Norman Spinrad: The Ego Has, At Last, Landed with a Thud

Norman Spinrad has demonstrated a remarkable senility with his latest column in Asimov’s, claiming that the only reason that a “socialist novel” like The Iron Council was published in the States was because it was Book Three in a trilogy. (Never mind the American coverage from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post or Gerald Jonas in the New York Times that might have had a hand in the novel’s awareness.) Fortunately, The Mumpsimus is there to call him on his whiny, self-serving horseshit.

Galactica Ain’t Entirely the Bee’s Knees

All right. We admit it. Against our better judgment, we’ve been taken in by Battlestar Galactica. We dig the gritty feel. But, most importantly, we welcome a speculative fiction environment that has authoritative female presidents (played by Mary McDonnell, no less!), female fighter pilots who play by their own rules without coming across as token aggro-chicks and, from our inveterate male perspective, two very hot Cylon chicks. How often do we see developed women in these shows that aren’t horrible Katharine Hepburn clones? Not much, we’d say. We also like the executive officer — a raging alcoholic that’s an interesting cross between James Carville and Dick Cheney. The people on board this ship drink, smoke, have sex, and even jerk off (and are even caught with their pants down). In other words, unlike the bland folks in the Star Trek universe spouting off technobabble, they’re actually human. They even make bad command decisions. Plus, there’s interesting little design elements such as the paper with its edges cropped off, a general set motif of cramped physicality favored over glitzy computers, special effects shots that have a jerky documentary feel (a first, I think, on television), and some pretty cool Cylon Centurions (complete with a menacing mechanized gait reminiscent of Phil Tippett’s animation).

Even so, we’re mystified by the following gaping holes:

  • If the Cylons have a finite number of models, many of them reproducing themselves repeatedly over the 5,000 or so humans that are left, why is a Cylon detector even needed? Would it not make better sense to take a head count and track the duplicates?
  • Despite the “real” people portrayed, I’ve yet to see a fat person on board or someone with bad hygiene. Why does everyone on board Galactica seem so eminently fuckable, with their flawless teeth and perfectly coiffed hair? Further, would not the lack of sunshine or the outdoors make one antsy when confined aboard a cramped spacecraft? Wouldn’t the notion of the human race almost completely exterminated lead to widespread trauma, depression, and mental illness (so far unseen)?
  • In a recent episode, Starbuck was stranded on a planet for something like 30 hours. While her oxygen was depleting, hunger apparently was not an issue and her strength remained unwavering, allowing her to escape.
  • I haven’t kept count, but if there are only about ten to fifteen fighters on board Galactica, if two or three get destroyed every week, then some fanboy needs to do the math.

The Waldman Contretemps

We’ll weigh in, dammit, for the following reasons:

1) We were mortified by wrestling in high school, largely because the idea of clutching another scrawny teenager in a full-Nelson struck us as vaguely Roman (near the decline of the empire) and homoerotic at the time, and it also meant having to shower with said opponent. You do the math, whiz kid. Twelve years later, free from the shackles of a needlessly Puritanical upbringing and readily indulging in fellatio jokes before breakfast (even in our thirties), we have very little problems with male anatomy and sexuality in general. The important thing is that we are no longer afraid of penises, whether it be our own or another. Although we infinitely prefer lightly wrestling certain lady friends in intimate situations, moments that we would never dare share on this blog, because we recognize the TMI principle. Thus, we’ve earned the right to “weigh in.” To hell with the philological consequences.

2) Our one and only encounter with Ms. Waldman occurred last year, when we offered our hand and said, “Hey. How’s it going?” in lieu of the genteel fawning at the 2004 Northern California Book Awards. We suggested then that it might have been a mistake to introduce ourselves to Berkeley literary royalty this way. However, in light of recent events, we take our original assessment back, recalling the ashen expression on Ms. Waldman’s face, and her unnerving sense that she was encountering some literary huckster there only to talk with other authors and drink free merlot (partly true) and that this, as written in her frown and her dilated eyes, was in some sense a damning crime against the human race. Frankly, we’ve committed greater misdemeanors, many of which you’ll never hear about and many of which are ably recorded in private. We learned a thing or two about exhibitionism after about five years of blogging, hell even in the first few months of blogging. And back then, we were in our mid-twenties.

Which leads us to this and, more specifically, this, which in turn lead to this and this. Scout’s honor.

