Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOULD: OK.

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

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

KIMMEL: Well…

GOULD: What they read it for is immediacy.

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

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

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

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

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

(CROSSTALK)

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

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

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

GOULD: Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KIMMEL: Well, you should check your website then.

* * *

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” replied my girlfriend.

“What are you guys doing tonight?”

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

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

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

“Publius?” she asked.

“Jack Publius,” I replied.

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

“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.

“Roman origins,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

Gessen and Gould began dating not long after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

gouldporochista

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

But let’s move away from the class argument.

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

Gould was not a real writer.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, enough is fucking enough.

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

Okey Ndibe (The Bat Segundo Show #532)

Okey Ndibe is most recently the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Author: Okey Ndibe

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Subjects Discussed: The tendency of authors to gravitate to specific locations to find a city’s identity, Ndibe’s fictitious village of Utonki, Barclay Center’s encroachment upon Brooklyn, how eating fish can help you to better understand Nigeria, whether or not people who live close to water are more equipped to deal with life, conjuring up a novel from a 1,000 page draft, writing “the Great Nigerian Novel,” the Nigerian census problem, Festus Odiemegwu’s controversial remarks about Nigeria not having a reliable census since 1816, Nigeria as the third most populous nation in the world by the end of the 21st century, what the inability to track a population does to a national identity and a fictional identity, Nigeria as a country where absurdity makes sense, the disastrous Yar-Adua-Goodluck government, Nigeria ascribing honesty to criminals and criminal enterprises that masquerade as governments, Nigeria’s “honest criminals,” Gov. James Ibori’s 13 year sentence, bribery, American vs. Nigerian corruption, why it’s so difficult to end corrupt Nigerian politicians to jail, Ndibe’s arrest at the Lagos Airport, Nigeria’s Enemies of the State list vs. America’s No Fly list, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the do-or-die affair, Yar’Adua’s attempts to reach Ndibe after Ndibe refused to address him as President, anonymous messages sent to Ndibe in 2009 threatening arrest, decrying corruption and crime, the state of dissident writing in Nigeria, public and private media distinctions in Nigeria, the influence of journalism upon fiction, the lengthy italicized chapter in Foreign Gods, Inc., the impact of colonialism and religiosity on Nigeria, how certain events can encroach upon a reader’s experience comparable to imperialism, how past relationships between Europe and Nigeria affects current relationships, African artifacts, fuel and oil prices, spiritual implication, religious origins for a fictitious war god, settling on the right types of allegorical men to represent Nigeria, gourmands, poetic talkers, reformed Marxists, religion and performance artists, Igbo religious innovations compared against Christianity, the human qualities of gods in Igbo culture, why orthodoxy is incompatible with Igbo sensibilities, sectarian extremism in Nigeria, jihads against western values, rogue pastors, Nigeria’s 400 to 500 languages, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, The Complete Review‘s pedantic review of Foreign Gods, Inc., Africans with considerable educational credentials who can’t get jobs in the United States, the common experience of educated immigrants shut out of the American job market (and trying to pinpoint why contemporary narratives don’t always consider Africans), American exclusion, the role of taste and experience in the editing process, the current renaissance of African fiction, how market conditions affect translated fiction, names and cultural differences, why Nigerian immigrants do better in the States than in England, Ndibe’s debt to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, how Soyinka saved Ndibe’s Christmas, malfunctioning tape recorders, how Achebe brought Ndibe to the United States,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start off from a very odd angle. James Joyce had Eccles Street. James Baldwin had, of course, areas of Paris and southern France. I couldn’t help but notice that in Foreign Gods, Inc., in concentrating on both Nigeria and Brooklyn, you look to very specific regions. In the case of southeastern Nigeria — that’s where you’re looking at — you have this fictitious village named Utonki.

Ndibe: Yes.

Correspondent: Which was also featured in Arrows of Rain, your previous book. And then for the Brooklyn stretch, you have 99 Flatbush Avenue, this second-story flat that Ike — I hope I don’t have the ass pronunciation.

Ndibe: It’s actually Eekeh. Ike [correct] is strength. ị́kẹ̀ [incorrect] is the buttocks.

Correspondent: Okay. I’ve got that right. So Ike, he lives in this second-story flat at 99 Flatbush Avenue. And I know that because my book drop is actually not far from there. What’s interesting about that is that if you go there now, you’ve got Barclay Center there. And it’s completely different from whatever regional inspiration you had when you first decided upon it. So I wanted to talk about Utonki and 99 Flatbush Ave as the representative area for which to draw a larger idea about what Nigeria is and what Brooklyn is, and why these particular places were draws for you and why it needed to start there.

Ndibe: Well, for Utonki, I wanted to set a location in Nigeria that is close to my hometown, which is Adamawa. Now in writing my first novel, I am drawn to water, to rivers and so on. And my hometown doesn’t have much by way of the river. We have a few streams. So there is a stream called Benue, which figures in this novel. So Utonki is actually based on a part of Nigeria that I had visited to see a friend of mine from years ago. And I was drawn there because this friend told me that the village is surrounded by this river and they ate a lot of fish. And I’ve always been a sucker for fish. So I went to his village and spent a whole week eating a lot of fish. So this becomes my hommage to this village where I ate fish and which is surrounded by water.

Correspondent: Where did you eat fish in Brooklyn then? (laughs) There’s a fish market downtown.

Ndibe: So in Brooklyn, I actually happened to have a cousin who lives in Brooklyn. And so the apartment and my description of it is my cousin’s apartment. But the address is different. My cousin lives on Lafayette, but I decided to name it a different address in the novel. So again, aware of having something, an image in my mind, but also inventing, as it were.

Correspondent: I’m still drawn to this idea of you in this Nigerian village eating fish and using this to zero in on what the country is about. What does fish eating allow you — and fish eating, of course, is a euphemism for something else as well (laughs) — but what does that do to get you to fixate your geographical energies in fiction? Or your sense of place on what it is to be a Nigerian?

Ndibe: Yes. Well, again, I’m intrigued by bodies of water. I’m intrigued by the ocean, by rivers, by lakes and so on. And so Utonki was, if you like — my mother in Nigeria is from Jimeta, which is on the banks of the river Niger, which is the grand river of Nigeria. And so I’ve always been intrigued by bodies of water, partly because I don’t swim a lake. I can’t swim to save my life. My wife actually was going to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympic Games. But I tell people that our winning record is for the fastest to sink to the bottom to any body of water. So in a lot of ways when I see water, or when I see a community with water, there is a part of me that wants to pay hommage to it. And so Utonki, which has a river but also brings me to that fish that I’ve always loved all my life. So if I have an ideal community, if I was going to make myself come from someplace, it would be a place like Utonki. So I invented it. So I would inhabit it, as it were.

Correspondent: This may seem a bizarre question, but it comes to mind in hearing you talk about being near bodies of water. Do you think that people who have a tendency to live near water tend to be more interesting than the people who live inland or who are landlocked?

Ndibe: I believe so. At least those who live close to water. Just like, for me, anybody who can swim becomes exceedingly interesting for me. Which is part of why perhaps I found my wife, Sheri, extraordinarily interesting. Just the fact that she can move with such ease, with such comfort, and with such gusto in water. So, yes, I do believe that those who inhabit the river, who live near bodies of water, are more resourceful. I don’t know if this can hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Correspondent: No.

Ndibe: But in my imaginative world, I think that this is true. Very much so.

Correspondent: It totally makes sense. I mean, I’ve lived pretty much near water in my adult life. I was in San Francisco, then New York. So I think we’re on the same level — even though I also recognize that this is a completely bizarre, tendentious principle. (laughs)

Ndibe: Yes. (laughs)

Correspondent: Speaking of location, I wanted to get into the contrast between Ike’s apartment at 99 Flatbush Ave, which you describe often very specifically. And near the end, we really know the geography of that place. Because some things happen, which I won’t give away, involving furniture. But after Ike’s first trip through the Lagos Airport, you almost avoid describing the look of Nigeria. I mean, we have a better sense also, for example, of the art dealer’s layout than the house late in the book where there’s all this basketball boasting. All these guys saying, “Hey, if you pay me that kind of money, I can go ahead and play like Michael Jordan.” I wanted to ask why that was. Do you think that Nigeria is marked more by this kind of general approach to existence? That, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to just describe the country that way because there just are no specifics. I have a followup in relation to this, but I wanted to get your thoughts as to the level of self-awareness here and what it is to live and describe something that is often abstract.

Ndibe: Yes. Well, first of all, when I finished this novel, it actually came to more than a thousand pages.

Correspondent: Wow!

Ndibe: So there was a lot of editing. A lot of sloughing off huge swaths of the novel. And so when Ike’s plane is hovering over Lagos, there’s a long scene in the original draft of the novel where I describe how he sees Nigeria.

Correspondent: That’s fascinating.

Ndibe: In the original draft, he actually spends a week in Lagos with a friend of his who’s become very wealthy from doing all kinds of underhanded deals with the politicians and so on. And so we get to see Lagos, through Ike’s eyes, as his friend takes him to various parties of the rich and famous in Nigeria. All of those scenes became a casualty, if you like, of this huge cutting process. But that’s going to be worked into a different novel. Because I actually cut about 300 pages from the middle of the novel. And so I had Ike stay that night in a stop-off motel when, in the original draft of the novel, he spends a week in Lagos with this classmate of his who has a lot of money. So that’s one. But once he goes to his village, I guess there’s the sense of familiarity, the sense that he’s returning to a place where he was born. And so I allowed the novel to achieve, if you like, a sense of the unstated. So again, because this is filtered constantly through Ike’s consciousness, the village changes a lot when he returns to it. And there’s this classmate of his, Tony Iba, who has become a very wealthy, local politician and who has a sense that he’s giving back to poor people by building a small room where they can watch television and daydream about American life and so forth. So that kind of absence, if you like, of this particularity in the way that Nigeria is described owes to the process of editing that entailed a lot of cutting of details. And also the fact that Ike wants this in his village, the descriptions become physical locations muted, except in areas where he notes the dramatic changes in that landscape.

The Bat Segundo Show #532: Okey Ndibe (Download MP3)

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Kiese Laymon (The Bat Segundo Show #513)

Kiese Laymon is most recently the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This show is the first of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can also listen to the second part: Show #514 with Alissa Quart.)

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Author: Kiese Laymon

Subjects Discussed: Meeting people under bridges, Percival Everett’s Erasure, Mississippi teens who run away from narratives, throwaway culture, the importance of stories carrying you through the day, critiquing storytelling skills as a way of understanding the truth, alternative narrative identities as methods of accounting for unspoken national problems, how New York rappers spoke to Mississippi black boys, black Southerners as the generators and architects of American culture, active listening vs. culture as background noise, lyrics and storytelling, native Mississippians who aren’t familiar with the blues, the acceptable level of American cultural engagement, sorrow songs vs. the Ku Klux Klan, standing up for Mississippian culture, people who don’t care about the origin to the soundtracks of their lives, national cultural awareness through regional cultural awareness, tourist notions of regions through culture, New Jersey’s history of serial killers and crime, blind engagement with the South, the refusal to hear what people are literally saying to us, dying as a backbone for Mississippi music, interrogating death, Bessie Smith and the 1927 flood, Big K.R.I.T., running away from the gospel tradition, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whether time travel stories require a moral equilibrium, America as a crazy-making narration that doesn’t want to accept how crazy it really is, grandmother roles, “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America,” being kicked out of college for not checking out Stephen Crane, how the act of committing everything to memory guides you through life, the desire to hold on to innocence, how Laymon’s early writing was denied and disapproved and disparaged, why all 19-year-olds are lunatics to some degree, satire and observation, the important of implicating yourself, Teju Cole, frat culture, sexism and classism, living with druggie roommates, when certain college kids aren’t incriminated and imprisoned (while others are), how bravery helps you make better decisions, individual guilt and societal guilt, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, sanitizing the truth about racial inequality, the capitalist-commercial nexus and its impact upon airbrushing culture and narrative, why Obama cannot tell the truth, getting the President we deserve, “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” “The Worst of White Folks,” how the state is trying to convince that we are good people (while the community tells the truth), Black Power and nostalgia, Stokely Carmichael, egomaniacal misogynists and ideological commitment, Martin Luther King and token Google Doodles, white folks who don’t share power, why we aren’t able to look at the sentences, interrogating mythology, superficial dissections of pop culture from white people (e.g., Slate Culture Gabfest), Miley Cyrus and the politics of twerking, white appropriation at the MTV Video Music Awards, Brooklyn gentrification, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake taking the Michael Jackson Award, society’s failure to implicate itself, how Bernie Mac, Michael Jackson, and Tupac were eaten alive by American culture, recklessness as spectacle, how Michael Jackson projected what we didn’t want to talk about, Tupac’s hologram at Coachella, living in a world surrounded by digital ghosts of sanitized cultural figures, Tupac’s music before Death Row and the downside of selling tickets, the label “Black Twitter,” white people on Twitter, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, important work that goes on without white people, the slipshod involvement of mainstream feminists, how race changes the moral focus, slavery and the Holocaust, and making deals with evil terms.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s start with Long Division, which is truly a tale of two Cities. You have this kid named City. He’s in 1985. He’s in 2013. There’s a book called Long Division within Long Division. And this reminded me very much of Stagg R. Leigh’s My Pafology in Percival Everett’s Erasure. I’m wondering — just because we have to ask you how this book got started — to what degree were you responding, like Percival Everett, to limited literary representation of the African American experience? And how was this a way for you to explore versions of City in 1985 that you couldn’t pursue in the present day?

Laymon: That’s a great question. I think I had to make it a metafictive book, particularly because I wanted the characters to consciously and unconsciously be exploring not just the lit that came before them, but the literature that they read that came before them. So there’s a literary mechanism in place that I’m critiquing as an author. But I wanted to create two different Cities who are also dudes who are 14 and very aware of the lit that they read. And they’re really aware of canonical lit. So there are important scenes. There’s a scene in a principal’s office. There’s a scene in the library where I think that, with these two Cities, we can see them actually trying to become runaway characters. But if they’re going to be runaway characters, I had to position them as characters in some way fully aware of the lit that they’ve read, but not fully aware of the narratives that they’re running away from. So the narratives that they’re running away from are different from the books that they’ve read. And part of the book is that they’re trying to figure out what constitutes this narrative that they’re running away from. And as a writer, obviously, I’m thinking about a lot of African American/black Southern lit. Black Boy particularly. But I wanted them to be running away from literature that they read. Which is really important for me.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because at one point, City has to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. His reading library there is largely this kind of throwaway culture.

Laymon: Right.

Correspondent: Centered around classical books with a capital C and the Bible. And as you write, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined that they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler…” — his frenemy — “…my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.” So this leads me to ask. I mean, why do you think that in the South, for these characters especially, that their notion of what it is to be alive is so rooted around books? To what extent were you limited in these areas? You and City? Why is that such an important definition?

Laymon: Well, you know, a lot of people have called Mississippi and particularly the South generally the home of American storytelling going way back to Twain and what not. And so story telling and story listening are part and parcel of our culture. Particularly if you grew up in a really religious gospel kind of household. I grew up in stories, but they were stories that were carried through music or language or stories you had to read in the Bible, and stories that my grandmother told me when she came home from work. Stories just carried the day. So I wanted to create two characters that were hyperaware of stories, of storytelling, and really critical of storytelling. The book starts with City critiquing LaVander’s storytelling ability. And LaVander is critiquing City’s storytelling ability. But by the time City gets to that library, what he’s trying to say is “I’m not being completely reactionary. I get that there’s some great cynicism in these books. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that these people never imagined anybody like me reading these texts.” And so for him, at this point, he really believes that audiences are the bedrock of sentence creation. Like to whom are you writing a sentence to? And so when he gets in that library — and it is throwaway culture in a way. So much happens in there. He sees himself for the first time on the Internet, right? He sees the way that he’s presented to other people. And I just wanted to create characters who were not too precocious, too smart, too witty, but in some way wholly aware that stories carry everything.

Correspondent: So what they read is almost an alternative identity that the United States as a whole can’t actually accommodate because of the many interesting questions of race that are in this book.

Laymon: Absolutely. And this is where literature is particularly important. Because with the references to hip-hop early on, hip-hop has been critiqued. I’ve critiqued it. Will continue to critique it. One of the things that hip-hop did, I think, early on for young black boys is that it was an art form that was made popular, that was talking directly to you as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old. At least you thought that. When you get geographically specific, you start to see that a lot of these rappers from New York weren’t talking to Mississippi black boys. But you felt that you were being talked to anyway. So one of the things that these characters are really trying to deal with is what happens to the characterization of a real person and a character who is so often not written to people who look just like them. And as we see early on in the book, we get this narrative imposed on them. And they’re trying to break out. And LaVander sort of does break out. But there’s a price to pay for that breakage. But it’s all about narrative creation.

Correspondent: Yes. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop. Because I wanted to talk about “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” — one of the essays. You point to how black Southerners are “the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” You point out that the South not only has something to say to New York, but it has something to say to the world. And I’m wondering why you think the world is so unwilling to listen. How much of this resistance to Southern innovation has to do with people who remain too caught up in some of these B-boy routines?

Laymon: I think the world is listening. But I don’t think the world knows what it’s listening to. You know what I mean? There’s no doubt the world is listening to really rock, R&B, and I would even argue funk that has its root in the Deep South. The world is listening to gospel music. The world is listening to blues right now that has its roots not just in Mississippi, but that Deep Southern, South Central culture. They’re listening. They’re dancing to it. They’re making love to it. They’re talking to it. It’s the music that scores our movies. But I don’t really think we know or, I should say, I don’t know if I fully know. I don’t think we’ve taken enough time to think about where that music actually comes. Like what people created, originated, innovated that music and why. Do you know what I mean? So I think to me that they’re listening. They have to listen. Because it’s everywhere. There’s no question.

Correspondent: But are they actively listening? I think that what you’re suggesting is that it’s music that plays in the background without people actually comprehending that there’s a lot of years and blood and tears that’s put into that music.

Laymon: No question.

Correspondent: And people are just not really curious enough to investigate that. I mean, I’m wondering if that’s a larger societal problem.

Laymon: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this is what I’m saying. I don’t think we take the time to question the ingredients in art generally.

Correspondent: Sure.

Laymon: I haven’t been in many parts of the world. But as an American, I know that we don’t really take the time to consider what we’re consuming. And we definitely don’t take the time to consider the lives of the people who created the music. So even if we think about hip-hop, people who think they love hip-hop have no idea who Kool Herc is. People who think they love hip-hop have no idea who the people who helped create the culture actually were, what they did, and why they did it. So in some ways, it’s not specific to black American/Mississippi culture. But I do think that these particular stories that come out of Mississippi culture — it’s just ironic that the blues, rock, and gospel all come out of this really small part of our country.

