKRIOT LINK HERE TO FOMENT OUTRAGE FROM READERS] that [adults should read / that YA is literature too / that YA does not cause hair loss / that any schlub with a tablet can write YA]. But [reading YA / writing YA / balancing Maureen Johnson books on the top of your head] doesn’t mean much these days. A [INSERT STATISTICS-LADEN PUBLISHERS WEEKLY ARTICLE TO SUGGEST AUTHORITY] by [a market research firm / an authoritative blogger / a minimum wage slave standing in a mall with a clipboard / Malcolm Gladwell] found that [INSERT STAT]. [Note to Freelancer: Our research team hasn’t established a house style on this point yet, but be sure to write a sentence or two on what the definition of “young adult” is supposed to mean. Work in “new adult” if you can.]

[CYCLE BACK TO STATISTICS-LADEN PW ARTICLE FOR TRANSITION TO NEXT PARA], which might be why I [wasn’t surprised / wasn’t shocked / couldn’t work myself up into a lather / didn’t shower today] over this news. I’m surrounded by [YA-loving adults / YA readers / people who are YA-curious], [online / in real life / both online and in real life]. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is [worldly / adult-worthy / better than popping bubble wrap]. That kept me [closeted / bashful / terrified] about expressing my [morally superior / fuddy-duddy / rash / carefully considered] opinion: Adults should [feel embarrassed / throw themselves off bridges / form twelve-step support groups] about [reading / writing] literature for children.

Let’s set aside [the scholarly efforts that have shown YA to be a viable genre / the transparently trashy stuff], which [only academic quacks subscribe to / no one defends as serious literature]. I’m talking about [the genre the publishing industry / the shit that the Smart Bitches chick is always talking up / anything that Jennifer Weiner likes], often called [“new adult” / “realistic fiction” / “kid lit” / crack cocaine]. Those are the books, like The Fault of Our Stars [Note to Freelancer: It is important that you mention John Green’s seminal novel over and over. This is essential to fomenting Internet outrage. Failure to do so will be considered breach of contract.], that [are about real teens doing real things / suggest importance to young readers by quoting Shakespeare in the title], and that rise and fall not only on [the strength of their stories / the truth of their convictions / the telegenic quality of the author] but, theoretically, on [the quality of their writing / the loudness of their audience / the academic rigor of their defenders]. These are the books that could plausibly be said to [be replacing literary fiction / to be replacing movies / to be encouraging kids to engage in illicit activities] in the lies of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.

PAYMENT

Expect payment for this piece three months after its publication and after your reputation has taken a thorough beating.

This concludes Stage One of the editorial process.

Thank you for working with Slate!

What Will Become of Uninformed Muttonheads Who Promulgate Misinformation on Slate About Public Libraries?

On April 22, 2014, Slate published a long, intellectually reprehensible, and dangerously ignorant article written by Michael Agresta, a self-described “writer and critic” who is such a condescending simpleton that he once compared Lena Dunham’s artistic growth with “a kid playing with this incredible new toy.” The true child is Agresta, who has opined on the state of public libraries with the consummate acumen of a competitive eater who lacks time to taste the hot dogs he stuffs down his gargantuan maw in his rush to hog the questionable spotlight. To say that Agresta gets public libraries very wrong is an understatement. It is like saying that Brad Paisley does not understand racism or Jenny McCarthy does not understand science. For this puffed up little Fauntleroy willfully insinuates, through the hack’s lazy technique of Googling one solitary link to support each foggy point emerging from the dim mist of an addled mind, that public libraries don’t have much of a shot at evolving in a digital age, even as he fails to pore through the considerable journalistic ink revealing what they’ve accomplished already and how many of these digitally inclusive achievements are rooted in principles more than a century old.

SudokuAgresta points to the NYPL’s present Central Library Plan (see my previous reporting), which threatens to shutter the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL branches while uprooting the main branch’s unprecedented research division in the Rose Reading Room, as something which would merely invite physical collapse. What he fails to consider is how shifting the research collection from beneath the main library to a New Jersey storage facility will cause considerable delays when any member of the public requests a special item (to say nothing of how the new architectural plan hopes to accommodate a heightened influx of visitors; all this was chronicled by The New York Times in 2012 but don’t count on Michael “I’ve Got a Slate Sudoku Puzzle to Fill In” Agresta for due diligence). He wrongly and smugly assumes, without bothering to look up the facts or talk with any public officials, that a library without books “seems almost inevitable,” even when the actual facts reveal regular people checking out physical books at the NYPL more than ever before: total circulation at 87 branches has risen 44% since 2008. This is because Agresta is not a journalist. He is a prevaricating muttonhead, little more than a dimebag propagandist, writing tendentious pablum that, like most of the rubbish published in Slate’s godforsaken cesspool, contributes to cultural dialogue much as rats enhance apartments.