Still with me?


1. It seems to me that Waldman’s lead sentence is the mark of a clear sensationalist. And if she does indeed suffer from a milder form of bipolar disorder (Self-diagnosed! We should again point out that the diagnosis comes solely from Waldman and not a clinical psychologist. Waldman herself, last I checked, was not a shrink.), then I put forth to the peanut gallery that this is a very good way to get attention, that indeed we may very well have been conned into being titilated by another author’s neuroses (a Salon specialty, or had you all forgotten about last year’s Jane Austen Doe stunt?), perhaps another post-modern game to be played between husband and wife. (Note also that we have two clear links to the dynamic duo’s respective sites in the first two sentences. Whether this was a decision from Waldman or the Salon editors, self-promotion, even in the form of such apologia, has never seen such flagrant horn-tooting, even with that damn near unreadable He Who Shall Remain Unnamed novel-in-progress from last year.)

2. I’ve been in relationships, but I’ve never been married. But it would seem to me from a matrimonial standpoint that one would discuss suicidal feelings and bad juju with one’s spouse before exposing it all online, let alone to one’s kids. Or perhaps the key is to write it all down in a private journal. In fact, it strikes me as an altogether shitty thing to not even bother to call one’s loved one, one’s circle of friends or pretty much anyone who gives a damn about you after penning such confessional hijinks, particularly if you are a published author regularly writing and understanding that your words do indeed have power.

3. All this is not to make light of Ms. Waldman’s mental state, which is apparently quite imperious. We should point out that at least Waldman did the right thing in discovering her own personal limits about what to reveal. Even so, commenting upon this publicly in a major online outlet suggests not only a continuation of the very problem (which has earned considerable wrath from readers) but what Dana Stevens has recently referred to as “mental-health porn,” taking a cue from Elizabeth Wurtzel. What is most troubling is that Waldman is doing this to herself, and that this is not some nutty Norwegian director who may or may not be in on the joke.

4. Concerning the question of whether Waldman’s kids are harmed, this too is a disingenuous defense. The very idea that her kids will be “furious with [Waldman] for having stolen their lives and humiliated at the extent to which I have laid open my own” again resorts to a certain solipsism (also referenced by “occasionaly failing,” as if the idea of falling flat on one’s face was anathema to existence). It all suggests that Ms. Waldman can’t say no. Beyond this, if the kids did find out, surely such a revelation could be talked out, rather than worrying about the what-if wrath of a reverse Laurence Olivier moment with the offspring shrieking “I hef no mom!”

5. We should not forget that it is Salon’s editors who are exploiting Ayelet Waldman. Damn Waldman if you must, but never forget that they are the ones encouraging this. And, no, Ms. Smiley, it’s not a question of Waldman’s honesty, but what the reading public has clearly seen between the lines. It may not be easy to see when you’re blinded by bucolic glens and horses, but mental illness is a veritable powder keg. 54 million Americans suffer from it, but only 8 million seek treatment. I’m glad to see that Salon’s readers, at least, aren’t dismissing it as some pedantic overreaction.

SF Sightings — Seth Greenland

Tonight, a modest group of people gathered at the Booksmith to catch Seth Greenland, on a book tour for his scathing Hollywood novel, The Bones. The Bones depicts a comedian at the end of his rope contending with the hollow banalities of the television industry. Greenland wrote the novel, his literary debut, because he hated the duplicities of show business. Remarkably, the book has done well in Los Angeles. Greenland suggets that this might be because Hollywood likes to see “its poor self-image confirmed by an external source.”

seth-greenland.jpgGreenland, 49, is a tall man, clad in a black shirt slightly tightened around his lanky frame. A thatch of thinning black hair adorns the top of his uncannily ellipitical head. His face is a vertical edifice offset by a bulbous, somewhat aquiline nose, lined with sunken black eyes that have clearly observed the Hollywood abattoir too many times. As he reads in a raspy voice, somewhat reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ trademark machine gun delivery, he annotates the L.A. references for San Franciscans. Little Dolphins Montessori School, for example, is seen as Tiny Tuna in the novel. And as Greenland is quick to note, fifteen people have seen themselves in the same character. Despite the warm reception (the book has been out a few weeks), Greenland openly wonders if he’ll be as vilified as Truman Capote was for Answered Prayers.