Correspondent: I agree. But I’m wondering who to impugn here. (laughs)

Laymon: Well, I think we impugn everyone.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Laymon: And that’s a loose answer. But I was just in Mississippi for nine or ten days giving readings and stuff. There are people in Greenwood, Mississippi and Greenville, Mississippi — black people — who have no clue what the blues is. You know what I’m saying? And what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what it is. But it is expiration that, because of my parents and because of my grandparents, we’ve had to go on. I’m saying that we don’t even want to go that road. Because when you go down that road, you don’t just find sound. But as you said, you find the experience. And you find complicity.

Correspondent: And if you listen very closely to the lyrics, you have all these amazing stories. Listen multiple times. There’s some cadence that you didn’t get.

Laymon: And also what’s important about the lyrics is that I think it’s really important to transcribe, to see the lyrics on the page. But what’s important about those lyrics are being spat or sung or, in some instances even before hip-hop, rapped. This kind of rhythmic hip-hopesque way of approaching music, I think, predates what we call hip-hop. I know New York people hate for me to say it. But what I’m saying is that it’s not just the lyrics. It’s how the lyrics are said and what irony has to do with the way those lyrics are being spat And I think it has so much to do with community. And these books, particularly Long Division, are, among other things, about community storytelling. And so what I’m trying to say is that I really think we need to think about the communities. The people, the stories, and the communities that are at the heart of all the music we listen to.

Correspondent: Well, I agree with you Kiese. But I’m wondering what is the acceptable level of cultural engagement that would actually allow the South to be understood and to be properly respected versus the reality of people wanting to have something in the background. I mean, is it reasonable to expect people to have that level of engagement? Much as I would also love to see that!

Laymon: I mean, it’s not reasonable to expect. It’s reasonable to encourage. And it’s reasonable to ask people to think more about from whence the music they listen to comes.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, kristijann, Reed1415, and ShortBusMusic.)

The Bat Segundo Show #513: Kiese Laymon (Download MP3)

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Mark Slouka (The Bat Segundo Show #509)

Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.

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Author: Mark Slouka

Subjects Discussed: Gandhi’s pacifist maxims, Wilifred Owen, World War I poets, Vietnam, violence in fiction, Brewster in relation to Woodstock, people who still listened to Perry Como in 1968, memory and sex, listening as research, auctorial instinct, the poetry of real world vernacular, having a father as a storyteller, why Slouka’s characters are often defined by outside towns, viewing a life in relation to the next place you’ll settle, Slouka’s Czech background, Nazi memorabilia, Slouka’s reluctance in exploring the grounded, being a child of Czech refugees, lives lived on a borderline, geographically fraught characters, the bright bulb of heritage, broken lamps, crossing America 22 times, the wandering instinct, stories to tell at a bar, the Motel 6 as a gathering spot, developing a photograph of America through travel, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobil with the Memphis Blues Again,” towns that people pass through on the way to somewhere nicer, the benefits of sharp elbows, why small towns get a bad rap in American literature, the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Richard Russo, metropolitan types who condescend to small towns, David Lynch, avoiding dark cartoonish material to write truthfully about bigotry, courting complexity, the terror of familiarity, when you know another person’s parents more than your own, finding approval in another family, mothers who mourn the sons that they lose, the revelations of characters who touch surfaces, being a “physical writer,” the physical as a door to memory, sudden transitions from violence to casual conversation, being a victim of belief culture, when the real enters the domain of fiction, knowing ourselves through the telling of stories, Slouka affixing misspellings of his name to the refrigerator, fridge magnet poetry, how Brewster deals with race, desegregation busing, racism and locked doors, Obama’s Trayvon Martin speech, the myth of other worlds, the 168th Street Armory, lingering racism in Brewster, “Quitting the Paint Factory,” how Slouka’s notion of leisure have adjusted in 2013, leisure vs. consumer capitalism, why humans are being colonized by machines, assaults on the inner life, Twitter and the Arab Spring, attention deficit, why the human population has turned into addicts, acceptable forms of leisure, the inevitability of multitasking, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, why four hour podcasts exist in a medium that eats away our time, being shaped in ways you don’t understand, Slouka’s declaration of war against the perpetually busy, the conditions that determine whether someone’s soul has been eaten, the church of work, why people work like dogs to consume more, being derided for sleeping eight hours a night, and Slouka’s elevator pitch for Brewster.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The book oscillates between one of Gandhi’s most famous maxims (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”) and references to war, whether it be Vietnam or the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. And I’m wondering, just to get started here, how did this backdrop of war and peace help you to zero in on these characters and this landscape? Was this your way of tipping your hat to a socially charged time without hitting the obvious touchstones?

Slouka: Yeah, I think so. It’s a matter of “all politics are personal” and vice versa. I was interested in writing about war. Because war’s in the background, of course. It takes place in the late 1960s. And the drums of Vietnam were going through the whole thing. But what I’m really writing about is the lives of these two young guys — seventeen or eighteen years old — who are fighting a very different private war: each in their own way, each with their own family, each with their own life. So the interplay — the back-and-forth between War writ large and war, lowercase, is something that interested me.

Correspondent: This is a very violent book. There’s a lot of smacking, slapping, and, of course, the revelation near the end. I mean, it’s pretty brutal. It’s almost as violent as being in any kind of battlefield. And I’m wondering if the larger social canvas of Vietnam almost forced your hand, when thinking about these characters, to really consider this domestic abuse and all of this terrible pugilism that’s going on underneath the surface.

Slouka: I think so. I think it’s probably unavoidable. I mean, I also grew up with guys like — let’s say Ray Cappicciano, the Ray Cap character who’s fighting a very real war at home. His dad is an ex-cop, a prison guard. He’s not a good guy. But one of my favorite scenes is actually in the book. It’s a scene in the cafeteria where Jon, the narrator, is reading Wilfred Owen’s poem about the trenches in World War I and the experience of watching someone die in a gas attack. And Ray Cap, who’s sitting across the table, basically goads him into reading it out loud. “I’m not going to read the poem.” “Read the poem.” He eventually reads the poem and Ray responds to it in a way that’s completely unexpected, even for him. And he responds to it probably because he understands on some deep visceral level what it’s like to be in battle. What it’s like to be drawn to battle and not be able to get away from it. I mean, Owen was wounded. He recovered. And then he reenlisted and then eventually died in the war. And Ray Cap is haunted by that. Because it’s like, “He went back?” He went back to this thing and eventually killed him? That’s his biggest fear. Because he keeps going back to the house where he has a hard life.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s something that foreshadows his particular existence. He needs to have almost a poetic guide to understand the predicament that he’s in.

Slouka: That’s right.

Correspondent: And he just can’t understand why Owen would go back to serve after he’s written this poem.

Slouka: Exactly.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about how you depict this late 1960s in Brewster as a different place from Woodstock across the river. A place where people really don’t matter. I mean, they’re expected to fall into line. What kind of research did you do into Brewster of the late 1960s to develop this sense of what life is like? Where you can be an individual all you want, but if you don’t fall into line, you’re going to have trouble living here.

Slouka: Oh yeah. Well, research for a writer often entails just talking with people, listening to people. There’s this gorgeous New York area vernacular that I just fell in love with while writing this book. That Italian American/Irish thing that I never wrote about. I grew up listening to it and I never wrote about it. So this book was a homecoming for me. The research I did was just sort of sticking my nose out the door and listening to how people spoke. But I also had to remember a lot. And the truth is that the ’60s didn’t happen in the same way at the same time for all people. You know, one of the guys that plays a role in this book is an Irish Catholic kid named Frank who’s still listening to Perry Como in 1968 because he is. Because some people were. Brewster in 1968 was still in 1957 in a lot of ways. And it was happening. Watts was happening. Woodstock was across the river. But the day that Woodstock happens, my heroes end up going down to Yonkers. Because they don’t want to sit around listening to everything that they’re missing across the river and also because they’re poor. They’re working class kids. And a lot of working class kids didn’t make it to Brewster. Because they didn’t know that they opened the fences and it was twenty-three movie tickets to get into Woodstock. So they couldn’t go. So they’re fighting against a conservative, repressive, frightened culture that’s all around them. You know, some guy was hitching up his office pants saying, “Yeah, I got a dream. You know, I’ll pay the goddam mortgage.”

Correspondent: But it is interesting that Jon, in telling this tale, doesn’t really hit those touchstones. He says, well, “We were more aware of the Tet Offensive than a girl’s nipples.”

Slouka: (laughs)

Correspondent: But he doesn’t really announce what they talked about. In fact, there’s one point in the Tina episode where he has a perfect memory of what he talks about with the hippies. But then, when they leave, he can’t remember a single subject of what he’s talking about with Tina. And I find that really interesting. It’s almost like, despite the fact that he was well-steeped in the subject, he can’t remember that. It’s almost as if that doesn’t matter, you know?

Slouka: Well, that’s part of it. But he’s also having sex. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, of course! That does have a way of…

Slouka: …erase the memory for a little while. But yeah, you remember certain things. You don’t for others. I mean, I personally think that the ’60s didn’t really become the ’60s until 1980. You know what I mean? Then when look back and we say, “Well, that was the ’60s.” But when you were in it, you didn’t think things were happening. Personally, I think the ’60s were in some ways, despite all the bullshit around the edges (and they’ve been reduced to a fashion statement), the fact is that they were probably the last time that we really considered altering on a mass scale what our priorities are in this country and how we would proceed. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. But some things happened. It was an exciting time. So these guys knew that things were happening. They could hear it happening. But it wasn’t happening in Brewster. And that’s part of the tension in the book.

Correspondent: Going back to what you were saying earlier about how you made Brewster come alive. You say that you stuck your nose out the door. But you’re also competing with memory. And you’re dealing with who is still alive, who lived through that time, versus what you remember. I mean, at what point do you have to throw that aside and just rely on your own instinct and imagination for what you feel Brewster is or should be? I mean, how do you wrestle with all this?

Slouka: I think you have to throw it out very early. You just have to go by instinct. You just walk in. You know, you create a place that feels right on the page. That feels like a place that you can inhabit as a writer and believe in as a writer. And if you get that right, then eerily enough I think you get close to something that’s actually believable for other people. And it’s a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing. You’re following your own instinct. Because why would someone else understand that? And sometimes they don’t. But in my experience, if you trust yourself, you know, you make mistakes. You try to correct them and so on. But by the time you’re done, if you’ve trusted yourself and if you followed those instincts, then there’s a really good chance that other people will sense that there’s a sort of organic quality to that imaginative thing that you brought and they’ll buy into it hopefully.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this. I mean, how many people did you talk with? And if you’re hearing another perspective of that particular time, how does this mesh with you trusting yourself as a writer? You trusting that truth, that perspective, that world that you are planting and growing in the book?

Slouka: For me, when I talk about listening to people, it’s not about listening to their stories necessarily, though people will tell you their stories and I love to hear them. It’s about listening to how they talk. It’s about listening to — you know, I love the way people talk there. I was getting some beer at the A&P recently and I asked this kid. I said, “Where’s the beer at?” And he said, “Well, okay, you go to the back and you look right.” And I was walking away. I said thanks. I’m walking away. And he said, “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store.” Well, if you write that down on paper — “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store” — it’s a mess. The sentence is a disaster. But it’s beautiful too. There’s a kind of poetry to it. And that can be expanded infinitely. So for me, it was a matter of imagining this place. I had certain bones I needed to pick with my own past, with the memories of people that I knew back then. You’re trying to resolve certain things that aren’t completely clear to you even as you’re writing them, except that you know that you have to write them. But the research involves just opening your ears, which I did for the first time in this. I never wrote an American book before. This is my first truly American book. It was just a question of giving myself permission to set a particular — to say, “Look, you were born and raised in this country. You’ve listened to these people for fifty years. Just shut up and write.” And I’ve tried to do that and hopefully it worked out.

Correspondent: It seems to me — I’m just going to infer here. Maybe you can clear this up. If you had a bone to pick with yourself, maybe some of these interesting sentences that you hear at the A&P or that you hear from people telling you about the period, maybe it’s a way to get outside of yourself or to plant what might almost be called a more objective voice. Because you have something more concrete to work with. Is that safe to say?

Slouka: I think that makes perfect sense. I think that’s exactly what it was really. And this book is a homecoming. I lost my father the day after this book was finished. Literally. And he was the storyteller in my life. We had our hard times. You know, he drank when I was a kid. The last fifteen years were great. But I spent most of my writing life writing stories that were set elsewhere. They were from my parents’ time. They were the Resistance in Prague during the Second World War. It was ancient Siam. The Siamese Twins. Da da da. You know, it’s time to write my own story. Not that those weren’t, but this one’s my own in a different way. I think there’s something about listening, about coming home to Brewster, which is a difficult place to explain though I’m fond of it…

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Because in The Visible World, your narrator is a child of Czech refugees from World War II. Not unlike yourself. In Brewster, Jon’s family is Jewish. They have escaped from Germany. You have Frank, who we just talked about earlier. He comes from Poland. You have Karen even, from Hartford on a more limited scale. You have Ray talking with the women behind the cafeteria. So there is very much a quality to your fictitious characters in which they always come from somewhere else. Or they’re not defined by the place they live right now. And I was wondering why that’s your affinity.

Slouka: Where that comes from.

Correspondent: Not necessarily where that comes from, but do you feel that it’s truer to write about someone or that you’re going to get a more dimensional character if they have some kind of additional background? That no one is really from anywhere?

Slouka: Oh god, you’re good at this. The problem is that it’s me. I’m the one who’s not really from one place or another. You know what I mean? I grew up on the fault line between two cultures. Two languages. Two histories. I grew up in a Czech ghetto in Queens, New York, for Christ’s sake, right? My first language was Czech. I didn’t speak English until I was five and I went out on the playground and had to figure out what the hell was going on and why these kids weren’t speaking Czech. My problem — and that’s just my life — is that with the possible exception of a little cabin that we have in a place called Lost Lake, I’ve never really had a home. And whenever I was in one place, I was always looking for the next good place. The next place and the next place. That’s one of the problems for me in getting older. You’re running out of time to look for the next place and the next place and the next place. I think I’ve transferred a lot of that kind of restlessness, which I think is very American actually. Americans are always looking for the next great place. I’ve transferred that restlessness into my characters, who are usually from everywhere but here. I mean, it’s possible that actually Brewster is the most grounded of my books. Because these kids are from there. Though it’s also kind of ironic that they’re also the most trapped. I mean, they’re from Brewster and they want to get the hell out. Again, not unlike me. It’s like: I’m here. How soon can I leave?

Photo: Maya Slouka

(Loops for this program provided by Nightingale, KBRPROD, ferryterry, 40A, DeepKode, and ProducerH.)

The Bat Segundo Show #509: Mark Slouka (Download MP3)

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Gabriel Roth (The Bat Segundo Show #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

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Author: Gabriel Roth

Subjects Discussed: Leaving San Francisco for Brooklyn, observing the two dot com booms, how moving away from a city often makes you more aware of its dynamics, the benefits of isolation, National Novel Writing Month, descriptive restaurant cues, the delicate balance between invention and specific representation of a place, writing a character who is “a life support system for feelings of anxiety,” not fronting before other programmers, attempted parallels between programming code and writing prose, anxiety as literary ambiguity, My Little Pony used in flashback, brony culture, how the origins of geekdom become twisted over the course of dissemination, Maya Marcom as a loaded name, vacillating between a Bildungsroman and a social novel in the act of writing, capturing the spirit of being alive during a particular time and place, tips learned from being in an MFA program, the one-time advantages of in-state universities, reading books without understanding the mechanics behind the writing, the amount of work that a writer must do to create a vivid sensory world, systems-thinking reporting vs. the descriptive needs of fiction, the abstract nature of news writing, Bay Guardian philosophy, Bruce B. Brugmann’s “Write while you’re drunk, revise when you’re hungover” catchphrase, alt-weekly professionalism, exploring material that you are already steeped in, writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know, what your subconscious knows, automatic writing, the revising process, ingesting drugs as a character trait, accounting for the sudden expository twist near the end of The Unknowns, repressed memory, the problems that occur after you’ve fallen in love with someone, maintaining a good-natured feel in a novel after a sexual abuse revelation, humor applied to a broader emotional spectrum, “lad lit,” Benjamin Kunkel, Nick Hornby, the glut of novels about twentysomething white males, whether style is enough to escape white male fiction trappings, judging a book by its flap copy, taking on other voices, The Orphan Master’s Son, why Roth zeroed in on Denver privilege, coming from an educated family, the help that comes from background, Eric’s lack of ideological background, selling personal data to evil corporations, characters who espouse pro-corporate values, the diminishing of principle in San Francisco, the difficulties of combining politics and fiction, the homogeneity of America’s two political cultures, the Iraq War, when people always agree, whether the idea of the overstuffed Great American Novel still applies in 2013, The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, critics obliged to fight over Kushner, minituarist vs. maximist fiction, and how to get a TV-obsessed culture hooked on fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with you leaving San Francisco in 2006. I left in 2007. We both ended up in Brooklyn. And this is one of those interviews. Why didn’t we actually know each other during that decade that we were there? I’m wondering how aware you were that the City was falling apart, was being taken by the Google People, by the private buses. What caused you to flee to Brooklyn? And was this novel in some way a way of reckoning with that?

Roth: Well, I left mostly for personal reasons. I was living with a woman who is now my wife and who was starting a graduate program at Columbia.

Correspondent: Yes.

Roth: And so that was the immediate impetus for me to leave, although I had been in San Francisco for ten years. And as you probably know, ten years is a long time to spend in San Francisco.

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

Roth: Yeah. You start to feel that time passing under your feet a little bit. It was not yet clear in 2006 — or at least it wasn’t yet clear to me — what was going to happen with the second Internet boom and what was going to happen with the City as a result of that. I had been there since 1996. And so I had seen the first Internet boom which had sort of effloresced in the late part of the millennium and then died out very quickly in the first years of the oughts. And so I probably would have thought that any new economic activity was going to follow a similar boom and bust pattern. And now it’s not clear that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Or if there is a bust, then the City will have been pretty permanently changed and marked by the boom, it seems like.

Correspondent: Well, it is interesting. Because with the present boom underway, I remember the first one and that seemed brutal at the time. And I was very fortunate to have an apartment in which the rent had not gone up, as were many of my friends. And we somehow managed to secure apartments. Now I’m hearing reports from friends who are basically cleaving to their apartments, hoping that their building won’t be taken over and so forth. And I guess my tangent here was, if you weren’t entirely aware, does moving away from San Francisco and writing a novel actually allow you to think “Wow! All this was going on and, as shred as I was, I really wasn’t paying attention”?

Roth: Yeah. There is a certain amount of that obviously. I began the novel and I had gotten a good two thirds of the way into a draft by the time I left San Francisco. So a lot of the scenarios and the physical environment that I was describing was what was immediately around me as I was doing that first stage of writing. And then moving away — and I think this is probably true in general for writers — the act of writing is often, I think, an act of recapturing and of preserving your memories. Sort of freezing them in sentences. And I think it worked that way for me partly about the City of San Francisco and the environment around the first dot com boom, but then also about a time in my life. And of course, it’s very difficult to separate the place that you were in your early twenties from the experience of being in your early twenties.

Correspondent: Well, how so? Can you elaborate on that? It almost seems like you’re kind of mining through your own data and trying to separate it into emotion and tangible information.