alaWhile Agresta is right to point to (without citing it) the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study’s alarming statistic that more than 40% of states have reported decreased public library support three years in a row, he hasn’t thought to contact the ALA to determine if this trend has continued. By contrast, it took me all of two minutes to contact the ALA’s Office for Research and Statistics. I got the current statistics 90 minutes later from a very helpful man named R. Norman Rose. It turns out that, in FY 2013, states reported that they were having an easier time soliciting funds for public libraries. Rose was good enough to inform me that the new report will be up on Monday. Agresta mischaracterizes the Pennsylvania Senate vote in which the Free Library of Philadelphia came close to shuttering. Active mobilization from the public — more than 2,000 letters directed at state legislators — prevented the so-called “Doomsday” Plan C from being enacted. In other words, the library is far from dead in America. A very active public is preserving it from hostile political forces and any dispatches about its future need to take this activism into account. Agresta then points to 200 public libraries shutting down in the United Kingdom without pointing to the far more interesting problem: nobody seems to know how many public libraries in the United States have closed.

loaburnFrom such dubious figures and distorted facts, Agresta concludes that we are apparently living in an “era to turn its back on libraries,” and he has the effrontery to pull the librarian’s answer to Godwin’s Law out of his chintzy pauper’s hat: the burning of the Library of Alexandria. After shuffling various apocryphal versions of the centuries-old story behind the conflagration like a lonely salesman playing solitaire in a motel room, Agresta then makes the reductionist conclusion that “even the smallest device with a Web browser now promises access to a reserve of knowledge vast and varied enough to rival that of Alexandria.” This is the foolish statement of a blinkered man who has never set foot in special collections, much less considered how books published only a few decades ago can quickly go out of print, often without a digital backup. As someone who sifted through invaluable special collections papers that nobody had touched in two decades only last week, I find Agresta’s conclusion risible. Agresta also doesn’t seem to understand that paper ages and that librarians exact tremendous care to keep invaluable archives preserved. (As scholar Sarah Churchwell informed me in an interview in February, Princeton has kept its F. Scott Fitzgerald papers so tightly sealed that not even the most fastidious historians are allowed to touch its pages.) And while digitization certainly helps when the original source isn’t available (and can often reinvigorate existing collections much as the NYPL Lab’s Menus and Map Warper pages do), not every piece of paper is going to get digitized. Libraries thrive when print and digital systems come together. The mistake by arrivistes like Agresta is when foolish rhetoric is trotted out in lieu of the facts:

If the current digital explosion throws off a few sparks, and a few vestigial elements of libraries, like their paper books and their bricks-and-mortar buildings, are consigned to flames, should we be concerned? Isn’t it a net gain?

carnegiepittAgresta then attempts to paint the Carnegie libraries as “the backbone of the American public library system” without pointing to one vital impetus behind the Scotsman’s philanthropy: Carnegie wanted libraries to be the most striking structures in small communities from both an architectural and communal standpoint. Early Carnegie libraries, such as the Free Library of Braddock, had recreational facilities and billiard tables on the first floor. As David Nasaw describes in his biography of Carnegie, Carnegie wanted these libraries to be perfect. The Pittsburgh library alone set aside space for a natural history museum, an art gallery, and a music hall, and involved one of the largest nationwide architectural contests of its time, involving 102 entries from 96 architects in 28 cities. Agresta’s boorish suggestion that libraries resembling strip malls are a continuation of Carnegie’s grand ideals is not only incorrect but an act of vulgar complacency, especially when this foolhardy Slate scribe has the audacity to suggest that “design benefits were ancillary, of course, to the fundamental purpose of the Carnegie libraries.” Further, one can see the communal legacy of Carnegie’s library in Houston today, with its cooking classes, toddler yoga, Photoshop classes, and afternoon movies. In other words, libraries have been “experimenting” with “maker spaces” for more than a century, not recently as Agresta claims. Agresta’s suggestion that wondrous projects highlighted by the Library as Incubator Project are a response to digital perils is quickly eradicated once one visits the Project’s About page. While digital collections are highlighted (as they naturally would in any library in 2014), the Project’s primary purpose is to encourage collaboration between libraries and artists. But that doesn’t stop Agresta from ending his paragraph with this preposterous zinger, parroting the “eloquent” Caitlin Moran:

It’s easy to imagine how a local institution built on these sorts of programs could continue to serve as hospital of the soul and theme park of the imagination long after all the paper books have been cleared away.