While Greenland is a somewhat intense man, one observes his token smirk of amusement, the telltale impish sign of a comedy writer. When the crowd laughs, his wispy eyebrows arch up, followed by a slight lift of his cheeks and the grin of a man who has, in his own words, used this novel as a surrogate for therapy.

“I don’t have the patience for psychotherapy,” he says.

Before he emerged a novelist, Greenland had authored five plays. When the theatrical atmosphere proved as notes-happy as Hollywood, he figured he could leave New York and get the same relentless criticism, but with a pecuniary shot in the arm to support his family. He turned out the Dr. Dre film Who’s the Man? and wrote for an unspecified HBO series.

Little did he realize that the kinds of movies he wanted to see (which included a script about a suburban dad trying to kill a neo-Nazi in the neighborhood as a nobel act, what he described as a cross between Crime and Punishment and Dilbert) would be sent into the no man’s land of turnaround.

“Most comedy writers don’t want to be writers,” he says. “They want to be in show business.” Angry and frustrated by Hollywood, he turned to writing The Bones. The novel came out of him in one mad rush over six months, with only the final 60 pages undergoing significant revision. He felt changed as a person.

Greenland took some time to lambaste the writer’s assistant on Friends who recently sued for sexual harassment, noting that getting killed and shot down in the most hostile manner imaginable is all part of the business. He says that, as much as it breaks his heart, theatre has moved into the realm of poetry: a necessary but ignored art.

Then there’s the unexpected bonus of The Bones being turned into a movie. He sent the book out to several people, including David Mamet. Mamet really liked the book, but didn’t get back to him until months later. Suddenly, Greenland received a call, “Hi Seth! It’s Dave Mamet. Did you get my email?” Mamet, on the phone with Sony honcho John Calley, wanted to turn the book into a movie and asked if Greenland could fly out the next morning.

“When you don’t care,” says Greenland, “good things happen.”

Bemoaning another ill-fated run-in with Hollywood, Greenland brazenly declared (to David Mamet, no less) that he would only do the movie if he would write the screenplay. To Greenland’s astonishment, Mamet and Calley said okay. Now Greenland’s writing the script and working on his second novel (“much shorter than the first”).

Channeling Pacino, Greenland concludes, “Just when I thought I got out, they pulled me back in.”

Around the Sphere

  • Maud has a report from a JSF reading. There are lots of mumbles and ashen expressions described.
  • Dan Green is refreshingly unapologetic about his long posts, while remaining concerned that his content is being tagged “read later.”
  • Ms. Tangerine Muumuu has some alternative titles for reluctant memoirs.
  • Steve Almond offers eight reasons why he writes short stories. Apparently, he can’t accept the flawed framework of a novel and doesn’t care much for plot, two sensibilities which might account for why we’ve been unable to muster up more than cursory enthusiasm for his work.
  • Robert Birnbaum, a man who has apparently frightened so many authors that not even Zoe Heller can utter his name, talks with Nick Flynn.
  • Terry Teachout is a machine, I tell ya!
  • Apparently, romance novels are all about the nookie. All this time I thought they functioned as an excuse to get models who resemble Fabio off the dole. Who knew? (via Sarah)

The Difficult Life of Dan Brown

As the New York Times reported yesterday, Dan Brown is only one blockbuster novel away from designing an aircraft and using assorted taxpayer money to bankroll his obsessions. Should the aircraft prove successful, Brown reportedly has his eye on Vegas.

Since the success of The Da Vinci Code (which Brown refers to as the Book 4 Hercules), Brown hasn’t left the house. He speaks of rampant bacteria that might infect him and has a number of aides leaving milk bottles just outside his door. When Brown does leave his compound, he’s been known to babble about being able to buy any individual on the planet. He’s also taken to hitchhiking with the vain hope that he’ll be picked up by some guy named Melvin.

Brown has been toying around with the plot structure for Ice Station Zebra, having watched the film 75 times in the past month alone. While his publishers are encouraging Mr. Brown to abscond with its plot the same way that he did with Umberto Eco for his breakthrough success, Brown is too busy trying to determine if Jeb Bush needs a loan.

However, should Brown face writer’s block and remain incapable of writing further novels, Martin Scorsese is said to be interested in making a Dan Brown biopic.

On Good Men as Protagonists

Carrie recently weighed in on the good man as protagonist. And by “good man,” we may wish to clarify this wholesome term more wholesomely: maybe Ward Cleaver or Father Knows Best fits the bill. The irresistable person who can do no wrong. The person who has few problems other than how they’re going to refinance the house or, worse yet, the type who spends most of a novel lounging about a silk dressing gown.