Roth: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. I mean, the book is in part about San Francisco and about people working in technology and about collecting data. But then it’s also about a young man who’s preoccupied with looking for love and finding someone to be intimate with and close to. And it’s not an autobiographical book and the characters aren’t the same person as me. But that experience of being in my early twenties and really wanting to figure out how to love somebody and be loved by somebody — I was preoccupied with that for a long time. And those experiences, along with the experiences of the social world of San Francisco, are what went into the book and what got filtered through the fiction writing process and into the novel. And so there’s no way that I can say, “Oh yes. This is just a sort of satirical or an observational portrait of a little microcosm of the world.” Because it’s all wrapped up with my own subjective experience.

Correspondent: So you had two thirds of a draft before you moved here to Brooklyn. What did moving to Brooklyn produce in terms of clarity for both Eric [protagonist of The Unknowns] and for the view of San Francisco that you had?

Roth: Well, let’s see. Around the time that I moved out here, you know, I finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. I had a bunch of chapters. I was trying to figure out — I knew where the book was going to go, but I was trying to stick the landing, which is not straightforward and I think is not usually straightforward when writing a novel. And then we moved out here. And we were in our early thirties — mid-thirties even — and it was no longer a time when I would have moved to Brooklyn and gone out drinking every night or made a whole bunch of new friends. Or I wasn’t going to go out on dates. Because I was living with my girlfriend. And so moving to New York, which for many people is like stepping onto the big stage — for me, that was the time where I was a bit more isolated and I was going to work every day and getting my pages done and then coming home and eating dinner with my wife. And I think that was important in terms of finishing the thing.

Correspondent: So the isolation allowed you to finish the book.

Roth: Yeah.

Correspondent: It allowed you to come to terms with and put aside this particular part of yourself in your twenties.

Roth: Yeah. I think that’s right. It was putting a clean break on what I had been doing and what I was going to be starting to do from now on.

Correspondent: Did you have any other novels before this? I was curious.

Roth: Not that you would actually call a novel. I had like a pile of pages that I had written during National Novel Writing Month in 2003. Or something like that. That added to nothing but a pile of pages.

Correspondent: I think I remember reading one of your Bay Guardian columns. I think you wrote about it in the Bay Guardian, writing for the National Novel Writing Month.

Roth: I probably did.

Correspondent: Yeah, I remember that. I was a loyal Bay Guardian reader when I lived there. So that was you. You describe “a medium-expensive neo-Cuban restaurant with the kind of deserts that have names evocative of Catholicism” near Lazarus, your invented Valencia Street bar, which clearly evokes Cha Cha Cha. You have the photographs of tailfinned cars, which are sort of like Mel’s Drive-In, but not quite. Fiction — this is not reality. Imagination should be encouraged. But this does lead me to ask you about creating a believable San Francisco for this book. Obviously, you have to rely on things that actually exist. But are there any dangers in being too specific when you’re creating a sense of place like this? I mean, it seems that you want to alert people like me who have in fact passed and entered into Cha Cha Cha that this is indeed the San Francisco of that era. But I was curious about that fine line between telegraphing exactly what it is and just making shit up.

Roth: Yeah. I mean, I think the main issue you’re talking about is with the restaurants. Frankly, there’s a lot of restaurants. And most of the restaurants, as you point out, if you were going out to eat in the Mission in the early part of the 21st century, you’ve probably eaten in some of those restaurants. I didn’t worry about that. And I guess I think that’s fine. And if you’re reading it and you’re in the small subset of people who are going to recognize those restaurants, then hopefully that’s a sort of pleasant moment of recognition for you. Maybe it’s distracting, in which case my bad. But most people are not going to fall in that category. And I think without some amount of specificity, whether its based on real life’s specificity or completely fantastic specificity, without that, then it just becomes a generic restaurant. And the whole thing sort of looks flat. Putting in detail — in this case, often detail borrowed from actual restaurants where I ate most of my meals during the ten years I lived in San Francisco — putting in that detail hopefully gives the feeling of something that takes place in a real world that’s fully stocked with all the stuff of the real world.

Correspondent: But it is your world. It is Eric’s world. And I guess my question is not so much, “Ah! I’m going to go through The Unknowns and cut and paste all those phrases and put them on Yelp.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

Roth: (laughs)

Correspondent: What I am talking about is the idea that this is fiction. It does require invention. It is not going to be a pure 100% depiction of San Francisco. So where do you deviate between that specificity and just inventing something that doesn’t exist but is real enough for the reader to believe, whether the reader be from San Francisco or the reader be from somewhere else?

Roth: Yeah. I mean, really, it depends on the needs of the particular paragraph. You know what I mean? And what comes to my mind as I’m writing it. If, let’s say again, there’s a restaurant where I’m sending the two characters and I need to envision it, you know how sometimes in your dreams or your fantasies, sometimes there will be a place that doesn’t really exist. And sometimes all of the events will transpire in a place that does exist, but those things never happen there. Or it’s a place that does exist, only now they’re serving vegetarian food instead of Mexican food. And writing a novel seems to me exactly the same process. That you borrow these elements from the real world, but unless you’re writing a novel that’s just a direct transposition of real life — which this certainly isn’t — the filtering process is going to transform it to whatever degree is necessary.

Correspondent: So Eric describes himself to Maya as “a life support system for feelings of anxiety. The anxiety is the organism and I am the habitat.” Yet he tells his story in this book much like a programmer, almost as if he’s writing clean lines of code. The habitat of this book may indeed describe anxieties, but it seems like it’s reliant more upon nouns and adjectives rather than verbs. And I was curious about this. Did you impose any kind of stylistic ordinance upon your character to push his anxieties beneath the text? I mean, verbs are certainly the way that we absolutely spill out our emotion. And yet he seems to not use them as such. I’m wondering if this was something you were conscious of or whether it was designed or emerged through revision or what not.

Roth: That’s interesting. I certainly don’t, when I’m writing, think in terms of parts of speech like that. I’m not a sufficiently programmatic writer to be able to do that. I don’t think it would help me. I’m sure there’s some people for whom that would be a useful way to think about things. I do think — and the sentence that you quote is a good example of this — you know, he’s out on a date with this girl and she says to him — he says something that seems uptight or anxious and she says, “Do you consider yourself an anxious person?” And he says, “I consider myself a life support system for anxieties. The anxiety is the organism and I’m the habitat.” And on one hand, to some extent, that’s an accurate description. But on the other hand, hopefully on a date, that’s the clever thing to say. That’s sort of witty and self-deprecating, but also a self-revealing thing to say to a girl who you’re trying to make fall in love with you. And rather than imposing a restriction on Eric’s speech, I think of that character as being both messed up in all of these ways and having these real psychological difficulties, making life really difficult for him, and at the same time being to some useful degree self-aware about that and able to talk about and, as in that example, able to present it and able to sublimate it into a self-presentation that hopefully is a little charming and a little attractive and that Maya at least responds to. And hopefully, to some extent, the reader will respond to it in that way as well. He is an anxious person and he is a self-conscious person and yet his self-awareness about those things enables him to defuse their effects a little bit.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, chefboydee, and hamood.)

The Bat Segundo Show #508: Gabriel Roth (Download MP3)

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Anchee Min (The Bat Segundo Show #507)

Anchee Min is most recently the author of The Cooked Seed.

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Author: Anchee Min

Subjects Discussed: Visiting Houston, Mary McCarthy, being the heroes of our own stories, writing Red Azalea as a way to learn English, owning your own material, repeatedly renting a pornographic tape, sex and loneliness, Love Story in Chinese translation, Western imports after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese idea of Miss America, Caligula in Madame Mao’s film library, how Chinese restaurants operate during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Anchee Min’s incredible work ethic, living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple jobs, judging the homeless, how ideas of being “down and out” shift from nation to nation, having your daughter hold up sheets of drywall, managing a fixer-upper, deprived children, personal propaganda, Dr. Phil, results-oriented thinking, Americans taking their nation for granted, entitlement, the bare minimum to what people are entitled to, basic needs and health care, parallels between America and the Roman Empire, theoretical humanity, the fragile existence of living in America with a conditional visa, Min’s efforts to read English, the line between hard work and exhaustion, the eight hour day, whether Min ever has downtime, the first time in Min’s life when she felt hope, having the will to make it in America, coughing blood and passing out from overwork, feeling safe for the first time in your life, being swindled and taken advantage of by employers, being overly trustful towards the wrong people, perceptions of fast food, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the influence of television, Edward Snowden, associating music with Chicago buildings, Chinese opera, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Loved You,” working in a record store, Pearl Buck, what’s left of Min’s Chinese roots, Min’s love for Broadway, Phantom of the Opera, why it’s important to write about 95% of China (rather than the 5% elite), Kanye West, learning how to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, envying women with big butts, salsa queens, how memory defines life, memory as a mode of survival, the smartphone generation, acting in propaganda films at the Shanghai Film Studio, pretend tears, the importance of being well-fed and staying humble, Min writing about her first husband, when people forgive unflattering depictions of themselves in books, how people who immigrate to America from China have different perspectives, respecting differing approaches to the American Dream, gratitude for other perspectives, divorce proceedings and child custody, becoming a property owner because there were no job options, landlord-tenant relationships and equitable laws, Min’s views on deadbeats, the excuses of tenants, avoiding generalizations amidst hardships, notions of American childhood, China and the U.S. spying on each other, and how the future of Sino-American relations will play out.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Mary McCarthy once famously remarked, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour.” And this makes us the hero of our own story. So when you wrote both Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed, my question to you is: What did you take to downplay your own heroine status? Is the judgment of whether you are a good person or not left up to the reader? Or is including such moments — such as the way you portray Lauryann, your daughter, or act as a landlord — open enough for the readers to judge for themselves?

Min: I guess I will leave them to judge for themselves. For me, writing Red Azalea was a way to learn English. And I believe that only when I write it and I have other people correct me and I correct it in the copy of the text, I learn English in a solid effective way. And I did not think about anything else. Because I had nothing. Actually, what I wanted was the opposite. I wanted to write like American classmates. But I didn’t have — I did not grow up with hamburgers. So it was amazing. I did not understand what McDonald’s meant. So it was fascinating when they took me to a Chicago Avenue McDonald’s for the first time and put on makeup for the first time. And I think I was just off the boat. Nothing else. It was just survival. Try not to be deported. With this one, The Cooked Seed, I was on the other end. Because I had been making a living as an author for twenty-five years. So I knew what I possessed. It was just how far I wanted to take the material. It’s the issue of honesty. And also bringing my daughter into the picture and my divorce and everything — I felt that as an American writer, I realize I did not own my own material. I had no right to own that. But it’s a conflict. How far did I want to go? It was my daughter who said, “Mom, if you want to leave me anything, I want you to leave me your story. But not the sugarcoated version.”

Correspondent: So here’s a question for you. If you don’t own your own material, do you feel that the more English you know, the less you actually own it? The less private it may very well be in the act of writing? If Red Azalea came from this moment of almost purity, where there was no expectation of audience and there was no expectation that it would be published, how do things change when you are sharing your story? Both from an English standpoint and also from an audience standpoint?

Min: I feel that it’s the guilt I was aware of. I know my material. I know how to write by now. And I knew one thing. That if I don’t tell the story, the second generation, like my daughter — if she decides to write a story about me, she will never get to the real life I live. Because there’s so much. An immigrant mother would not want to leave behind that kind of story. For example, my relationship with a pornography tape. Because that was my only comfort. And that was the most difficult part to review. And I knew that no immigrant woman would have wanted to reveal that. But for me, what I see is the cruelty of the loneliness that impaired me as a person. If you live ten years in storage, like mice, a city rat, and you’re busy with how to make a living, you have no relationship with anyone whatsoever. But you are human. And this material would get lost. And I felt like I had a platform for the voiceless.

Correspondent: Yeah. The bravery of revealing that masturbation sex video. And you also reveal how the video store owner wanted to sell you the tape for $25 and you talked him down to $20. It was the least rented tape in that video store. But it also reminded me of how you conveyed affection and sex in Red Azalea with Yan. How you were both each other’s imaginary boyfriends. And with that, it leads me to ask you. When you write about sex, it’s interesting to me how it comes from this place of loneliness. Almost as if that’s the truest place to write about sex. You don’t really write about sex in a pleasurable way or even a romantic way. And I wanted to ask why that is. Is it possible that the way you write about sex is the truest way on the page? To be honest about the fact that a lot of people get into this because of loneliness, because of need, and things like that.

Min: Actually, you put it very well. Yes, in real life, it is almost dispassionate. It is very cruel and matter of fact. Survival mode. But as literary material, it’s the most romantic, the most sensuous way. Because that’s the moment that you’re dealing with yourself. The innermost. And also you avoid. Even with my relationship in the labor camp, it was almost — you see each other and then you meet each other like ghosts. And nothing was said. It was just under the blankets. It was inside a mosquito net. And she was love with a boy. And I was craving for boys. And we knew the price to date a man was execution and punishment and imprisonment. And we realized that we were in touch with our humanity. But the guilt of it. Yeah, you have to move on as humans. Human animals. So by accident, we discovered the poetry of God.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s also interesting because I was going to mention, on a less austere note, that you did read Love Story in Chinese translation. And I was wondering if that had any kind of impact upon your notion of romance or love or even sex. How did that notion change when you came to Chicago? I mean, was this one of the things that you had to adjust your own internal feelings for?

Min: It’s quite bizarre. I did not read any Chinese romantic — anything that had that element — before the Cultural Revolution, which means before 1978. Mao died in ’76. And then that was two years later. The Western translations of first Western literature. Like Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind started to pour into Chinese translations. But before that, the only book about relationship between a man and a woman was this medical book. The title is called From Head to Toe Looking from a Monkey’s Eye. And I was reading it when I was sixteen. And the only sentence in the book that intrigued me — I still remember — is this: “The highest form of a revolution comradeship was intercourse between a man and a woman.” And I thought, “What does it mean?” Highest form of revolution comradeship. And then the bizarre thing was, after I was picked by Madame Mao’s people and taken to be featured in a propaganda film, portraying Madame Mao’s ideal proletarian beauty, I mean, it was very much — the selection was like Miss America or Miss Universe. It’s just that the measurement’s the opposite. We have to have calluses on our shoulders and hands to prove we were real peasants and the weather-beaten face. And carry 300 pounds of manure. But I picked it up and did the screen test, and I had never learned acting before. And there were all these things. Imitating Madame Mao as a cartoonish opera. And Madame Mao decided that the test was awful. We needed to be educated. So we were cultivating in Madame Mao’s private screening room and viewed her favorite movies. Which featured — I remember one was like a battle of Rome sort of thing — like Caligula.

Correspondent: Caligula!

Min: Yeah.

Correspondent: The Bob Guccione film. (laughs)

Min: Yeah. Something like that. But I can’t recall exactly. Because the translator there was Mandarin. So mostly it was images. So for the first time, from that forbidden time, that primitive time, without any men, all of a sudden over that, you see the blue-eyed people turning your insides out. Even before that, we had sections of meetings on making sure we don’t get mentally poisoned by watching this movie. But in coming to America, I all of a sudden realize that I’m not unfamiliar with these brown-eyed, blue-eyed people, who are having orgies. And it’s really weird. And in Chicago, in my storage basement, where I lived alone and with a porno film, and then all these things stringed together. It makes pretty interesting material.

Correspondent: And the name of the video was Sex Education, which also makes it quite interesting in light of this idea of education in China as well. (laughs)

Min: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: This is the gateway in. (laughs)

Min: Because the first time I was in a porno store, it was — Christmas and Thanksgiving, especially Thanksgiving evening, the restaurants. Nobody goes into Chinese restaurants. So I was let off early. And it’s the longest night. I couldn’t go home. Because if I’d gone back to China, I may not get a visa back. That was the terror. So I want to treat myself with a movie. And I did not know. Inside the movie store, I stepped into the porno section and that title, Sex Education, was the least threatening.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Min: But now I know it’s a cover. Because of that title, nobody borrowed that movie. That’s why the owner, after a few times, he tried to sell it to me.

Correspondent: He was lucky he had you as a customer, I guess. (laughs) You brought up the Chinese restaurant and nobody being in there during Thanksgiving. Much of your early life in America is very much concerned with living the cheapest possible existence, calculating how much money you lose when you take the train to and from work. I mean, there’s one chapter — I don’t want to give it away — in which you go straight to work after something extraordinarily terrible happens. I was reading a story this morning about how 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. This leads me to ask, well, this notion of saving. Obviously family was a big part of it and wanting to make sure that they had money and also the guilt of trying to get them over to America. But how did you develop this very no nonsense approach to using money and saving it and wanting to accrue more of it? It’s almost becoming less American, especially with our economy in the toilet right now.

Min: Well, I guess it’s survival if you are in that situation. First of all, I think it has to do with my sense of gratitude. I mean, it is hard to work five jobs at the same time. But when you own your life, that’s a different perspective. I think that, bizarre as it is, in my life back in China, I was eliminated basically by the society. And in coming here, given a chance, I remember. I still — it just, what I said back to the immigrant officer who tried to deport me and who called me on the spot for not speaking English when entering America, I said, “My feet are on American soil.” And that, I really meant it. And that means a whole world to me. From then on, every time I go, this is what’s ruling me. When I see the homeless, I think I wasn’t being nice. Because the homeless was begging for my quarters. And I said, “You English! You job!” Because I was thinking, if only I had known English, I would have been given job. And I was actually happy with my Taiwanese boss at the restaurant. When I walked faster, she came behind me. She says, “The house is not on fire.” Meaning: Why are you walking so fast? If I sat down, she’d come down, walk on my back, and say, “I did not hire you to be a lazy bone.” But I was happy. Because she let me know I could improve. Which was to find the balance. But if I were in China, I would not know why I was punished.

(Loops for this program provided by Jorge Daniel Ramirez, danke, MaMaGBeats, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, djmfl, and R01D.)

The Bat Segundo Show #507: Anchee Min (Download MP3)

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Matt Bell (The Bat Segundo Show #506)

Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

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Author: Matt Bell

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.

Bell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…

Bell: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.

Bell: Yes, absolutely.

Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?

Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.

Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.

Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?

Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?

Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.

Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.

Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.

Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)

Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.

Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.

Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.

Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**

Bell: Right, right.

Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.

Bell: Absolutely.

Correspondent: How do you work around that?

Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”

Bell: Okay! (laughs)

Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”

Bell: Nice! (laughs)

Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.

Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.

Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?

Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.

* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.

** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, danke, SpadeOfficial, kristijann, and MaMaGBeats.)

The Bat Segundo Show #506: Matt Bell (Download MP3)

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Lauren Beukes II (The Bat Segundo Show #501)

Lauren Beukes is most recently the author of The Shining Girls. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409.