Even when Digital Public Library of America founder Dan Cohen tells Agresta, “We love the idea of making a connection between the digital and physical realm,” Agresta fails to ken the DPLA’s purpose, as clearly delineated on its About page. The DPLA’s chief goal isn’t to replace the physical library with the digital one. It is to provide digitized materials to other libraries in a valiant attempt to “educate, inform, and empower anyone in current and future generations.” There is nothing within this mission statement which suggests, as Agresta puts it, a “revamped” set of library ideals for the digital age. But don’t tell that to Agresta, who saves one of his most officious insults for the hardworking librarians who are an unspeakably invaluable part of what keeps libraries going.

Agresta waxes priapic about “book-fetching robots” at the Hunt Library that are similar to the ones “used by companies like Walmart at distribution centers,” as if Walmart was the more ideal model for libraries than the beautiful Beaux Arts edifices carefully considered by Carnegie. But for all of the BookBot’s organizational virtues, the sterile stacks aren’t allowed to be touched by humans, which means that any accidental discoveries must be performed through Virtual Browse.

As the above video demonstrates, with Virtual Browse, you can’t just pick a random book off of these shelves and flip through it. Instead, you have to do so through cold and clinical clicks through a web interface. Moreover, the BookBot is, at $4.5 million, a colossal waste of money, especially since it only returns about 800 books per day — the same work that two full-time students can do. Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on books or programs or top-notch librarians?

When high-tech systems this costly and this inefficient represent the professed future, and when Agresta cannot be arsed to do the math, Agresta’s suggestion that books are “making a quiet last stand” is both ignorant and laughable. And yet in presenting such a partial, incomplete, and uninformed tableau of the current library situation, especially in relation to the Central Library Plan, Agresta’s disgraceful article willfully twists the truth about a very important battle for communal public space into a presumed defeat. This is vile and irresponsible journalism that deserves nothing less than contempt. Michal Agresta should never be allowed to write a longform article on any subject again and the dimwitted editor who signed off on this unvetted and prepossessed drivel should be mercilessly flogged in the court of public opinion just outside the Columbia Journalism Review offices.

Can a $900 Handgun Change Your Life? Yes!

When you first buy an HK45, the Ferrari of handguns, two thoughts are likely to pass through your mind. The first is “Can I really kill people now in a reckless and irresponsible way?” And the second is “Wow, I can finally murder all the people who disagree with the pablum published at Slate and argue it was self-defense!”

At least those are the thoughts I had after Heckler & Koch slipped several Benjamins into my maximizer codpiece brief in a creepy hotel room several weeks ago and claimed that anything I wrote about this fine German defense manufacturing company — which also specializes in assault rifles! submachine guns! grenade launchers! and other assorted weapons that are fun for the whole family! — would be of the highest journalistic integrity.

I hadn’t planned to make this purchase; indeed, I had not purchased anything. I was bent over with fellow hack journalist Catherine Price while several greasy men from Madison Avenue were throwing dirty dollar bills onto our naked backs and swaying our spent forms with their privileged equipment beyond the Marquis de Sade’s imagination. I’d merely followed some malnourished J-school grads with mountains of unpayable student debt to the Heckler & Koch demonstration stand, where a fast-talking young man with a headset, a phony smile purchased by venal corporations, and an impressive set of handguns pointed at quavering heads was telling several promising writers to sell their souls to the lowest bidder or be blown to smithereens on the spot. I watched as he shot down an aspiring Glenn Greenwald type who believed in principles. I witnessed him puree twenty years of carefully cultivated journalistic tenets with a smoothly delivered threat.

There were regrettably no samples. I wouldn’t be able to fire a gun until I had signed an NDA with a team of attorneys hovering above me, watching me with the cold look of casual traducers trading the last of their morality for a small piece of the pie. I capitulated everything: waived class action, my right to privacy, my very soul. A dumb bitter man named Dan Kois stood next to the attorneys, insisting that signing the contract meant that I wouldn’t have to eat my ethical vegetables. Comrade David Haglund, an easily manipulated ex-Mormon who had sold out his PEN America principles for a pittance, ensured me that the chow was better on the other side of the line. Comrade Matthew Yglesias said, “Selling your soul? No worries. The remaining shell’s got electrolytes.”

The Longform people were right behind me. But I knew I could get there first. I’d taken out my credit card. The damage? $900.00 — payable back to me once my sponsored “fact-checked” article ran.

As I crossed the exhibition hall, feeling the burden of a moral code drift away from my body like a human trafficking victim shrieking her last cry of innocence, I began to question what I’d just done.

That’s when I heard a voice call out to me.