While I generally tend to favor protagonists who have significant problems (not necessarily outright bastards), whether obvious ones or, even more interestingly, flaws hidden beneath tightly sewn seams of life experience leading inexorably to a dilemma we are about to experience, there’s something to be said for Carrie’s plea. Certainly the human perspective isn’t limited to madmen or druggies or pedearasts. Nearly every community has a do-gooder. Not a nagger who gets in the way of other people’s affairs or a sanctimonious Dimmesdale type copping a feel in a garret. We’re talking a genuinely outstanding member of society with nary a blemish on his record.

And I don’t want to cop to the easy defense that these types of characters don’t make for conflict. However, I think good men must be thrown into conflict in order for us to recognize their virtues. We must understand how they arrived at their goodness over the years, what efforts at self-purging and ascetism that allowed them to become the people who they are. Transposed against a narrative template that involves people from the past coming into this good man’s life, I can see this working as a way to compare and contrast the good man of today versus the developing good man of the past.

I haven’t yet read Gilead. In fact, it’s a stone’s throw away on my own bookpile. But I’ll be quite curious to see if this hypothetical development is one of the linchpins of the book. To understand and ruminate upon virtue is perhaps a trickier thing to know than vice.

Jonathan Lethem: Pop Culture Truthteller or Gimmicky Stylist?

For some curious reason, Jessa seems more eager to link to Amazon titles rather than John Leonard’s “Welcome to New Dork” in the NYRoB, which has been online for a week. She suggests that she can’t get into Lethem’s fiction because “his metaphors kept getting in the way.”

I think that Ms. Crispin is being too unequivocal with Lethem’s work and should give the man another chance. While Lethem’s novels can be gimmicky, I consider him to be one of the most interesting fiction stylists working today, a conclusion that, admittedly, took me several books to figure out. Consider the many genres Lethem has worked in. Consider his use of language and his own determination never to write the same kind of novel twice. I haven’t read The Disappointment Artist yet, but I did read Lethem’s “The Beards” (an excerpt from the upcoming nonfiction book) in The New Yorker several weeks ago (unfortunately, not available online), a fascinating glimpse at how Lethem used pop culture to disguise his growing disconnectedness with the world when personal tragedies bogged down his life. And if we look at the McDonald’s in the middle of a dystopian future in Amnesia Moon, the White Castle burgers clutched onto as comfort food in the early moments of Motherless Brooklyn, or the comics and music in The Fortress of Solitude, we see a writer who willing to present pop culture as an elixir that can often be debilitating to existence.

This interesting dilemma in current novels, what indeed separates Lethem from a J-Franz gushing over Peanuts, is what Leonard singles out in his essay among current writers. But I think Leonard may be too hard on Lethem. Where other contemporary writers have used nostalgia as a way to throw in a cheap gag or to pad out a novel, I would suggest that Lethem is the only literary figure brave enough to recognize its potential as an imprisoner. Not even Paul Auster could do that when he summarized the plot of Out of the Past in Ghosts.

Tanenhaus Watch: March 20, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.


Fiction Reviews: 1 – 2 1/2 page review, 1 one-page science fiction roundup, 2 one-page reviews, 1 half-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 6 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 1 1/2 page review, 5 one-page reviews, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 9. Total space: 7.5 pages.)

While Tanenhaus’ Hollywood theme offers an interesting thematic approach to non-fiction coverage, Tanenhaus again demonstrates that, despite a lengthy review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, he has no interest in serious coverage of today’s fiction, reducing science fiction to a round-up and including a throwaway review for Linda Ferri’s Enchantments, perhaps to point out to his detractors that he’s covering foreign titles.

Tanenhaus can delude himself all he wants with the 1:1 fiction-to-nonfiction title ratio on his table of contents page. But the column inches tell the real story. This week, he weighs in again at his trusty 44.44% ratio, still well below the 48% minimum requirement for fiction coverage.

We consider Ian McEwan to be one of the greatest living writers and we like to see him covered as much as anybody (particularly by someone like Zoe Heller). But last we heard, McEwan wasn’t the only guy pumping out novels these days.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Three of the five fiction reviews are written by women. Meanwhile, only one of the eight nonfiction reviews is penned by a female.