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Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Predicting the future, whether 2013 is more of an apocalyptic year than 2012, killer bunnies, laughing rats, H.P. Lovecraft, the best zombie dramatizations, explanation in narrative, trusting the reader with interesting definitions of how the world works, the Greek tragedy of time travel, killing Hitler, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, criss-crossing timelines, Looper, finding spontaneity in a careful foundation, E.L. Doctorow’s description of writing, developing the close third person perspective, working against the sophisticated predator stereotype, the catharsis of hurting mean characters, T.C. Boyle, fictitious injuries, time periods that are defined by pop cultural references, Studs Terkel, Forrest Gump, women’s rights, McCarthyism, connections between American and South African history, spies and informants, surveillance society, Todd Akin, Candyman, Spencer Tracy explaining baseball to Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, interviewing real people, not understanding sports, the difficulty of forgiving people for political atrocities, Sarah Lotz, objecting to fictitious murders, living in Chicago, why the Midwest is an ideal setting for an American novel, the tendency to invoke Detroit with symbolism, parallels between Hillbrow and Detroit, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, the U.S. Radium Corporation’s exploitation of women, paying researchers, Radium Girls, quoting directly from a 1936 story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Mad Dog Maddux, naming your company after an employer’s fictitious creation to secure a job, the annoyance of getting minor details right, John Banville, the invention/research spectrum, location scouting, women who are objectified by her scars, Murderball, the sex lives of the injured, characters defined by the interior, physical description, how visual photos serve as emotional reference, why fictitious sociopaths drink Canadian Club, Amity Gaige’s Schroeder, A Clockwork Oraange, Al Capone, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and rabid eating.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The thing about this conversation is that we’re doing this months before it actually airs. So what do you think’s going to happen in May or June when this actually goes up? Will the world even exist? What will happen?

Beukes: Well, you know, I think the Mayans were off by a couple of months.

Correspondent: I’d say that 2013 is more the apocalyptic year than 2012.

Beukes: Definitely. Way more apocalyptic. And I think actually we’re going to be overrun by killer bunnies that are taking revenge for the deaths of all the bees. And we’ll all be wiped out.

Correspondent: I learned recently that rats laugh. Did you know this?

Beukes: No, I did not.

Correspondent: Yeah. Rats actually laugh. If you tickle them, they emit this supersonic, high-pitched laughter that humans can’t hear. I’m not sure if this factors into your prediction or not, but I bring it up just for the hell of it.

Beukes: Well, we can use the rat laughter death ray. It’s kind of a sonic death ray which will explode all our cell phone devices and we’ll be cut open. I know I certainly will die without my cell phone.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, Lovecraft probably predicted this too. “The Rats in the Walls.”

Beukes: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Anyway, to your book. It is my view that the best zombie dramatizations do not involve an explanation. The zombies merely rise from the grave. And that’s it. It could be allegory. It could be gripping suspense. I bring this up because I think about the time travel in your book, which for the most part, except for the end, we don’t actually have an explanation for why this man Harper can jump from time to time. And when the explanation does come, I read it and said, “Oh, okay, that makes complete sense.” But I was so wiling to believe that he somehow willed himself into various times. So I have to ask you, Lauren Beukes the author, did you have an explanation from the start? Why did you feel the need to give the reader the explanation for the time travel? And is narrative hampered sometimes when you explain too much to the reader? What of this?

Beukes: I don’t like to explain too much to the reader. I like readers to bring their depth and experience into a text, and I think that makes it just way more interesting and exciting and personal. Overexplaining is boring. And I think you have to trust your reader. And I think you have to trust them with interesting definitions of how the world works. So I specifically went with the Greek tragedy model of time travel. You can’t kill Hitler. The more you try to kill Hitler, the more you’re just going to reinforce the events which will absolutely play out it always has been intended to play out. Which is not to say that there aren’t loops and paradoxes or that the ending doesn’t explain why everything has been happening.

Correspondent: Sounds like you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Beukes: Uh, yeah, maybe.

Correspondent: Gotcha.

Beukes: So I really wanted to just play with that. And the time travel is almost secondary to a lot of everything else. But everything has been immaculately plotted out. You know, I had this crazy murder wall with all these diagrams and strings and three different criss-crossing timelines, linking them and triple-checking that everything made sense. And for that one moment which they keep looking back to, everything is very carefully coordinated. There’s no Looper moment where Bruce Willis says, “Well, I could explain time travel. But we’d be here all day doing diagrams with straws.” No, I really did plot it out and make sure everything worked.

Correspondent: How does spontaneity work for you? If you have a foundation that you’ve set — with strings. I’m very curious about the strings. I mean, Will Self has his Post-It notes. You have the strings. How do you digress from that? How do you account for spontaneity? And does explanation sometimes get in the way of spontaneity?

Beukes: I think explanation can. The way I write, and I’m going to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow, is that it’s like taking a road trip at night. I know where I’m leaving from and I know where I’m going to. I always know my beginnings and my endings. And I know some of the major way points along the way. But the rest of the time you’re driving. It’s pitch black. You can see twenty feet ahead of you in the headlights. And you’ve just got to stay on the road and figure it out. And so the spontaneity and the play and the subconscious diversions, which is my favorite part of the writing process, happens in between.

Correspondent: So Harper, you knew how he did it.

Beukes: I knew how Harper did it. I knew why it happens that way. That ending was in there from the beginning.

Correspondent: Sure. Which leads me to ask you about the strange perspective. I mean, here is a close third person. And as we read more and as we start to understand how he views his victims, it’s very hallucinatory. Especially with Etta the nurse. We start to really know that he’s probably making this up and furthermore he doesn’t quite understand sometimes that he’s murdering these victims. This is interesting because you’re almost asking the reader here to share this blindness by making it third person. How did this stylistic tic develop out of curiosity?

Beukes: My previous two books were first person. And I really felt like I needed a break from that, that I needed to be able to step back a little bit. Especially because Harper was such a loathsome, vile person. Which doesn’t make us any less complicit, even though it’s third-person. It just felt natural for the book. I would love to give you an in-depth analysis, but a lot of it is relying on intuition. And I wanted Harper to struggle with it and I wanted you to see his struggle. I also did a lot of research into what real serial killers are like. And I wanted to avoid the sexy predatorial Hannibal Lector model. You know, the sophisticate who drinks Chianti. And most serial killers are awful, vile, pathetic human beings who have major sexual dysfunctions. And I wanted to get at that and the kind of real horror of like what that kind of monster is. It’s actually quite sad and pathetic and no less horrible. But not the sophisticated predator.

Correspondent: But it’s also an interesting way of possibly avoiding full immersion into this guy’s mind as both author and reader. I mean, if you during the course of your research are growing increasingly queasy about what human beings do, well you have a perfect safeguard here. Was that another aspect of doing that? Another advantage here?

Beukes: That could well have been a subconscious aspect. You know, the way I dealt with writing Harper was that I just messed him up at every opportunity. You know, if I could damage him in a scene, I absolutely would. I was like, “Okay, he’s in a fight with someone. I’m going to break his jaw. Awesome.” But then I had to keep track of the broken jaw and figure out how it was healing. Was it healed in 1984? Or was it still wired up in 1951? And that just added a whole another layer of complexity. So it was very cathartic to hurt him. But it didn’t help me with my planning.

Correspondent: So you were able to deal with this monster by beating the shit out of him.

Beukes: Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #501: Lauren Beukes (Download MP3)

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Alix Ohlin (The Bat Segundo Show)

Alix Ohlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #467. She is most recently the author of Inside and Signs and Wonders.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Careful to distinguish between Uganda and Rwanda.

Author: Alix Ohlin

Subjects Discussed: Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, California weather, New York City as ideal place to consider the vocational experience, aspiring rock stars, working in the publishing industry before becoming a writer, slush pile people vs. literary giants, working in an atmosphere of rejection, maintaining a love of reading and writing while being employed as a publishing booster, the benefits of being familiar with canonical fiction, writing stories in secret, working in a bookstore, drinking an enormous amount of caffeine, Ohlin’s four year self-imposed apprenticeship, finding a voice, “The King of Kohlrabi” as Ohlin’s first breakout point, hiding in a cafe in Nex Mexico, being a reserved person, resisting a reserved voice, callousness and bad things in fiction, why Ohlin’s characters don’t seek revenge, when the human equation isn’t direct, being treated poorly in a relationship, whether or not revenge is true to life, parents and therapy, building dimensionality out of empathy, removing cautiousness from characters to explore human feelings, fragmented marriages and divorces, being not pro-war, Don Swaim, attempts to be a well-rounded person, Ohlin’s Harvard background, whether writing fiction can make you a more well-rounded person, doing scientific research, having Don DeLillo as a hero, being an information-based fiction writer in the early days, “Vigo Park” and Chekhov’s gun, “A Month of Sundays” vs. Updike’s A Month of Sundays, using explicit literary references in a story, being honest about the author/reader relationship, being too precious with titles and tropes, tactile elements of characters in Ohlin’s sentences, giving the reader sensory guideposts, Tug’s Rwandan backstory in Inside, moving empathy onto a greater canvas, playing around with time, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, structure and false starts, why Ohline’s stories never transform into novels, being a heavy planner, knowing the ending of a story, the pros and cons of revisiting a short story after it had been collected, short story culture in the digital age, uncollected short stories that aren’t available online, the fate of the short story, being freed of commercial restraints, instantaneous reactions to work, critics who misinterpret work, factual errors in fiction, being grateful for attention, hardcover vs. paperback, and the reduced output of short story collections.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Now I may be misconstrued as the “nine types of weather” guy in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, but, as a native Californian, I do feel compelled to ask you this question. There are two moments in these two books where you do remark on the California weather. One is the beginning of the story “The Only Child,” where Sophie calls California weather “sunny and childlike.” And in Inside, you have the situation where Anne is in Los Angeles. She’s running along the beach and she’s calling it this sort of fantastical dream. Now I don’t know why this actually stuck inside my head. But I feel that this is a very good jumping off point to describe what it is you do in terms of selecting those right details. Because I can see it from a California point of view. Because it is too good to be true. I can also see it as someone who has lived here in New York for five years and also say, “Well, yes, it is too good to be true. And it deserves to be mocked or ridiculed in some sense.” But at the same time, we’re also dealing with an author who is ascribing this through a character. And this becomes something that I obsess with. And I’m sure that some other reader is going to obsess over something along those lines. I ask you this about how you choose these details, such as the weather, because your prose is very sparse, very economic, very selective in its own criteria in terms of its syntax. So how does something like the California weather or, for example, Chinese food — also featuring in both books — how do these things make their way in a story? What is the filtering mechanism that causes this? A very bad, eccentric, possibly deranged way to start this, but I thought I would do that.

Ohlin: No, it’s always great to start with weather. I certainly think that everything in the books is filtered through the consciousness of the characters. And that’s always where I begin. It’s my entry point as a writer to start creating a narrative. And it’s certainly how I choose the details. Which is not really a conscious process. It’s more that I’m there in the moment with the character and imagining what might be the most conspicuous thing to them. So both of those descriptions of California, to respond to that, are absolutely moments of experience that are specific to characters who are from the East Coast and wintry climates, who come out and, of course, that’s what they remark upon. Of course it feels like a fantasy and an escape and something amazing and remarkable. Because to them, it is.

Correspondent: Did you get burned in California? Did you get burned by the weather or burned metaphorically?

Ohlin: I love the weather in California. And I do think it’s amazing. But, for me, I will always experience it as not home. Not the climate of home. And I will always be the person remarking upon the sunshine in January.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, aside from Anne struggling in New York in Inside, in Signs and Wonders you have a number of stories set in New York City. And “Who Do You Love?” made an impression upon me for a number of reasons. The notion of a band called Das Boot, which is actually noted around a German mode, or a mood, as opposed to the actual Teutonic experience full boar — that resonated with me because I’ve known people like the — well, rather interestingly, she doesn’t have a name, the woman who is smit with Adam, the aging rock star who is past his prime, doesn’t want to do any particular work and yet he has a draw in Williamsburg. That men like that are allowed to get away with such pathetic behavior, both in that and what we see with Inside and what we see in a number of the other stories in Signs and Wonders. I’m curious. Do you think that this particular fixation is common largely to New York? The vocational experience, is it rooted in your own personal experience? How do these fixations on, I suppose, vocational nightmares along these lines and the terrible influence on other people, how did these come about?

Ohlin: So by “vocational experiences,” do you mean the fact that he wants to be a rock star?

Correspondent: Aspirations. Is this common to New York? Why does this seem to be your idea of what New York is?

Ohlin: Well, it’s not my only idea of what New York is. But I do think that both New York and Los Angeles are places where a lot of young people move in their twenties to pursue artistic dreams that they thought were less available to them wherever they came from. So in that story, it’s the kind of story about someone who was on the cusp of being too old to be aspiring. At a certain point, you’re just sort of a person who never made it and that’s an extremely difficult moment to switch over in your own head. And then I think I have written about other characters in Inside, like Anne, who is an aspiring actress, who starts off first of all in the theater world in New York and then goes out to L.A. to try — or winds up being cast in a TV show in L.A. I just think that there’s something about both those cities that they are conduits to not just any kind of vocational experience, but artistic experiences. And then they don’t work out for people. And that’s incredibly difficult. And it’s part of your growing up to try and figure out how to come to terms with that.

Correspondent: Did New York work out for you? I mean, I know you worked in the publishing industry. And this leads me to ask you also if you had to get certain elements of how you viewed fiction and how you viewed books outside of your system in order to truly inhabit these stories as an artist.

Ohlin: Well, you know, that’s a really interesting question. I moved to New York straight out of college and I did work in publishing. And I loved it. I learned a lot and I was having a great time. But I also had this secretly harbored desire to write. And I would go to work all day and there were two things about it that were difficult. One was that a huge part of my job as an editorial assistant was to reject manuscripts. So I was right there at the forefront of rejection and understanding how difficult the odds were.

Correspondent: Did you reject anybody big?

Ohin: I don’t really want to say who I rejected. But a big part of what I rejected were slush pile people. The people who are just writing in cold without an agent. But there were so many of them and my entire cubicle would be full of these works of love — you know, 500 page novels that people were sending in that I would write a simple two-sentence letter rejecting. That was hard, when you think about, well, what’s going to become of my work. But then on the other side of the coin was that the books that were accepted, I mean, I was working at Knopf and we were publishing people like Cormac McCarthy and Tobias Wolff and Toni Morrison. And their work was so incredibly sophisticated and adept. And then I would go home and I would write these terrible, terrible, terrible stories. And the contrast between what I could do and what these published authors could do on the one hand and the rejection of the unsolicited manuscripts on the other hand really did not create an ideal context for artistic risk-taking. So I think it was really because of that, and not something about New York in particular. I love New York. But it was really about working in this atmosphere of rejection and impossible standards that I just thought, “Well, I really can’t do this.” I made the impetuous decision that you make when you’re in your early twenties and I thought, “I’m leaving New York! I’m starting over!” You know. “And it’s going to be an adventure!” I think, had I been a little older, I probably would have realized that there are ways that you can reconcile those two things. But at the time, it seemed like going away and writing in secret far away from New York publishing was the thing that I had to do.

The Bat Segundo Show #467: Alix Ohlin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part Two

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #450. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the second of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games, and can be listened to here. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: How Bissell’s father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, being a man with the average sadnesses, how assembling an essay collection allows one to see a life history, Bissell becoming comfortable in not presenting himself as a Wallace-like buffoon, early self-serious days working at a literary house, watching Jeff Daniels make a movie, cringing at your earlier work while reading it before a large crowd, not succumbing to glumness, abandoning the puckish but tart essays, finding humor in Werner Herzog, Bissell’s confessional streak, the lightning bolts of personal revelation, being powerless to make moves in an essay, the diminishing covenant of privacy between author and reader, the creative impact of assuming that most readers are coming into an essay for the first time, unearned intimacy, John D’Agata, not writing magazine journalism in present tense, when bad boy memoirs become ghoulish in changing tense, distinguishing one’s self from the compulsively confessional, maintaining a low-key online presence, responsibility on the page, deleted tweets, when people remark upon and say mean things about you online, the perils of Twitter Search, negative Goodreads reviews, taking on Robert D. Kaplan in Chasing the Sea and in Magic Hours, being angered by Imperial Grunts, rescuing Paula Fox, the Underground Literary Alliance, Bissell’s crusading impulses, writing negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Scott Spencer, recusing yourself from reviewing, getting into an online skirmish with Jorge Volpi over a Season of Ash review, putting away the remnants of Bissell’s mean streak, underrepresented voices vs. bad writing, George Plimpton’s invitation to the ULA, finding ways to calm down “boors” and be inclusive of more outsiders in the literary community, King Wenclas as a room wrecker, common embitterment about the publishing system, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, good writing and sincerity, being a “literary insider,” tolerating bad behavior, needless competition within the literary world, star systems within the publishing industry, varying notions of success, the dubious monolithic stature of The New York Times Book Review, Bissell’s negative review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, whether we should give a damn about critical culture in 2012, James Wood, Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” whether literary culture is more healthier than ever or starving, Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling, the problems with too many long-form online critical mechanisms, how the group blog made keeping tabs on culture a full-time job, how the Internet has altered time commitments and responsibilities, the future of Bissell’s fiction, listening to the world in a smartphone age as an eccentric or subversive act, how brains are rewired by electronic interfaces, false blame on video games, A Clockwork Orange, the impact of newspaper headline editors, chewing nicotine, obsessiveness, using words like “nummular,” learning 50 Uzbek words a day, achievements and gamification, setting goals, writing about The Room, “Bissellmania,” Jim Harrison, and the creative benefits of being in a stable relationship.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In The Father of All Things, you remarked on how your father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, where Caputo, he remarks that your father is very funny in telling all these jokes to the other soldiers in the face of tragedy. You wrote back then, “I saw the still normal man my father could have become, a man with the average sadnesses.” I’m wondering if assembling the essays for this collection was in some weird way an effort to look at yourself in the same way. Do you feel that you saw a younger Tom with these average sadnesses or anything like this? Some image of what your life could have become? I mean, I also note this because there’s an interesting sentence you write in “Unflowered Aloes” — the first essay, the youngest one — where you say, “For intellectuals, destiny as it applies to life is a ludicrous thought. But destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned.” So do you subscribe to any peculiar destiny these days? What of this?

Bissell: The earlier essays are the ones that I was most hesitant to include in the book at all. They’re basically — I’m sure you think this way when you look at your own stuff that’s older than, say, five years. Basically, it’s a stranger’s work, right? And I once imagined that if I ever did a nonfiction thing, I’d have all the pieces that I’d ever wrote and it would be a big chunky thing. No one wanted to do that obviously. There’s a lot of essays that I could have included, but I didn’t. Just because they were so sloppy in their thinking and they were so — what I’m saying now gets into self-congratulatory territory. Because the presupposition is that your recent work is not perfect. And that’s not what I’m trying to say. But I think you can see in the essays, and I noticed this when I was going over them, is a journey from someone who has become gradually more comfortable not presenting himself as a [DAvid Foster] Wallace-like buffoon, and actually becoming someone who is able to be present in a piece, and I hope be honest and not have these kind of ridiculous squirting boutonniere moments where you’re somewhat desperately trying to get the reader’s affection and attention. So I think I’ve become a less needy presence. And I think my interests — I feel like when I’m talking about intellectuals in that first piece, I mean, all the stuff I said, I more or less believe. I was a somewhat self-serious person then. And I was working for this literary house. And you can see the tone varies in a lot of the pieces. The tone is often directly reflective of where I was living even physically, and the experiences I’d gone through. And maybe the more average experiences I’d had until that point, I think there’s a temptation to actually make more of your experience than can really be made of it. And the Escanaba essay, which is the second essay in the book about watching Jeff Daniels make this movie about my hometown, I read it aloud at Bookcourt the other night. And I kind of kept stopping and apologizing to the audience almost for the histrionic tone. (laughs)

Correspondent: I think most writers of personal journalism or confessional essays tend to do that — especially if it’s been a long while. I know Jonathan Ames does that. I’ve seen other writers do that.