“Oh, grow up!” the voice cried in a vaguely Canadian accent. “Do you think you’ll get a paying job anywhere where you’ll be able to practice unimpeachable journalism?”

I turned to find Malcolm Gladwell waggling a finger at me, a huge smile on his face. This man had some connection to the Heckler & Koch booth and had apparently bribed Jacob Weisberg with just enough cash to get a review-sized space purporting to address his critics without actually addressing the criticism. And because skepticism and critical thinking were swiftly disappearing from the American psyche without anyone noticing, Gladwell was able to move a few more copies of his latest volume, David vs. Goliath.

Gladwell purported to just feel so passionately about the handguns, in much the same way that he had professed passion about tobacco years before. He had been paid by Heckler & Koch to shout enthusiastically at any sad bastard who had just sold himself down the river. The Germans knew that Gladwell’s presence would rub away all tears. Gladwell was the human Kleenex for those who extruded any remaining snot of doubt.

“I love my HK45,” continued Gladwell, enunciating every syllable, before launching into a soothing and simplistic presentation of how every dyslexic on the planet would grow up to become all-powerful mutants, conquering the humans with newly discovered powers that included the manipulation of energy, sonic scream, an ability to pass through solid matter, telekinesis, and the ability to project misleading messages on other people’s tablets and smartphones in exchange for tracking their every movement and text message. Everyone who signed on to the Heckler & Koch contract, overseen personally by Beelzebub, would also become dyslexic. Would lose the ability to read. But who needed to do that anyway after the soul was compromised?

It was a strong, if odd, endorsement. And as I walked away, Gladwell’s words ringing in my ears, my anxiety over the price of selling out (did I really value myself that low?) quickly morphed into something else: excitement. Perhaps I might destroy the earth in a vengeful frenzy with my fellow dyslexics, to pay the bastards back for ignoring my secret genius for so long. I had worked 10,000 hours, dammit. And what did I have to my name? A few articles published for no compensation on The Awl. But now that I had crossed the line, I would join my companions. We would write more incoherent listicles for BuzzFeed. We would flood Tumblr with more animated GIFs that nobody would care about in three weeks. We would write more dumb articles for Slate. We would watch our fingers type unwise and unedited words on screens until the very last American had capitulated the ability to shout into the streets, “Oh for fuck’s sake! Enough is enough!”

Rhymes with Judd Hirsch

It did not take long for American literary critics to rise to the bait. The real scandal of Adam Kirsch’s comments is not that they revealed a secret bias for insularity on the part of The Adam Kirsch Committee. It is that Adam Kirsch made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Adam Kirsch Committee, composed of two members (Kirsch and his ego), has no clue or interest in genre or anything outside of recondite realist literature, no awareness of any writer taking real literary chances, a dismissive interest, at best, with books that challenge conventional notions, and an almost total inability to follow John Updike’s first rule of reviewing. Kirsch should respond not by imploring his editors to have him write more boring and lifeless reviews, but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that American book reviewing has become.

When Kirsch accuses the American literary community of being raw and backward, and the Nobel committee from selecting writers who “fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists,” he is failing to live up to an inclusive enlightenment that goes back practically to the Revolutionary War. It was more than 200 years ago that Sydney Smith, the English wit (also a reverend), famously wrote in Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy: “Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.” Not only does Mr. Kirsch lack that courage, but he fails to cite specifics on the fallacies of these “almost folk writers.” And he uses remarkable generalizations to suggest that these writers reflected the image of America that Europe wanted to see. On the contrary, Paris welcomed such radical American writers as Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and James Baldwin into its fold. In 2001, Philip Roth won the Czech-based Franz Kafka Prize. Richard Powers, Donna Tartt, and Roth have all won the UK-based WH Smith Literary Award in the last decade. Indeed, the Right Livelihood Award — the so-called “alternative Nobel” — handed out an award to an American this year. To judge by these developments, you would think that Kirsch simply hasn’t been paying attention to the last ten years of American-European cultural relations.

But that, of course, is exactly the problem with Adam Kirsch. As long as the Nobel mess could still be mined for a straw man — as long as a sour critic like Kirsch had to leave the New York Sun for the online pastures of Slate in order to become a legend in his own mind — it was easy to make these generalizations and fall into the same trap as Horace Engdahl. And now that the Nobel Literature Prize has been handed out to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, and some Americans are scrambling to find out who he is, Kirsch can perform his happy little dance of how he knew this French writer all along.

I fully confess that I have not read a single word that Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio has written. I am ignorant, and am happy to fill in the gap. And I confess my ignorance here to avoid Kirsch’s greater calamity and his almost total absence of courage.