We’re extremely bothered by Tanenhaus’s continuing inability to pair women up with nonfiction books. By contrast, a quick look over at this Sunday’s Washington Post Book World section sees women covering two memoirs and a family history (along with several fiction titles). While the troubling problem of women reviewers relegated to fiction and memoirs cuts across the board (for fuck’s sake, why can’t a woman tackle that unwieldy Galbrieth biography?), we’re still scratching our heads over why Sam Tanenhaus, despite being the editor of one of the most promiment weekly book review sectiosn in the United States, can’t ferret out the females.

This isn’t exactly rocket science. It doesn’t even take much in the way of rumination. Here’s a few ideas that come immediately to mind: Jane Juska reviewing a nonfiction book about aging or sexuality, the genteel Katha Pollitt trying to figure out the state of comics, Molly Ivins covering Michael Savage’s Liberalism is a Mental Disorder from a medical perspective, Dorothy Allison seeing if Jeannette Angell’s Callgirl has streetcred, or just about any brave voice daring to cover Laurel Leff’s forthcoming Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (which is in fact highly critical of the Gray Lady). Wouldn’t that be a book review section worth reading? And wouldn’t this be a great way to balance off the out-of-control male-to-female ratio while presenting stirring nonfiction coverage to a national audience?

It’s too bad that Tanenhaus can’t kill a few birds (or, in this case, far too many priapic dryads) with one stone.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


We’re pleased to see Zoe Heller covering Saturday, even if the review is meekly critical and the interview with Cynthia Ozick she quotes comes from Robert Birnbaum and she (or perhaps Tanenhaus) doesn’t even acknowledge the source. (Besides, it’s not like Tanenhaus would ever reveal that there’s this thoughtful literary guy on the Net named Robert Birnbaum who is providing better interviews than most newspapers.)

Does the world really need another essay from blowhard Joe Queenan? Queenan demonstrates yet again that he is neither particularly witty nor terribly original. Having Queenan complain about ghostwritten books is a bit like watching cheap paint dry on a wall. One yearns to see the paint do something unpredictable, such as fly through the air or disappear from one’s visual plane. But alas, the paint will do nothing but dry and the senses will deaden. If Tanenhaus believes that Queenan is the quintessential hatchet man, with his self-important asides (“Either way, I think the American people need to know.”) and rampant generalizations (“…ghostwriters are by nature timid, diplomatic, gun-shy.”), then I urge Mr. Tanenhaus to reread the collected works of H.L. Mencken and discover what real shitstorming is all about. Hell, even some old school Jimmy Breslin. The Gray Lady’s continued employment of Joe Queenan is an embarassment to all of the muckrakers and wiseasses who have ever composed for newspapers. It is about as far removed from a quirky pair-up as one can get.

(And for that matter, a far more focused and succinct essay on ghostwriting can be found on the back page by Sarah Lyall. Lyall, unlike Queenan, lets her subject speak for herself and actually allows the reader to form his own judgments. Go figure. Even so, what are two essays about ghostwriting doing in the same review section?)

We have nothing else to say, but…

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Despite our overall disappointment with this week’s flat coverage, we did enjoy Neil Genzlinger’s comparative review on Hollywood, particularly the interesting suggestion of the movie consumer being irrelevant. And John Leonard doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head with his Disneywar review, but comes close.

We’re extremely confused by the Teutonic capitalization (or lack thereof) of Rip “van” Winkle. Before being appropriated by Washington Irving (and earning the “Rip Van Winkle” name), we understand that it came from a Norse folktale called “The Goatherd.” Sure, we’ve seen some editions lower-case the V. But most people understand that there’s a difference between “Van” and “von.”

Jack Shafer raises a few interesting points on New New Journalism, criticizing Robert S. Boynton quite rightly for trying to lump today’s journalists in a wide net. But he fails to factor in the influence of the Internet or, for that matter, how the endless publication of memoirs and the popularity of reality TV may have affected current journalism.


Brownie Points Denied: 3 (a new record!)


Harlan Ellison Will Fuck Your Shit Up

SHERMAN OAKS — Much like Mark Twain, he’s damning the human race again, but that’s just Harlan. Ellison is the kind of crank that makes for a good feature on a slow news day.