Bissell: Well, I’m glad I’m not alone then.

Correspondent: They’re embarrassed. “Oh my god. I can’t believe I wrote this about myself.” I think that’s a very human reaction. But on the other hand, I mean I have to say, if the yardstick here in comparison to your father is yourself, do you see the typical sadnesses at all that you saw as Caputo depicted your father? Or anything like that?

Bissell: I don’t know. I do know that in some of the experiences I had immediately after September 11th, then covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I became a lot more concerned with making my work as funny as possible. (laughs) And maybe that was just an attempt to not succumb to a kind of glumness about — oh, this is just veering off into territory that I’m not even sure I understand. But I became way less interested in the kind of essay I would have written — like “Unflowered Aloes.” A puckish but tart stately essay, right? And I just became more interested in stuff that puts it out there on the line emotionally, but is primarily concerned with exploring the absurd and the humorous parts of these people. And I try to do that even in the Werner Herzog essay, which — he’s not the easiest subject in the world to wring a lot of humor out of. But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like I have not answered your question at all.

Correspondent: Well, this is actually all good. Maybe another way to phrase it is this. I mean, there seems to me to have always been some interesting confessional streak in your writing. I think of when you finally spill about your fiancée in Chasing the Sea. I think, of course, of the ultimate example. It’s probably the last chapter in Extra Lives. I think of your decision in the Jim Harrison essay to basically announce at the end, “I’m giving up teaching.” These are really bold — I mean, very bold, quite frankly — ways to find a personal connection into someone who you clearly revere or some thing — like Grand Theft Auto — that you clearly revere. And I’m wondering. Why do you feel this need to do this? And why has it been blowing up with, I suppose, even more extraordinary pronouncement? “Hey, I went ahead and had this coke breakdown.” Or “I am packing up my life entirely and maybe if you follow me in the next essay, I’ll tell you how things are going.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: It also causes, at least this reader, to say, “Fuck! I hope Tom is okay!” (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: So my question is: is this an effort to draw either longtime or short-term readers into what you’re doing? Does it provide a greater authenticity? Is it a way of shaking off the sort of smarmy, sort of semi-self-confident guy in “Unflowered Aloes”? What of this? Why?

Bissell: I think some of this must come from having started as a fiction writer and being profoundly uninterested in nonfiction for a long time. And so when you’re writing fiction, there are these lightning bolts of revelation from your own life, your own experience, that are being superinjecting that into the story or paragraph you’re working on. It’s easy to do in fiction. Because no one asks any questions, right? But that electricity is actually what gives fiction its texture. And without that sensed personal connection between writer and material, even if it’s not autobiographical material, there’s that electric sense that this voice knows of what it speaks. And for me, informational nonfiction, nonfiction that doesn’t have an identifiable human being in it, I mean, I could not care less about reading that stuff. And so I realize I confess things in my pieces not out of any real objective or desire. It just seems to be the move that I’m driven to make. Like I didn’t have any idea when I was writing the Grand Theft Auto essay that I was even going to get into my collapse. Into cocaine. No idea. I just started writing the essay and it just started coming out. I didn’t even know that I was going to get into the quitting my teaching thing literally until the moment I got there. So, believe it or not, those moves are like — I’m almost powerless to not do them in some strange way. They’re never — and here’s my defense. Teaching doesn’t come up in that whole essay until the very end. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bissell: So I hope structurally I’m proving my point. And I could have gone back.

Correspondent: But in an age of Google, I mean, we can find out. The reader can find out. “Oh, Tom was teaching somewhere. Wait. What the hell? He’s no longer teaching and he’s telling us this in his essay?” I mean, part of me almost wants to say, in an age where that covenant of author-reader privacy is diminishing, where the author is now expected to tell everything about himself — because everybody is spilling everything about themselves on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on whatever — I’m uncomfortable with that idea too. Because I feel, well, why must the author confess everything? Unless it’s pertinent to the piece. This is why I say to myself, well, the bigger leap. If you don’t know where it comes from, and it sometimes gets out there, well, it seems like you’re working in terrain that’s very uncontrolled. What do you do to make sure you don’t say too much?

Bissell: Decorum. My girlfriend. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) What army? What vanguard is there to prevent you? “Hey, Tom, you can’t say this!”

Bissell: Well, I think that less than 1% of my readers are keeping track of me, right? And so in one sense, I’m assuming that everyone who reads something of mine is coming to me for the first time. And so I don’t presume that they have any concern for what’s going on before with me. And especially with my video game book, I think a lot of people read it not even knowing that I had this career as a literary writer before that. So I’m just assuming that the slate is blank. And I guess maybe these bombs get dropped in there to assert some kind of — well, I guess it’s reasserting the pact of intimacy between the reader and the writer. And that intimacy is not always there in nonfiction. It’s not even really expected. And what’s weird is that, as a nonfiction writer, you start off with this utterly unearned intimacy. Which is the intimacy that, well, I’m telling you the truth. And that’s the moral bond between the nonfiction reader and the nonfiction writer. “What I’m telling you is true.” And so you start on this very intimate terrain. And then I think a lot of nonfiction writers never really wander off that terrain. That that’s enough. And for me, it’s not enough.

Correspondent: On the other hand, the extreme version of that would be someone like John D’Agata or Mike Daisey, who basically throw that trust into the water and piss a lot of people off and perhaps, depending upon where your point of view is, destroy their credibility as someone who can share a story or who can even share some acceptable version of the truth, if that makes any sense. It seems to me that your confessional streak is both bomb-dropping but also just enough for us to maintain that covenant. Yet I know you’ve also taught About a Mountain at Portland. And so forth. So do you see yourself possibly entering into “Hey! I really wasn’t telling the truth about this. Fuck you.”

Bissell: (laughs) Well, here’s an interesting point that I will make that I will stand by. I never anymore write magazine pieces in the kind of magazine journalism present tense. Ever. I kind of loathe the nonfiction present tense. And I loathe it because — especially if you’re writing about yourself — when you write in the present tense, you are almost foreclosing any possibility of reflection. And you almost don’t have to account for your decisions or your behavior. And that’s why all bad behavior memoirs are always written in the present tense. “I slapped the hooker. And then I did another line. And then I staggered out and slept with the cab driver.” Now: “I slap the hooker, step outside. I snort another line of coke. I sit down with the cab driver.” No. I’m doing this in present tense. But you turn that into past tense and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. Now it just seems ghoulish and there’s no sensationalistic fizziness to it. And you just have a reader that’s just saying, “Well, wait a minute? Why did you do these things?” Right? So you’ll notice that I never ever, ever write in the present tense when it comes to nonfiction. And I really, really strive when I do go into confessional mode to keep part of the partition up. I have no interest in revealing the details of my life if they’re not relevant to what I’m actually writing about. And I hope that would distinguish me from some people who seem compulsively confessional. That I would like to think that the stuff that I’m letting loose has a direct emotional bearing on the material that’s under investigation.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #450: Tom Bissell, Part Two (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Steve Erickson II

Steve Erickson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #447. He is most recently the author of These Dreams of You. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #180.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contriving plans to join a community of one half.

Author: Steve Erickson)

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel around short bursts, plagiarizing the future, The Sea Came In at Midnight, the novel as kaleidoscope, rationale that emerges midway through writing a novel, losing 50 pages in These Dreams of You, not writing from notes, Zan’s tendency to hear profane words from telephone conversations, the considerable downside and formality of being dunned, fake politeness and underlying tones of contempt, not naming Obama, Kennedy, or David Bowie, Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Molly in These Dreams of You, Erickson’s commitment to the ineffable, letting a reader find her own meaning, defining a character in terms of story instead of public and historical terms, listening to David Bowie to get a sense of Berlin, Erickson’s cherrypicked version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, not capitalizing American and European throughout Dreams, using autobiographical details for fiction, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “part fact part fiction is what life is,” dating a Stalinist, why fiction is more informed by real life, how invented details encourage a conspiracy, the dissipating honor of being true to what is true, the last refuge of a bad writer, what a four-year-old can and cannot say, bending the truth when it sounds too fictional, Kony and Mike Daisey, combating the needs for believability and readers who feel defrauded, authenticity within lies, kids and photos who disappear in Dreams, striking a balance between the believable and the phantasmagorical, fiction which confounds public marketeers from the outset, postmodernism’s shift to something not cool, limitations and literary possibilities, the burdens of taxonomy, living in a culture that wishes to pigeonhole, why Zeroville and These Dreams of You gravitate more toward traditional narrative, reviewers who are hostile to anything remotely unconventional, writing a novel from the collective national moment, the relationship between history and fiction, being a man “out of time,” thoughts on how a private and antisocial reading culture is increasingly socialized, having an antisocial temperament, writers who cannot remember the passages that they write, the pros and cons of book conventions, and being “a community of one.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Erickson: We do live in a culture that wants to pigeonhole things. I don’t know whether that’s a function of late 20th century/early 21st century culture or is a function of American culture, or some combination of the two. In Japan, for instance, they don’t seem to worry about that when it comes to my novels.

Correspondent: But with Zeroville and with Dreams, we have moved a little bit more toward traditional narrative. I mean, maybe the impulse was always there. But do you think this has just been symptomatic of what you’ve been more occupied with of late? Fusing that traditional narrative with, say, some of these additional ideas of disappearance, of inserting words into sentences, and so forth?

Erickson: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to know. There are still a lot of people out there who would read this novel, These Dreams of You, and think it’s a pretty damn unconventional novel. They may not have read Our Ecstatic Days and thereby see this novel as whatever you want to call it: more accessible. But I can tell from the reviews I’ve gotten on this novel, which have largely been somewhere between good and better than good, nonetheless there are reviewers out there who really don’t quite know what to make of even this particular novel, which I think you’ve rightly said steers a little bit toward the conventional than earlier novels. And in the case of Zeroville, again, I had a strategy from the beginning, having thought about this novel for a while. I had started the novel at one point and I was writing it differently. And I was writing it — I don’t mean differently in terms of my earlier books. It was written more like my earlier books. And I stopped. I threw it out. Because I felt that this novel is about loving the movies, being obsessed with movies. It should have some of the energy of a movie. It should follow some of the narrative laws of a movie. So you had a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story being told in external terms. Being told in dialogue. Being told in action. Not a lot of motivational stuff. The main character in that novel, we never quite know where he’s coming from. We never know if he’s some kind of savant, or socially and mentally challenged. We never know.

In the case of this novel, I was aware at some point that, first of all, I was writing a story about a family, which I had never done. And, secondly, I was writing a story that it became clear to me, really from the first scene, that addressed the national moment and a moment that any reader could recognize in a way that none of my other novels quite had. Los Angeles was not submerged in a lake or covered by a sandstorm. It was out of that opening scene of the novel, which was the real-life scene that led to writing the novel. I merged a story that I thought would be recognizable to most readers. And I didn’t want to completely lose that. There are a lot of times in the novel that I think that is challenged. That recognizability. Or that recognition rather of the contemporary moment. Halfway through the book, the story suddenly changes track. But even as I was taking the reader, even as three quarters of the way through the book I knew the reader was going to be saying “Where is this thing going?” I didn’t want to lose that connection between the book and a moment of national history. It’s a history that’s still going on. It’s not a history of the past, but of the present. I didn’t want to lose that connection.

Correspondent: But why did you feel at this point, with this novel, that you needed to respond to the national moment? I mean, history is something, especially as it is unfolding, that one doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to respond to. So now you’re getting into questions of, well, is it possible that you are giving into the reader somewhat? In light of the conditions that we were describing earlier. Where did this need to respond to the 2008 climate come from?

Erickson: Well, I think it was completely personal. I was sitting on the sofa watching the election in November 2008 — Election Night — with my black daughter. And I knew this was a singular moment for me. And I knew this was a singular moment for her. And it was a singular moment for the country. And it was one of those cases where the story made itself manifest to the point of screaming at me. Here’s a story that not many other people are in a position to tell, given the circumstances of their lives as those circumstances were coinciding with the circumstances of the country.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to actually go back into the intertextuality within the novel. You have this character — J. Willkie Brown, the Brit who invites Zan over to give the lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century, Or the Evolution of Pure History to Fiction.” Now if we call journalism the first draft of history, it’s interesting that you also describe that “Zan’s single triumph over Brown is that, in time-honored journalistic tradition, the world-famous journalist always longed to write a novel.” It’s also interesting that Zan must return to his American roots: the original British origin point, right? To collect his thoughts on how he has dealt with words. And I’m wondering how much this relationship between history and pure fiction is predicated on Anglo-American relations. Can any novel or any life entirely deflect “the crusade against gray” that you mention?

Erickson: The crusade against what?

Correspondent: The crusade against gray. It’s when you’re describing Ronnie Jack Flowers and the specific content of his views. I wanted to talk about him, if it’s possible too.

Erickson: Yeah. That’s a big question. Early on, Zan wonders — or actually an omniscient narrator wonders by way of Zan — if this is the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. And I’m not sure I’ve got a sweeping cultural answer for all this. At some point early on in my life, well before the 21st century, I knew that I was a man out of time. I knew that the great art form of the 20th century was film. And I still believe that. And at the same time, popular music was rendering other media obsolete or, in terms of relevance, was usurping all of these other forms. But my talent and my temperament is to write novels. You know, and I should probably have been born fifty years earlier. And so as much as I would love to convince myself that I am operating in the central cultural arena of the time, I know I’m not. I know that fiction becomes not a fringe form, because too many people still read. And not even a secondary form. But a form that becomes more private. That is not shared with the culture at large. I mean, people read novels in private. Whereas they still tend to watch movies in public. Even as we watch more and more movies by ourselves at home. Even as they tend to respond still to music in public, whether they’re in the car with their sound system. So it’s just…it’s what I do. And it’s what I’m stuck doing. And the relevance or significance of fiction in relationship to history or journalism is almost beside the point for someone like me.

Correspondent: So working in a cultural medium that is below the mass culture omnipresence is the best way for you to negotiate these issues of history and fact?

Erickson: Well, I think…

Correspondent: A more dignified way?

Erickson: No, I think, Ed, it’s the only way I know. That’s all. I don’t know that it’s the best way or the more dignified way. I mean, I can’t rationalize it in those terms. In a way, I would like to be able to. You know, at some point early on, I thought a lot about filmmaking. When I was in college, I was actually a film student.

Correspondent: Yes.

Erickson: But I recognized at some point that, for better or worse, whatever talent I had — I felt I had some talent writing fiction. I had no idea whether I’d have any talent making movies. But perhaps even more importantly, temperamentally fiction is the province of a loner. Fiction is about locking yourself up in a room and having as little social interaction with other people as possible, and living in this world that you’ve created. There is nothing collaborative about it in the way that film is, or even making music is. So the answer to your question is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. It’s what I was just meant to do.

Correspondent: You just have an anti-collaborative temperament.

Erickson: Absolutely I do. I mean, it’s more than that. I have an antisocial temperament. I teach in a writing program back in California and I have a lot of problems, actually, with writing programs and writing workshops. And I tell my students this. I say, the thing is, the paradox is that a writing program socializes what is really an antisocial endeavor. There’s something very strange about shutting yourself off from the rest of society to create this world or reality that’s completely yours and that you don’t share with anybody until it’s done, and even then you share it on a very private basis. If someone’s sitting across the room, and they’re reading one of my novels, I’m going to leave. You know, I don’t want to be there. Because even though I know that the public has complete access, what I did still remains so private to me, I don’t want to be around when somebody’s reading my work. Except for cases like this, I don’t especially want to have casual conversations about it. Perhaps strangest of all, and I’ve heard a number of other writers say this — I heard Jonathan Lethem say it a few weeks ago — people will come up to me, for instance, and ask me about a section of a book and I have no recollection of what they’re talking about. I have no recollection of writing it. I have no recollection of what I was thinking when I wrote it. I often have to ask them to show me what it is. Because I was utterly immersed in that, and then it’s done, and I need to leave it behind.

Correspondent: Running away from people who are reading your books. I mean, does this create any problems for you to go about your life? If you’re interested in the types of things that Steve Erickson readers are likely to be interested in, this could create some intriguing social problems.

Erickson: Well, as uncomfortable as it may make me to be in the same room, I would love to tell you that my life is littered with scenes of people reading my books everywhere I go. But that’s not the case. So it doesn’t happen that often. But I don’t have a lot of conversations with people who are casual friends about my work. And I don’t want to. So in that sense, the antisociability — is that the right word for it? The antisociability of the writing and the work, it does go on. It bleeds outside the lines of the life of that work, and it bleeds into areas of my other life, where I don’t, even though I’m always a writer, I don’t want to be interacting with people as a writer.

Correspondent: So is there any place for community? An increasing term used, I find, in writing. We have a “literary community” and so forth. Is this a logical extension of what some people find in, say, AWP or MFA workshops? Is there any possible place for community for you? Or that you find of value?

Erickson: For me, not especially. For other writers, perhaps. And I’ve been to AWP. And I’ve been to book conventions. The LA Times Festival of Books. And I can even drive a certain amount of pleasure for 24 hours to meet other writers. But the only community that gets any writing done is a community of one. And at the point that it becomes too much a salon, then I check out of it.

Correspondent: So for you, being antisocial is the truest temperament for an artistic writer.

Erickson: Well, I don’t know how you can be anything else. Certainly at the moment that when you’re doing the work. For me, that’s true, yeah. I can’t speak for other writers.

(Photo: Stefano Paltera)

The Bat Segundo Show #447: Steve Erickson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #419. She is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Salivating in tandem with his diminishing wallet.

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Subjects Discussed: The dangers of French pastries, Abu-Jaber’s propensity for describing food in lurid terms, growing up with food-obsessed parents, wooing people and readers with food, Abu-Jaber’s former life as a restaurant critic, the atmosphere of revolving restaurants, getting irate letters from restauranters, early skirmishes with vegans, faux meat and tofurkey, the differences between foodies and egalitarian food lovers, Brillat-Savarian, MFK Fisher, needless food elitism, gourmet food trucks and gentrification, people who shy away from cooking, overpriced farmers markets, the dark side of sugar, writing without a routine, writing while cooking and while being stuck at a red light, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, studying elements of craft, consumerism and literature, finding precision within a chaotic work environment, outlines, laborious revision, setting imaginary deadlines, working with artistically-minded editors, characters who play with their hair throughout Abu-Jaber’s novels, writing about hair loss in women, being bitten by a brown recluse spider, suppurating wounds, when writing about a subject leads you to people who are living with the subject, the difficulties of cutting curly hair, exploring the Florida gutterpunk culture, real estate and Glengarry Glen Ross, talking with street kids, predatory people in their thirties living with kids in abandoned shacks, income disparity in Miami Beach, the dregs of club kids culture, earning the trust of street kids, maintaining an optimistic sheen while writing about victims of capitalism, readers who have complained about Birds of Paradise being too dark, Last Exit to Brooklyn, whether fiction has the obligation to solve problems, Dickens, Cristina Garcia’s review, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers who demand uplifting stories, unlikable characters being stigmatized in contemporary fiction, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, literary audiences and competing reader desires, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s uninformed YA stance, Sherman Alexie’s response, encouraging readers to take risks in fiction, commercial forces and offering novel samples, the origin of Origin, the pros and cons of having a genre-reading husband, the benefits of having a writing group (as well as having actual human beings in your life), character names names after notable American figures (Muir and Emerson), Idiocracy, autodidacts and American spirit, finding the good qualities within monstrous people, serial killers and the 1%, being very inspired by sunlight and water, cinematic imagery within Abu-Jaber’s prose, colons, Graham Greene, laziness and thwarted screenwriting ambitions, Elizabeth Taylor as a model for Felice, Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, tinkering with the idea of beauty, steering readers away from flattened culture, the narcotic allure of cooking shows, how food can enlarge a story, European novelists and food, T.C. Boyle, Kate Christensen, and food memoirs.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Abu-Jaber: Writing about a French pastry chef? All these venues are bringing in French pastries. People are bringing me pastries.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Abu-Jaber: People bring me cookies and croissants and Napoleons. I mean, it’s just fantastic. But it’s kind of like, oh my god! How am I going to fit into my airplane seat on the way home? Because it’s wild. And, of course, I have to eat them all.

Correspondent: So you have to eat them all? You can’t give them away to generous readers who have been standing in line?

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Yeah, right. My excellent interviewers. Actually, I have given out some of my pastries. But I have to admit. I want to eat all of them, if possible.

Correspondent: I noticed that with Ron Charles, the first sentence of his review in the Washington Post was “Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it.” So this seems as good a time as any to talk about your propensity for describing food in very lurid terms. I mean, to offer an example, you even have those moments between dialogue. In Crescent, you have, “She starts splitting open heads of garlic and picking at the papery skin covering the cloves.” Now this is between lines. So it forces one to both be engaged with the text and it forces one’s saliva to start running. And so the question is how this business with food started.

Abu-Jaber: Oh! It’s not something I did deliberately. I didn’t choose this metaphor. It’s weird. I think that a lot of it came up because of being raised by a food-obsessed parent. My dad always wanted to have his own restaurant. As an immigrant from Jordan, he used food as a way of giving his children culture. And so I grew up with a sensibility just informing the very fabric of our days. And then my grandmother was a very serious Irish Catholic baker. And so my grandmother and my father waged this war over our souls — the children — to try and woo us through their separate crafts. And so I grew up between falafel and cream puffs. And between Dad’s wonderful Jordanian cuisine and my grandmother’s incredibly yummy cookies and cakes and pastries.

Correspondent: And no doubt, along with that, came a very imposing exercise regimen.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, that’s got to be terrible. Wooing people through food. You’re wooing your readers with food. Why was food the ultimate axe to wield here? As opposed to, say, fashion or conversation or what not?

Abu-Jaber: It’s something that kind of happened organically in this book. I saw this woman. I was thinking about the book. And I had this image in my head of a woman wearing a chef’s apron. And I could see her back. And I could see that she had these very strong arms and shoulders. So I knew that she was someone who worked with her hands. And it became very clear to me that she was a pastry chef. And I had worked in food journalism for a while. I used to have a restaurant column.

Correspondent: You were a restaurant critic?

Abu-Jaber: I was.

Correspondent: Did you ever tear a restaurant to shreds?

Abu-Jaber: I think…I’m a pretty nice person! I tried to offer constructive criticism.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Abu-Jaber: But you are aware that you’re doing a social service by being a food critic. So you have to help the consumer, as well as the purveyor. And I might have shredded a little bit.

Correspondent: Like…such as what? What kind of constructive criticism was the worst that you possibly endowed?

Abu-Jaber: Oh jeez! Well, you know what I would do? I would try to offer people little guidelines about what to avoid in general. And I remember one of my big ones was that, if a restaurant has a great view, beware of the food.

Correspondent: (laughs Yeah. That’s actually very true.

Abu-Jaber: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Especially in this city too.

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Exactly. Or if it’s in a railroad car. Or if there’s a gigantic playground in the middle. It’s probably not going to be the best.

Correspondent: Or the infamous revolving restaurants.

Abu-Jaber: Ah, yes! If it moves, don’t chew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is a shame! Because it’s such — I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants. Not for the food, but for the kitsch of the experience.

Abu-Jaber: Sure. Sure. Just remember that some people are going for experience.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: I am somebody who likes to eat for the food. But I know that for many, many people, atmosphere trumps all.

Correspondent: Did you ever get a restaurant wrong during these early days? Did you get irate readers sending you letters saying, “Diana! You are absolutely off! Who do you think you are?” Anything like that?

Abu-Jaber: I used to get irate letters from restauranters.

Correspondent: Yes.

Abu-Jaber: From the people who felt that I’d gotten them wrong. I remember that I did a vegetarian roundup once. The vegetarian restaurants of Portland. And one of the local restaurant owners wrote to me irate. Absolutely irate. Because he had some vegetarian dishes on his menu. And he just thought that I should have included him. And he just really wanted to let me know that I had disrespected him.

Correspondent: Be thankful that you didn’t get involved with the vegans. Because they weren’t around back then.

Abu-Jaber: Yikes! Oh, lord in heaven. I think at that time — now this was the late ’90s.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: So at that time, there was maybe one vegan restaurant. And what they tried to do was present faux meat. So you’d go and you’d have turkey sculpted out of soy bean.

Correspondent: Tofurkey.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Exactly. So that was a whole other can of beans, so to speak.

Correspondent: So just to be straight here on the food issue, I mean, you would not identify yourself as a foodie, but a more egalitarian food person?

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. I’m sympathetic to the whole foodie idea. But I think that foodieism — if that’s a word — tends to elevate food to this sacred thing. It’s like this exalted object on an alter place, basically. And I just have never felt that that was never the point of enjoyment of any kind of primary activity like eating. That food is something that adds enormously to our lives, but that it’s a simple thing. And that we’re animals and that animal enjoyment is just a natural easy part of our lives. Or it should be.

Correspondent: Well, it went from something that was fairly harmless. Like Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher, who offer the perfectly sensible advice, “Well, if we’re spending so much of our time eating, we should probably pay attention to it,” but who are also championing food culture during the Great Depression. And this is the thing. It went from this rather egalitarian place to something that was ridiculously elitist or Ortega y Gasset-like, you know?

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Yes. We have started rhapsodizing about food and nobody wants to make it. People go out and buy cookbooks because they love the images and they love the idea of it and reading the cookbook like literature. But really nobody tries the recipes.

Correspondent: Yeah! I know, that’s the fun part!

Abu-Jaber: Yeah.

Correspondent: Especially when you make it with other people, who are as clueless as you are.

Abu-Jaber: You’re all in it together. You know, as an individual and as a parent, I want to make good, easy, nutritious food. And as a writer, I like the metaphor of food. Because it’s so malleable. It casts light on all these different elements in our psyche. All the different ways that we look at relationships in general. I don’t write about food to stop in food. That’s not the point. It’s more a filter through which to look at experience.

Correspondent: Sure. Have you seen, while you’ve been here in New York, some of our ridiculous gourmet food trucks? It totally defeats the purpose. Where before you’d get a hot dog for a dollar.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: Or you’d get some shish kabob or some sort of falafel really cheap. Now they have gourmet food trucks here. You should check these out. Empanadas that are really overpriced. Like six bucks.

Abu-Jaber: Oh really.

Correspondent: It’s now become — they’ve taken our food trucks!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: The food trucks have gentrified!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Wow.

Correspondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder, just as a fiction writer, whether you may explore this in a future book. This issue of, well, we make our food, but now even the price of food goes up and the experience of eating food goes up.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: And even something like white trash cuisine, even the good parts of that, becomes taken away from us. So there is no affordable base. Like there used to be. The traditional kind of food.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: I guess I have some feelings on this issue, now that we’ve talked about this.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s an economic issue. It’s health and it’s relationships and family and economics, for sure. And that’s part of the problem with the foodie movement. Foodies indulge in a kind of extreme experience. They’re the top of the pyramid. The people who can afford to go into Williams-Sonoma and buy a special strawberry huller. Or just that experience of going into a glorious kitchen in which none of the instruments in the kitchen have been touched. You know, it’s s more like an operating room than it is a kitchen.

Correspondent: It’s almost like the Trail of Tears.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have to find the produce places that the middle-class people have not found yet.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m never going to name them on the air — the places where I get really kickass produce.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. And you see that in the farmers markets.

Correspondent: Overpriced. Needlessly organic. God, don’t get me started on that.

Abu-Jaber: Absolutely.

Correspondent: We will discuss fiction. Don’t worry!

The Bat Segundo Show #419: Diana Abu-Jaber (Download MP3)

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When the Flock Changed: David Foster Wallace & Maud Newton

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Maud Newton makes the suggestion that David Foster Wallace’s essays — more than Cheetos, beer, amusing cat videos, and Jolt Cola — are largely to blame for chatty Internet discourse. Newton suggests that Wallace’s “Tense Perfect” (a review of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage collected in Consider the Lobster as “Authority and American Usage”) is “as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.” She tries pinning the mimetic transmission of Wallace’s syntax on “Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire,” but doesn’t offer a single example (save for Eggers’s “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book,” a citation so overbroad that it can equally apply to the notice about shooting anyone in search of a plot at the head of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Newton cites David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” as the “ur-text of this movement,” but fails to establish much beyond cannibalizing a thoughtful Keith Gessen essay from eleven years ago (as well as its AO Scott antecedent). She then concludes that “the idea of writing is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

It’s too bad that Newton lacks the logos and the level head to heed her own advice, and that she can’t level with us about her bilious biases. Conflation is not persuasion, nor is cleaving to one’s syntactic prejudices a reliable way of responding to an argument. Newton’s essay comes off as the work of a careless and needlessly furious blogger who has been given an unanticipated platform, not someone who takes the art of writing (and thinking about writing) seriously. There are numerous problems with her argument, as sloppy and as derivative in its thinking as the self-congratulatory folderol Newton claims to have abandoned during an apparent halcyon intellectual period sometime after the age of 20, where she “was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions” in law school. (Those ethics took Newton a long way in 2008, when Newton was offered a paid junket trip to England by a publisher, and, by her own admission, accepted the quid pro quo “within a half-hour of receiving the offer.”)

Like any common and overworked lawyer massaging boilerplate from practice guides, much of Newton’s “argument” about Wallace’s regular guy schtick has been cribbed from this 2002 Languagehat post. Newton complains of the “I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach.” Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson complains that “[t]his sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.” Dodson, however, had the decency to be transparent about his fury, confining his gripes to the article in question. What’s especially striking is that Newton, cognizant that she is writing for The New York Times, adopts the self-same “regular gal schtick” for her piece. And it is with this simplistic stance that Newton reveals her reductionist stature as a thinker.

Instead of using specific examples to provide a helpful lexical lineage for her claims (citing, for example, the very blogs impaired with Wallace-inspired banter), Newton offers little more than unfounded and dimly ironic speculation that has nothing to do with Wallace:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified. That music blog we liked was really pretty much the only one that, um, you know, got it. Never before had “folks” been used so relentlessly and enthusiastically as a term of general address outside church suppers, chain restaurants and family reunions. It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread. And! They have sort of mutated since to liberal and often sarcastic use of question marks? And exclamation points! “Oh, hi,” people say at the start of sentences on blogs, Twitter and Tumblr these days, both acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise at the presence of the readers who have turned up there.

Let’s do the work that Newton couldn’t be bothered to do. Because if you’re going to promulgate information about the methods and manner in which people use language, then it’s important to consider the whole larder.

One can spend a lifetime ruminating upon “uh” and “um,” which psychologists have recently suggested play roles as conversational managers. But what Newton is trying to peg here is speech disfluency — specifically, those fillers often emerging as one is deliberating over a thought. Fillers hardly originate with Wallace, nor are they confined to English. To offer one historical example, here’s some glorious dialogue from The City Wives’ Confederacy — a 1705 play written by Sir John Vanbrugh:

Cor. Let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, let me read it, I say. Um, um, um, — Cupid’s — um, um, um, — Darts, um, um, um, — Beauty, — um, — Charms, — um, um, um, — Angel, — um, — Goddess, — um, [Kissing the letter.] um, um, um, — truest Lover, — um, um — eternal Constancy, — um, um, um, — Cruel, — um, um, um, — Racks, — um, um, um — Tortures, — um, um, — fifty Daggers, — um, um, um, — bleeding Heart, — um, um, — dead Man, — Very well, a mighty civil letter, I promise you; not one smutty word in it: I’ll go lock it up in my comb-box.

For full effect, try reading that passage aloud. What sounds seemingly annoying in textual form becomes positively poetic as you’re saying it. But Vanbrugh didn’t stop there. We find this exchange in Scene II:

Mon. Um — a guinea, you know, Flippanta, is —
Flip. A thousand times genteeler; you are certainly in the right on’t; it shall be as you say — two hundred and thirty guineas.
Mon. Ho — Well, if it must be guineas — Let’s see — two hundred guineas —
Flip. And thirty; two hundred and thirty.

Now imagine that some snotty journalist or critic had told Vanbrugh that he couldn’t use “um” or “you know” or “let’s see” in his dialogue because, if he had published these words, they might be codified as the central connectors in the theatrical lexicon. If Vanbrugh’s dialogue had been scrubbed, how then might we have known — in a time before movies, gramophones, and computers — how people talked? One can hardly imagine reading masterpieces like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Finnegans Wake in anything other than their unique patois. Therefore, should one be so needlessly tendentious when it comes to blogs?

Newton’s feckless fig isn’t really about what Wallace (or any blogger) has to say. It’s about how they say it. As anyone who has waded through academic papers knows, there are often brilliant kernels contained inside dense and impenetrable style. But a person of true and eclectic intellectual rigor wouldn’t hold the thinker accountable based solely on the syntax.

Since Newton is unable to establish a clear connection between Wallace and “the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax” (and unable to comprehend that many of these syntactical eccentricities have recirculated for centuries), we are therefore forced to conclude that Newton is needlessly hostile to any sentence that isn’t written in the plain and vanilla language that she holds so dear to her cold and humorless heart.

This is the position of a lexical reactionary, not just a Wallace hater. Because if Newton were genuinely interested in language or people or the often magical way that words are transmitted in our culture, she wouldn’t be so quick to condemn. She would actually do the legwork and use these findings to offer a persuasive argument instead of outsourcing it to her readership (“Visit some blogs…to see these tendencies writ large,” “The devices can be traced back to him, though…,”). Is that not persuasion? But Newton isn’t interested in listening to anything other than the sound of her own voice — the vitiated “plain question and plain answer” ideal plucked from Life on the Mississippi that, in Newton’s uncomprehending hands, becomes more inimical than imitable. She doesn’t understand that distinct writing can often be forged from imitation — as the many fresh talents who have mimicked Hemingway (Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson) can attest. And in telling New York Times readers that imitation and repetition are wrong or “dreadful in hindsight,” Newton reveals herself to be committed to the act of expressive conformity. The Newtonian ideal, rooted in misanthropic nihilism, leaves no room for prototypes or apprenticeship — even though, having shed the burden of “her own archives,” she cannot actually lodge a proper argument here. In short, Maud Newton has transformed into a cultural atavist who argues along the lines of Lee Siegel. You can respond to her argument, but only using the words and the terms that she has established. (And as Joe Winkler has argued, why should Wallace be judged by foreign standards?)

When contemplating the state of culture and language, it helps to view the reuse of expressive terminology through context. A helpful linguistic anthropology volume authored by Alessandro Duranti suggests that “Oh, hi!” has been in use — largely over the telephone or after an awkward social encounter — decades before Wallace published a single word. “Oh, hi!” is modeled on “Ah ciao!” “Oh” initially appeared before “hi” when the answerer awkwardly attempted to return a greeting without knowing the greeter’s name. So it makes sense that someone using Twitter or Tumblr, unaware of the sheer scale of readers, would start a post this way. (And to return to Gessen’s essay, this might very well reflect his humorous aside that “in the long run books are not written for the editors of prestigious magazines or the professors of fashionable theories.” In other words, speculating on a readership is best left to the crass and artless marketers.)

Newton is right to suggest that the intersection between writing and speech is what led to the early conversational feel of blogs, but she never considers the possibility that those who were sending their thoughts and feelings into the electronic ether truly had no idea who they were reaching. (On the “Oh, hi” question, she does concede midway through the piece that those who write this way may be simultaneously “acknowledging and jokily feigning surprise.” But observe the strange suspicion here. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It’s telling that Newton’s article offers no space for sincerity, that the Newtonian ideal involves directness without nuance or irony.) She assumes that most of the early bloggers were readers of Wallace and Eggers, rather than those who may very well have left the house and conversed with fun and interesting people. It doesn’t occur to Newton that, in using words like “folks,” bloggers were using the very voices they might employ in everyday conversation. And just as we’ve seen in the Vanbrugh play, the Internet’s early days (at least, what we’ve been able to preserve of them) offer us an unprecedented treasure trove of how certain phrases and words made their way into our vernacular. Much as digital cameras have ushered in an age that is the most photographed in human history, digital conversation has afforded us an equally vast and limitless tapestry.

So Newton’s blinkered prohibition of “folks” outside of some implied Midwestern setting is not only needlessly condescending, but it suggests that writing in one’s voice is rooted almost exclusively in mimicking trendy magazine articles rather than responding to conversational cadences. This isn’t a question of being liked or craving admiration and appeal. It’s about speaking in terms that keep the conversation, whether contentious or conciliatory, alive.

Internet culture was built in large part by smart people being trapped in soul-sucking jobs and desiring to connect with others. In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace identified television as “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” The time has certainly come to unpack some of these arguments into something that includes the Internet’s complexities. But Newton isn’t sharp enough to build from Wallace’s points, even as she disagrees with him. She cannot, for example, consider the obvious truth that, in an era of Twitter and Google Plus, the watchers have become the watched. Rather than serving up a plainspoken exemplar within her essay that articulates an original point and lives up to her declared ideal (or puts her on the line, as Zadie Smith did in her Facebook essay when confessing “not being liked is as bad as it gets”), the great irony here is that Newton herself has soothed her readership using the very methods that Wallace (and Newton in failed ironic mode) condemned. Newton, by publishing her essay at The New York Times instead of her blog, craves the very admiration and approval she dismisses as toxic. She wants to be read, but she is not especially interested in practicing the very intellectual rigor she champions. Because if she were, she would be crystal-clear in establishing her terms. She cannot identify even one of the many critics “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice.” Who are these mysterious Wallacites wandering in the woods? Do they have axes and are they killing bitter attorneys who can’t finish their novels (and have an infuriating need to report constantly on this)? Does Newton really think so little of Wallace readers or bloggers that she cannot consider the possibility that they may very well be influenced by other authors? She thus undermines her own argument.

Newton’s spectacular failure to consider these subtleties may have something to do with not steeping herself in Wallace’s complete catalog. The phrases “plus, worse,” “pleonasm,” and “What this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit'” come from the very essay (“Tense Perfect”) she commends as “one of his best and most charming essays,” yet not from the same paragraph. “Totally hosed” comes from the famous 2005 Kenyon commencement. In other words, the only four Wallace texts that Newton has consulted for her piece are three essays: “E Unibus Pluram” (1993), “Authority and American Usage” (1999), “Big Red Son” (1998), and the Kenyon address. It seems to me that if you’re going to do a David Foster Wallace takedown, you should rely on a good deal more than the usual greatest hits. That’s a bit like writing about the Beach Boys when you’ve only heard “Good Vibrations” once.

Newton’s piece is less about offering a new argument or repudiating an old one, and more about expressing an uninformed position on Wallace and linguistics. It’s about standing against the possibilities of language and ideas. It’s about dictating the terms of how one should think while disingenuously suggesting that the reader can think for herself.

That’s a skill set that comes quite naturally to an embittered tax attorney. But it’s somewhat amazing that such a misleading and superficial approach would be welcomed by the ostensible Paper of Record.

UPDATE: Some additional responses:

(1) The New Inquiry‘s Matt Pearce, who notes that “Newton’s criticism obscures the fact that she and Wallace have more in common on intellectual honesty and integrity and straightforwardness than her essay lets on.”

(2) Callie Miller, who writes, “Life is short, wars are being fought, loved ones are dying every day…must we really be so intense about our books?” That’s a very good question.

(3) Alexander Chee, who agrees more with Maud Newton than I do, writes that Wallace “was a writer whose work gave back a vision of the world that pierced the scrim of the fear we were all feeling. If we imitated him, or imitated each other imitating him, really, I think we did it because of how we all wanted to find our way through. But it became like a game of telephone, but with style, and what had once been able to clarify something soon obscured them.”

(4) Glenn Kenny, who worked at Premiere when “Big Red Son” came in, clarifies what Wallace meant by the “sort of almost actually” fillers that Newton bemoans: “Each one, as we see, serves a different function, or I should say, implies a different state of mind, and each state is competing with the other. By the point in the essay at which the description of Goldstein arrives, the reader ought to have sussed out that Wallace has some very substantial problems with both pornography and the industry that produces it. But he’s also been bracingly honest about the attraction that walks hand in hand with his repulsion, and when he’s not going at his subject with something resembling all-out disgust (as in the passages about Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore), there’s a bracing and troubled honesty at work here, as in all of Wallace’s essayistic work, a desire to get at moral truth without being, well, moralistic; and a constant ambivalence.”

(5) CulturePulp’s Mike Wallace writes: “But for Maud Newton to also join a parade of lesser writers staking out lit-cred for themselves by throwing the freshly dead Wallace under the bus — and then to passive-aggressively blame him for all sorts of not-his-fault jackassery — is for me to sort of politely tell Maud Newton to piss off.”

(6) Matt Kiebus: “If Ms. Newton wants to live in a world where people make arguments ‘straightforwardly, honestly, passionately and without regard to whether people will like you afterward,’ that’s her choice. And although I think she may need a fucking time machine to find the world she’s looking for, I still respect her opinion.”

(7) The Oncoming Hope: “Newton seems to conflate unserious language with Southern dialectical norms, which is all the more surprising given how many times she’s blogged about the liveliness of Southern Texan vernacular.”

(8) Weeks later, the Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen begins a multi-part offering (with Casey Michael Henry) on David Foster Wallace’s appropriation.

The Bat Segundo Show: Karen Russell

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

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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)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick II

Cynthia Ozick recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #368. Ms. Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.

Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.

Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.

Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.

Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?

Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.

Ozick: (laughs) Right!

Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.

Ozick: Then how can you be writing?

Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.

Ozick: You can believe in it!

Correspondent: Yes!

Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.

* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)

(Image: Zugoli Lany)

The Bat Segundo Show #368: Cynthia Ozick II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II

Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #351. Mr. Cassel stars in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which opens in limited release on August 27, 2010, followed by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 on September 3, 2010. Ms. Shukert is most recently the author of Everything is Going to Be Just Great and previously appeared on Show #217. (The true Shukert completist can also listen to Ms. Shukert on Show #173, where she appears in a group discussion on sex writing.)

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging persuasive serial killers and angry Swiss listeners.

Guests: Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspodnent: Does movement offer a more creative place to establish a character? More so than the backstory, research, or anything?

Cassel: Of course it does. I mean, look, you walk down the street. You see somebody that you’ve never met. And you see him walking. You just see his back. And you already can say a lot of things about him. Is he drunk? Is he somebody sad? Happy? What kind of energy he has. You know, all that.

Correspondent: I’m glad you mentioned that you use different movement. Because I have noticed that about your performances. I mean, Mesrine and your role in Irreversible are two completely different movements. What do you do to prevent yourself from repeating a particular gait? Or a particular walk? Or a particular way of entering a room? Or a way of inhabiting an atmosphere or what not? Do you worry about this? Repeating yourself for each character?

Cassel: No, of course. I mean, I think it’s important that you not do twice the same. But the main reason is that otherwise I get bored. So what I do is that — I’m very instinctive, I have to say. It’s not really something I think of in a very precise way. But I can feel if it’s something — actually sometimes, I start a scene and I have this feeling of deja vu. And sometimes I don’t really understand where it comes from. But that’s enough for me to just [snap] switch to something else and try something else on the moment, and then think about it. Afterwards, I understand. “Oh yeah. I did this on that scene from that movie.” But at the time, on the moment, I don’t really analyze. It’s just a question of feeling. Like most of acting is really.

Correspondent: Have you ever had a situation where an entire scene needed to be altered because you were physically adopting some cliche that you couldn’t quite identify? But it just didn’t feel right.

Cassel: Very much so. Especially in a movie like Mesrine. Because I’m so close to Jean-François Richet, the director. We were literally: get on the set in the morning. We would try. And suddenly something is wrong. Let’s change everything. Because I think acting and moviemaking in general — maybe more for an actor than for a director — it has to be organic. Whatever that word means. You don’t have too much time to think on a movie. It’s very much about the acting and being involved physically in what you do. That’s the only way to see if it’s real or not really. So, yes, you try things. It’s about trying and finding solutions.

* * *

Correspondent: You note of [your future husband] Ben that, as you watched him calmly rub soap into his hands by the communal sink, you realized that you had known all along that you would see him again. I’m wondering what it is about hand hygiene that serves as your personal madeleine.

Shukert: (laughs) I don’t know. I remember that moment. It was very calm. And he didn’t seem surprised to see me. And I had been thinking about him and having this sense that we would bump into each other again. I think it was seeing him doing something that was very mundane. We were at home together. Even like moments now. It felt almost as if we had skipped in time and we were standing in our own bathroom while he was brushing his teeth and I was trying to put my makeup on. Do you know what I mean? It felt very familiar in that sense. It’s sort of an instance of fact seeing somebody washing themselves in some way or grooming.

Correspondent: So really any guy could have come along, if they had done any remotely regular gesture at that point. They could have swept you off your feet!

Shukert: I don’t know. I was definitely in a different place. (laughs)

Correspondent: The title Everything is Going to Be Great comes from a sentiment expressed by Pete — a guy with a girlfriend who you got involved with and who had a problem of hitting on other women in restaurants. Including you. You became involved with him, justified your involvement by noting a Dutch study where a woman’s neural activity at the moment of climax is equal to that of someone in a vegetative state. I must go ahead and ask. Surely hindsight offers the basis of 20/20. Lust may indeed make us do stupid things. But there’s often another reason why we’re driven to the irrational. So I’m wondering why you’re content to throw away this particular introspection.

Shukert: But I feel that it’s really describing that moment more. I feel like later, in the exploration of that relationship, other reasons come to light. The fact that we were both — and I feel that this is there in the book — that sort of explains why I couldn’t slap him across the face in that moment. Do you know what I mean? But as far as getting involved with him later, we were both kind of lost. We were both adrift. I was, at the time, really lonely. And things were not working out the way that they were supposed to. I think I mentioned how he suddenly gauged escape to this adventure that he was supposed to be having. He made it feel like there was a point, that I was here to fall in love and have this incredible adventure. And it turned it into a narrative. It turned it into a story, as opposed to this aimless time-waster. And I feel that if I had been here, if I had been on my home turf, I don’t think that we would have gotten involved. I feel that being abroad, you are off your center of balance. Away from the practical things that you really think about. You’re removed from all of that. And there were so many things I didn’t have to deal with.

The Bat Segundo Show #351: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #313. Laurel Snyder is most recently the author of Any Which Wall.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Concerned about walls and their failed sentience throughout the years.

Author: Laurel Snyder

Subjects Discussed: The extraordinary conditions in which Any Which Wall was written, the flexibility that comes from being a small fish, a writing identity tied to poetry and waitressing, the tendency for books to come quicker in the children’s market, financial experiments that involve finishing novels, YA authors and creating a backlist, Norton Juster, Edward Eager’s Half Magic series, being too tied to homage, the virtues of sitting your ass in a chair, sexism in YA vs. patriarchal walls, patriarchy and gods, italicized passages, whether or not discussions with editors can prove violent, the degree of defensiveness within writers, the etymology of “bleckish,” debating the vital issue of whether or not rats actually dance in New York subways, Robert Sullivan’s Rats, old ladies on unicycles, godlike narrators, Don Quixote, sending books out without an agent, being scared of the first person, how rewriting changes books, Roald Dahl, believing in voice, reader reaction, an author’s inevitable pattern of repetition, the dangers of ambition, the element of control, the quest for authenticity, on not being satisfied by books that have been written, the joys of having written vs. the joys of writing, impatience, the unexpected work-related spontaneity that comes from children, J. Robert Lennon, dictating and driving, finding moments of silence, and balancing life and the creative exigencies of anarchy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

laurelsnyderCorrespondent: Henry opines that all meals should be hand-holdable and that forks and spoons should be against the law. You, again as the narrator — and this is interesting. You as the narrator.

Snyder: I’m a little intrusive.

Correspondent: Yeah, you’re a little intrusive and you start to question what your characters are saying. And you object to this line of reasoning, writing, “How could you ever eat spaghetti without a fork? And how could you live without spaghetti?” I must object to your objection.

Snyder: You can live without spaghetti?

Correspondent: No. No, you can still eat spaghetti without a fork.

Snyder: Oh, that’s true.

Correspondent: You can always slurp up the noodles. Now that’s going to make a big deal of a mess and particularly….

Snyder: You don’t have a two-year-old, do you?

Correspondent: No, I don’t.

Snyder: I have a two-year-old, and have seen people eat spaghetti without a fork. And may I say, it’s not pleasant.

Correspondent: But Henry may very well just want to slurp his spaghetti. What’s so wrong about that? He’s going through a sort of slurping stage, as opposed to the more civilized fork and knife.

Snyder: I think that Henry’s mother would object. No, the intrusive narrator thing is an interesting thing. It’s coming out in the next book. The first two books both have this. [Up and Down the] Scratchy Mountains and Any Which Wall both have this intrusive narrator. And it’s a voice that I take from earlier books. And I really like those kinds of books myself. But I’ve begun to realize that there’s a degree to which, if you assert that much as a narrator, the characters never fully detach from me. And so with the next book, I’ve let that go. And in the book that I’m starting on right now — the book that I’m not going to have a deadline for, the book that I’m going to try and do differently — I’m actually going to first person. And it’s scary to me. But I’m letting go of not only of not only my intrusive narrator, but the third person altogether.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if I agree with the idea of a nagging narrator getting in the way of character. If anything, it actually causes certain…

Snyder: But it creates a kind of meta. It creates a kind of frame for the book. As long as the narrator is there. This is something I think about a lot actually. In a lot of children’s books, the kid is telling the story. Like it’s a first person story. But it’s not a diary. And this happens in adult books too. It’s the sort of opening of “This happened last October” kind of voice.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It’s like, “Well, who the hell are you talking to?” Who is that person talking to? When the narrator is stepping forward and saying, “You the reader blah blah blah,” it creates a kind of stage, right?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It creates a kind of stage for those characters to be performing on. And I think on some level — there’s a sort of theatrical. It’s a voiceover. And it’s like, you know how when you’re watching a movie and there’s a voiceover or like music starts in the background, and kids will joke, “Where’s that music coming from?”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Snyder: It’s that moment of “Where’s that voice coming from?” I actually have an idea for an adult novel that I’ll probably never write where the book begins with a third-person omniscient narrator. And then on page 150, that same voices says “you” or “me.” And you realize that it’s the voice of god. That third-person voice is essentially the voice of god. Letting that god then enter for the second half of the book to be a character. I can’t imagine writing that book, but I like the idea of that existing.

BSS #313: Laurel Snyder (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #308.

Lawrence Block is most recently the author of Step by Step.

segundo308

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ruminating upon a life of exquisite indolence.

Author: Lawrence Block

Subjects Discussed: Step by Step as an anti-memoir, exploring childhood experience in print, randomness and finding connections, writing with a greater degree of freedom, Random Walk, concerns about a limited audience, earlier attempts at memoir, attempts by Block to write memoirs in the mid-1990s, the virtues of getting older, being less guarded with age, following up on Block’s remarks from Galut, avarice as the guiding principle, Evan Hunter, Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime, growing less reticent about limited editions, the $479 Kindle, not carrying about work being preserved, genre fiction as a window to a specific world, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie never going out of print, Block and Judaism, being a creature of intense and transitory enthusiasms, not having a goal, the lack of commonality between writing and race walking, becoming increasingly drawn to pursuits that don’t involve leaving the house, writing screenplays, short stories vs. novels, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Wall Street Journal article and reader “ownership” of the characters.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lawrence_blockCorrespondent: You mentioned that you had attempted memoir before.

Block: Right.

Correspondent: And that memoir, which I presume is still unfinished, that had more to do with the working life of a writer, I suppose?

Block: That memoir was about the early years. About the years writing pseudonymous books and getting started in the business. And I wrote about 50,000 words of it. And it still exists. And I went back to it. It was part of a multiple contract. It was submitted as part of that. And eventually the day came when I bought it back. It was a tiny portion of the advance. And I don’t think anybody at Morrow was that excited about it. My agent had just bundled things together. And because I didn’t seem inclined to resume it, oddly enough, now I find myself thinking maybe I ought to. That maybe that’s what I might want to do next.

Correspondent: Really?

Block: Yeah.

Correspondent: What brought this on? Was it just from…?

Block: The experience of Step by Step. It’s early days. I have no idea how it will sell. But people seem to like it and it seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll see.

Correspondent: Well, I think just speaking as one person familiar with your work, the reason I was piqued when you talked about this unfinished memoir was because there’s almost like a surprising lack of amount of stuff written about that time period where you were writing pseudonymously. There was a book written by the guy who later went on to do Don’t Know Much About History, who wrote a book published about twenty-five years ago about the paperbacking of America [Kenneth C. Davis’s Two-Bit Culture] and went on about mass market paperbacks as a whole. But nothing much about the dawn of Gold Medal and Dell and all the other paperback houses. And the pseudonymous aspect. So I wonder could this interest also have to do with the fact that, with all due respect, you’re also one of the few people left who remember.

Block: Yeah. That might have something to do with it. Also, when I wrote — I think it was about ’95, ’94 or ‘5, that I wrote the memoir. And I hadn’t been planning to, as I may have mentioned in there. I was stuck on something else. I had time booked at Ragdale. And I had to write something. And at the time — that was what, fourteen years ago? — I was fifty-five, fifty-six years old. It felt early days to be writing a memoir to me.

Correspondent: Right.

Block: And before the memoir genre became something.

Correspondent: Now you have memoirs by twentysomethings.

Block: I know. I know it. “I remember the birth canal.” (laughs)

BSS #308: Lawrence Block (Download MP3)

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An End to Permanence?

WordPress informs me that 2,831 posted entries on this blog are presently “Uncategorized.” If I possessed some tremendous treasure trove of expendable income — for time, as we all know, is the only commodity presently tradeable among regular people — I might very well sort through these entries and eventually finish the long duty of corralling these stray textual swine to their taxonomic holding pens. But, even assuming that these entries were feral animals deserving of such virtual domestication, a position that is highly questionable, the journey wouldn’t end there. One sifts through these past posts knowing that the links are, in most cases, invalid and therefore useless to anyone hoping to follow a thread or pursue a path to knowledge. The Wayback Machine only takes us so far. It was fond of taking snippets of websites every six weeks or so in the early noughts. There are, for example, eight snapshots of this website as it existed in 2001. And I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: (1) the needless braying of a young man in his mid-twenties confessing his failings with women and his predictable liberal leanings or (2) the fact that the “archived” site didn’t correctly extract the code, causing one 2001 “snapshot” of this website to crash within Firefox’s most recent iteration.

Such past peregrinations perhaps place an undue importance on what I wrote at a particular time. I read my own thoughts and feelings and wonder who the hell this guy is and why so many people believed in my bullshit at the time. There is a temptation to kill the early entries that are even now still publicly available on this domain. (Indeed, when Return of the Reluctant — as this site was then called — “returned” in December 2003, it did so with the proviso that everything written before that time never happened. The impulse to destroy one’s own work is so casually cavalier!) Some of those entries are locatable on my hard drives, but I wasn’t nearly as precise with my archiving and backups as I might have been. So how many thousands of words have been lost forever? Half a decade later, I’m not sure that I would approve of my extirpating twentysomething self. And there are likewise entries written by me even three years ago which I presently do not approve of. But I now find myself required to preserve everything — the posts, the comments (even the nasty ones), et al. But let’s say that I were to be killed by a car tomorrow. Would anybody even bother to preserve this website? Would any of this website be preserved? Would it even be worth preserving? Maybe I will indeed puff up and die, as The Anthologist‘s Paul Chowder suggests.

Even some of the data recorded on third-party sites and featured on these pages, such as the now-defunct AudBlog, is not recoverable. While I became better at using common data formats and hosting the content on these pages over the years, I have proven, like many people creating things on the Internet, exceptionally optimistic that many websites will stick around. If YouTube were to somehow fold tomorrow, then numerous embedded videos — a number of which reflect my own creative efforts — would be as useless as the few 5 1/4″ diskettes I still have in a file cabinet containing thoughts, essays, and writings from twenty years ago. It’s probably all juvenalia. But maybe there’s some vital thought or feeling in there that I wasn’t quite ready to take on.

William T. Vollmann has amusingly styled websites as “a particularly hated category” in his endnotes for Imperial. I believe his enmity to originate largely from the lack of permanence, our common failure to note a set of thoughts and feelings expressed at a particular point in time. We’re not just talking about preserving words. There’s also a type of moderation that goes over the line. There are at least six websites that I have stopped visiting — a number of them that boast of being “civilized” places — because their immature proprietors saw fit to delete my critical but by no means trollish comments. Some thoughts are better left unspoken or censored. How many uncomfortable truths are lost to tomorrow’s historians because of these knee-jerk impulses?

At the risk of echoing bigoted reactionaries like Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and (soon) John Freeman, there remains a double-edged sword. How many of our immediate thoughts should be loosened from our minds? I must again applaud Twitter for ratcheting up the speed and limiting the number of characters, thereby solving several expressive problems. My stupid thoughts and immediate expressive impulses now have a home there, for better or worse. And these ostensible “blog entries” have transmuted from ephemeral roundups into lengthy essays. But who am I to judge the quality? Historically speaking, people have been less interested in what I often spend several hours writing and researching and have been decidedly more intrigued with something I’ve assembled in 20 minutes. (The problem, incidentally, isn’t limited to blogs. John Banville has recently raised his objections to such perceived apartheid.) Perhaps the “rushed” writing is better. (For any stopwatch enthusiasts in the peanut gallery, I have now spent about 75 minutes writing this post.) Or perhaps we can only make distinctions based on the temporal commodity observed at the onset of this essay.

Perhaps this is too much introspection. My own thoughts on these very important issues may not mean anything to you. But at least I have the solace of knowing precisely how I felt on the subject on August 3, 2009. It is very probable that I will feel differently in a few hours. The text here may not be permanent, but I am doing my best to pretend that I am throwing a packed bottle into a sea. Should I change my mind later in the week, I will certainly do my best to note it. Such “journalism” may be the only way to mimic textual permanence. But no matter what the form, it remains our duty to preserve. Human minds and hearts change, but if we hope to witness these magical developments, then we must do better.

The Mad Scientist

This post was intended to be a mashup of sentences from posts I’ve had sitting in draft form over the last month. But as I got to assembling it — or, more accurately, not assembling it — I found myself free associating and thinking about silly things. In fact, I’m writing this sentence after I have written the two paragraphs that follow this one. The first sentence read differently and was originally attached to the beginning of the next paragraph, before I just rolled in with my effrontery and cut the paragraph in two and started typing these sentences. Thus, this paragraph represents an attempt to anchor the newer and entirely unintended context of what I had certainly not planned. The sun is now rising. There are delightful birds outside chirping pleasantries. And I’m getting the sense that it’s going to be a pretty delightful day. It always helps to remain positive, particularly when you are trying to survive doing something without value in this present economy.

The original purpose of this post, concerning the mashup and now long transmuted, can be summed up as followed (this paragraph is, incidentally, largely unaltered from the post’s original purpose): I don’t know if I’ll actually complete any of these posts, but it seemed a pity to let the posts languish. After all, if the posts represent entities with independent feelings, I must be a very cruel person indeed to leave the posts unfinished. And now it occurs to me that I am probably being crueler by opening up various draft posts, piercing into the body with an unwashed scalpel, and flinging the guts around the laboratory. The hell of it is that I don’t have any mad scientist hair right now, much less a white coat. And now I am feeling a little uncomfortable. Because I now realize that the horror film image of a mad scientist in a white coast with fresh blood stains makes me quite giddy. I have always loved artificial blood and guts and was a Fangoria reader back in the day, but I have always been a bit queasy around real blood. But are my very real feelings artificial because they are now bound in text? There is clearly a selection process at work here. Does any author hold back on 98% of her real feelings? And if we are getting only 2% of an author’s real feelings within the text, then are we really feeling with the author? Or are we feeling an artificial construct? Is literature nothing more than a highbrow version of some teenage girl pinning up a BOP pinup of the Jonas Brothers in her bedroom? And is this, in turn, why so many literary snobs are reluctant to express enthusiasm about genre? That the truth might come out? That their strong feelings about literature are really just artificial?

Anyway, this is no ordinary laboratory. People are reading this site. It is, in some sense, a performance for the public. The British are better about referring to the operating room as a theater, but I’m now wondering what it says about me to get so excited about flinging sentences around and having no problem doing this in a public setting. (Of course, now that this post has become about something else and I haven’t actually assembled the sentences together, I may be able to recuse myself from culpability. Except that I had the original impulse to do this. My original purpose was to disrupt and disturb unformed textual entities and do so in a public setting with little concern for how these entities felt. We grant corporations the same legal rights as individuals and any good liberal gets himself worked up in a tizzy over the duplicity. But why don’t we afford an essay the same emotional rights as a person?)

The sun has risen. The birds have stopped chirping. She rests — hopefully asleep — in the next room. Those feelings are all very real to me, but are they real to you as I write these sentences? Or do you want me to shut up now? These are perfectly reasonable questions. This is the problem with literature. You can recognize that there’s another person with feelings behind the sentences, but you are simultaneously given open license to slam and dissect those sentences and otherwise declare something wretched or wonderful. There’s something inherently duplicitous in that, but there’s also something liberating. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that has me so excited about the mad scientist with the white coat and the blood. I can celebrate the mad scientist without judging the person who created the mad scientist. Because I am lost in the mad scientist’s narrative. It’s safe to say that I will probably never run into a mad scientist with a white coat stained with blood. But some might wish to judge my excitement for the mad scientist or even the sanity of the author who came up with it.

This little essay was finished up around 6:08 AM, on June 11, 2009. The word count now stands at 830 words. I’m now being badgered by a window that informs me that WordPress 2.8 is available. These are simple mechanics. Cold facts. But can we get excited about them? Why not? The reader hostile to the seemingly mundane hasn’t considered the magic. The time and word count are just as valid as the mad scientist, and it’s up to us to keep the whole operation exciting. Even as observers watch us fling the guts around.

Statement of Current Intentions

You may have observed a slight downturn in new content in the last week. In an effort to organize and clear away needless detritus, I’ll be stepping back a bit from these pages during the next month or two. There will still be fresh content and new podcasts over the next several weeks. (The subject of dogs keeps coming into these podcasts, and I’m not sure why.) But my attentions are currently required elsewhere.

There are several reasons for this. Beyond my freelancing responsibilities, I’m trying to take advantage of the winter slowdown to (a) make a serious push forward on the manuscript, which involves considerable rewriting and a sustained burst of about 30,000 more words before I get to the end (very painstaking, but loads of fun), (b) get certain technical aspects of this website streamlined, (c) perform a continual series of mental resets* to ensure that I can stick with point (a), and (d) check in on people and otherwise ensure that folks I know are okay. Aside from this four-point framework, there’s a good deal of pleasant anarchy. Notes and papers are shuffled daily on the kitchen table.

I am trying to replace one routine (offering a blog post or three every day) with another (working on the manuscript every day). There has been some discombobulation, but I’m now getting the hang of it. And I now see that this beast will, at long last, get finished.

Because there could be several days between posts, I may enlist a few guest bloggers to keep this place thrumming. If you’re interested, feel free to email me.

In the meantime, I may perform a few experiments pertaining to this novel-in-progress. What I may do is throw you dutiful readers such strange questions as: “If a gun was pointed at you just after you’ve pissed your pants, what circumstances would cause you to remove your pants?” (That question, incidentally, has been answered.) You get the idea.

Again, I must point out that if you have been adversely affected by the current economic crisis, please do not let this stop you from doing what you do. The defeatism that has taken hold of some anonymous pessimists truly isn’t constructive. The time has come for all of us to push forward with solutions. Try and take this time to do something wonderful in a time of crisis. Support your local bookstore if you can. And if you’re a writer, above all, stay writing.

* The mental reset has involved long periods away from the Internet. I am now on a strict reading and writing regimen that involves an improvised mathematical formula establishing the number of hours I abstain from the Internet. (Don’t ask. But I assure you that it makes sense.) Since my laptop is currently temperamental, I have shifted back to thick books and five-subject notebooks and writing atop the manuscript by hand. I have also decided to limit the amount of information I ingest during any given time, because I am now at a place where I need to think long and hard about a number of complicated issues pertaining to points (a) and (b).

Stay Writing

Chances are that if you’re a freelance writer, some of the actions that have occurred in the past week have seriously jeopardized or dramatically affected your ability to survive.

Stay writing.

Don’t let a single person tell you that your profession isn’t a real job.

No matter how hard it gets, do something every day to ensure that you stay writing.

If you have to take non-writing work, make sure that you’ve set aside enough time for your real work. Stay writing.

Be sure to eat, sleep, rest, and see friends. But don’t slack off. Right now, you’re probably working harder than you’ve ever had to before. Yes, it’s tough. But if you’re a real writer, you’re tough. Just stay writing.

Look to your friends, family, and loved ones and tell them what your situation is. You’ve probably been there for them. Now it’s time for them to be there for you. See if they can do anything to ensure that you stay writing.

Drop a line to other writers and ensure that they stay writing. (If you need moral support, email me and I’ll do my best to respond.)

If you have not been paid for a piece that has been published more than thirty days ago, then pick up the phone, track down the appropriate person, and demand immediate payment. Don’t let them string you along. Don’t accept any bullshit excuses. You are just as much a laborer as anybody else. And this payment will help you to stay alive and stay writing.

If you are an editor, fight tooth and nail for more freelance work in your section. Even if it’s just one extra assignment in the budget, that’s one person who you’ve managed to help stay writing.

If you do not stay writing, then you are not a real writer. Period. Move over, pursue some other line of work, and step aside for someone who is willing to bust her ass every day and willing to write to the best of her ability.

If you are turning in lazy writing, then either improve your work or get out of this business. With so many unemployed writers, with possibly more jobs that are going to be cut, it is now more important than ever that writers demonstrate why writing is important. And that means writing at the top of your game.

Stay writing. And write so well that not a single soul can knock you down.

The Bat Segundo Show: Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #249. Ms. Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding the seemingly erudite man with the flamethrower.

Author: Porochista Khakpour

Subjects Discussed: Professional doodling, italics that represent facial expressions, acting out dialogue, the protracted difficulties of editing, the creative benefits of neurosis, thinking of an audience vs. writing in a distinct voice, maintaining lists of words, bulleted lists within the novel, the relationship between the equal sign and character consciousness, writing lengthy scenes that involve the anxiety of waiting, working from a journal to get at feelings within fiction, playing games in novels, aversion to mainstream narratives, the burden of universality, the novelist as an authoritarian figure, David Foster Wallace as a distinct author who reached a mass audience, “Good People,” the cycle of abuse that runs through Xerxes, missing daughters, how women relate to men, character names and explicit historical associations, the Americanization of Iranian names, truncated names, contrast and comparison with Sam and Suzanne, how 9/11 transformed the idea of looking at other people with an open mind into something else, relying on general descriptions for physical details, keeping specific details from the reader, how far an author must go for emotional truth, going against the contract of a book, the diminished acknowledgments section between hardcover and paperback, losing old friends, reading group questions, moving into an age where 9/11 novels are going to date, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and American diplomacy, and lucky timing with pub dates.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So you actually added 10,000 words just in the editing process?

Khakpour: Yeah, I did.

Correspondent: Really?

Khakpour: Every time I edit. Everything. I have. Even with my journalism. They’ll tell me cut this piece down. And we’ll get to the editing phase. And I’ll always end up adding. Even when they tell me specifically, “Cut it down.” I don’t know what it is. Editing to me just means adding instead of cutting. It’s crazy.

Correspondent: Is it possible that perhaps you’re getting questions from an editor and this influx of information causes you to think more, and therefore causes any kind of piece or novel or whatever you write to expand and protract or the like?

Khakpour: Yeah. Probably, I think. I always think of my audience. And that person that I think of as my audience is very quiet and sits with their folded hands, and is very polite and approving.

Correspondent: Folded hands? I didn’t have my hands folded when I read this. I want to assure you.

Khakpour: (laughs) It’s a good somber schoolgirl.

Correspondent: Wow, I didn’t realize this.

Khakpour: Crossed legs. Very approving. (laughs)

Correspondent: There should have been an etiquette guide in the paperback here.

Khakpour: But then the minute the editor speaks up, I’m like, “Uh oh. This is a very intelligent human being who is not going to buy all my bullshit, is actually going to question me now.” And then I fall into super-neurotic mode. And that always means, well, not only am I going to think of this editor, but I’m going to think of all the other voices of dissent. All the people. And it goes from there. And so it just involves adding and adding and adding. To appease all the various voices in my head. (laughs)

Correspondent: Thinking about the audience then makes you more neurotic.

Khakpour: Overanticipating often. Yeah. I’m trying to tone that down right now.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. But then to a certain degree, you have to leave things relatively organic and intuitive, and you can’t think about an audience. It’s important to have gestation here. And I’m curious if this might possibly be an issue.

Khakpour: I think it is. I’m a control freak.

Correspondent: You want people to like you? Really, really like you?

Khakpour: Well, not even like me. But I like some control over how people are digesting my work. That’s ridiculous. But I think it also has to do with communication. And because English wasn’t my first language. I always feel like I repeat. I’m like Joe Biden. I’m often repeating the same thing over and over and over at people. “I got it the first time.” You know, there’s no need to say the same sentence over and over and over. But I always feel that people aren’t hearing me, or somehow don’t understand what I’m saying. So….

Correspondent: You know, I…

Khakpour: I think I’m going to have to back off now. I’m learning that.

Correspondent: I’ve heard that Nicholson Baker — what he does is that he Control-Fs a specific phrase throughout all of his work to make sure that he has not written that particular phrase before.

Khakpour: Oh, that’s great.

Correspondent: Do you have this level of detail?

Khakpour: I’ll do that with certain words. Because I’ll have certain words that are my favorite word of the moment. And I’ll still — I’ll do that thing that I did when I was a young immigrant. I used to keep a list of vocab words that I loved. And even now, there will be some word every once in a while on a little list by my desk. Like I like that word! Let’s use that word somewhere.

Correspondent: You actually have a list of words by your desk?

Khakpour: Yes, sometimes I do that.

Correspondent: The words I have to include in the book. Really?

Khakpour: Yeah. And they’re not like ten dollar words.

Correspondent: Okay.

Khakpour: Or hundred dollar words. But they’re just interesting or strange. Or words. Or unusual usages. I’m often very much tried to find the Find function or the Replace function. So I’ll have to double check and make sure I don’t use that word several times. But it’s usually on a word level there.

BSS #249: Porochista Khakpour (Download MP3)

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Late Bloomers and Early Risers

This Malcolm Gladwell article is quite interesting, if only for the wry way in which Gladwell suggests that Jonathan Safran Foer’s best years are behind him. One thing Gladwell does not seem to account for is the writer’s need to support himself with other types of writing that are more lucrative than fiction, because the writer does not wish to answer the dunning rap of a landlord. With rare exceptions, the landlord will not accept the perfectly reasonable explanation that the writer is, indeed, a late bloomer or a verbal toiler of some sort. Nor will the American government appropriate the appropriate bailout funds for citizens who fit this description. (via Mark Athitakis)

The Decline of Editorial Standards: The Crimes of Nick Nadel

We all make mistakes. Grammatical gaffes have been committed on these pages, dutifully pointed out by readers. I am grateful for these corrections. This helps me to write better and reminds me again just how much I still need to learn.

But there comes a point when one must ask why those who commit a surfeit of mistakes remain consistently employed as writers. I’m sure that these people are nice, that they’re probably good lays, or that they are dutiful drinking buddies. But at the end of the day, one’s work is what counts most.

I have seen a marked increase in basic editorial standards being abandoned and/or disregarded by today’s “journalists.” It is a scenario that simply drives me crazy. If any of these young whipper-scriveners had committed these same mistakes a decade ago, these journos-come-lately most certainly would have been belted across the face by a pugilistic copy editor. And they would have deserved it.

In lieu of chasing these vandals off the grass with a pump-action shotgun and a crazed look in my eyes, I shall instead upbraid one of these editorial felons here.

Nick Nadel is an alleged “comedy writer who has worked for HBO, The Onion, Fuse, VH1, and others”. And I certainly hope that he wasn’t paid money for this embarrassing blog post at AMC TV. (A Google search turns up two editorial names at AMC: Carolyn Koo and Clayton Neuman. But I cannot find emails for them. Typical of corporate sites, there simply isn’t a shred of accountability here. Presumably, Koo and Neuman are too busy cooing their nomina to each other to pay attention to basic grammar.)

Let us count the ways in which Mr. Nadel, a purported professional, has committed an epic fail.

1. Mr. Nadel’s lede begins, “Much has been made over the years of the rivalry,” when he should really be writing, “Much has been made over the rivalry….” Unless, of course, he means to suggest that people have been contemplating the number of years over the rivalry? While I remain a dutiful counter, I don’t think this is the case, seeing as how the post purports to be about a feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

2. Mr. Nadel begins his second sentence suggesting that the subject is “two strong-willed legends.” But his true subject is the feud. This is sloppy. The sentence should begin, “The infamous feud between these two strong-willed legends….” Clarity.

3. The word “duo” is not a plural noun, but a collective noun. But don’t tell that to Mr. Nadel. He seems to believe that English speakers write phrases like “the water were flowing” and offers us, “The volatile duo were set to reprise….”

4. Mr. Nadel doesn’t understand that when you end a sentence with a question mark (in this case, a sentence containing the film title), there is no need for a period.

5. Mr. Nadel is terrible with his commas, failing to separate “illness” and “causing” to make these two clauses clear to readers.

6. Mr. Nadel writes that “Davis and Crawford had bad blood that dated back to 1935’s Dangerous.” But he has phrased this in a way to suggest that Davis and Crawford were more in need of constant venipuncture.

7. Mr. Nadel depicts “a cooler of Pepsi products.” Surely, he means a cooler with Pepsi products. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a machine in the early 1960s that cooled Pepsi products while discriminating against other bottles. Later, Mr. Nadel writes, “It’s unclear whether or not Davis was behind the machine.” He’s right. I don’t know if Davis was standing or hiding behind the machine either. But I do know that she might have been behind the installation of the machine.

8. Mr. Nadel writes, “she was rumored to have toasted eventual Crawford’s departure.” I’m unaware of eventual Crawfords, but I’m almost certain that they eventually depart.

And so on. And so on.

How did this get past the editor’s desk? Sheer laziness from the writer and the editor. Mr. Nadel’s inability to take the assignment seriously. Mr. Nadel’s unprofessionalism. He probably banged this out in ten minutes and didn’t think that anybody was going to look at it. And how does this reflect upon AMC TV’s blogging presence? A visitor like me stumbles upon this post by accident and I know immediately that this is a blog that is neither serious nor worth my time.

Then again, AMC TV brass may have considered that most of its readers don’t care about language. After all, this is a film and television crowd. Therefore, the audience should be regaled with the worst writing possible. But if we insist on poor and incompetent writing, is this not an insult to the audience’s intelligence? And if we insist on Mr. Nadel mangling his sentences for an interesting piece of gossip in film history, is this not a missed opportunity for context and conversation? And others to leap forward with other observations? If the Nick Nadels of our world write so badly, how will others get passionate about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis?

Incidentally, a more cogent article about the rivalry can be found here, which is considerably more interesting than Mr. Nadel’s lazy cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.