Another day, another dollar, another cash-strapped editor conned out of his money. $500,000 for a 24-word Ellison piece of flash fiction, and it’s only Tuesday. Another wing to add to the sprawling Ellison estate. Ellison has chewed out another editorial intern over the phone for mispronouncing Solzhenitsyn’s last name. The intern is sobbing and apologizing, and telling Ellison that she’s on Xanax and that she’s been with a therapist since the age of 12. But Ellison doesn’t budge and wants to hear her whimper some more before hanging up. This is clearly a fight worth winning.

Harlan Ellison’s hubris fed a lot of hungry intellectual minds in their twenties looking for a bombastic figurehead. Unfortunately, most of them grew up, which wasn’t good for Ellison’s midlist standing. But that hasn’t fazed Ellison. These days, he spends his autumn years calling random people at odd hours, getting angry over the important details that most people take for granted. “Damn you!” he cries out to a delivery boy earning minimum wage. “I told you I wanted the California roll, not the Nevada roll! Don’t you understand the difference between Las Vegas and La Jolla? What the hell is a Nevada roll anyway?” High blood pressure hasn’t stopped Harlan Ellison from getting angry or correcting people of these unfortunate mistakes, which he blames on “cultural amnesia” — in this case, the unpardonable errors of a Sherman Oaks sushi bar. A self-made man of privilege should get what he wants. Screw the working class and the moronic masses. It’s justice, Ellison-style.

Harlan Ellison, 70, has been denied his meds again. He’s sitting in an atrium of his own design, pointing out how superior it is to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel. There are many, many, many, many, many strange things here: the Rolodex of credible, perceived and imagined enemies out to get Ellison, the various black helicopters that Ellison insists were manufactured and put into service by the Department of Defense, and an old-fashioned card catalog detailing the people he claims to know or might have known, and the hyperbole he’s built his careeer upon.

On a bathroom wall there’s a Will Eisner drawing of The Spirit, drawn by Eisner in about ten minutes, signed: “To Harlan: Thank you for ripping out my left testicle. I needed to feel unnecessary pain, and I needed a second opinion when the blood clotted. All best, Will.” It’s art, goddammit. Never mind that it was one of about 90 drawings that Eisner made one autumn day in 1982.

All of this is part of how Harlan Ellison gets what he wants. He recently broke the nose of one journalist who liked “his touching little fantasy tales.” But he didn’t just break the journalist’s nose. He lectured the journalist for three hours on genre ghettoization. This was a matter of pride.

While some might contend that Ellison has become a parody of himself, there are still others who will happily kiss his 70 year old ass, despite its many wrinkles. Ellison regularly wards off these fanboys, commissioning hit men to knock them off.

“Their lives are worthless,” he says. “It’s the individual’s responsibility to stop heckling writers. For fuck’s sake, they might start literary blogs.”

Sometimes Deborah Solomon’s Snark Is More Than Just Deborah Solomon’s Snark

Who was the editorial mastermind who assigned Deborah Solomon to interview Rich Gannon?

I was just another guy in the press room. Did I try to curry favor with him? Sure. When he got married, I left a wedding card for him in the press office. People are saying this proves there is some link. But as Einstein said, “Sometimes a wedding card is just a wedding card.”

You mean like “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”? That wasn’t Einstein. That was Freud.

Oh, Freud. O.K. I got my old Jewish men confused.

You should learn the difference between them if you want to work in journalism.

Inside a Used Bookstore

There is a used bookstore, which I shall not name, in San Francisco. It may very well be the most nightmarish book dealer in California, worse even than the boxy blockbuster outlets where clerks are sadly illiterate and where shelf space is devoted to the dreaded popular offerings of our time.

It is neither the used bookstore’s collection of books nor the crammed stacks that I have a problem with. Nor do I quibble over the store’s remarkably inflated prices for its stock, which rivals Green Apple in fleecing the customer by pricing a dogeared hardcover with fecal matter and other questionable deposits left by previous readers at a mere four dollars off the original price: $17 for a $21 hardcover now readily available in trade paperback, to give you one egregious example.

Rather, it is the eccentric and hopelessly depressed husband-wife team, lanky and listeless ex-hippies who appear to have never recovered from Altamont, who run the place. Upon entering, the purveyor is immediately assaulted by a paranoid “NO PHOTOS!” sign emblazoned in angry Shaprie on a viciously ripped piece of cardboard, presumably to ward off the legions of G-men and black helicopters that have stormed the place with expensive Nikons. And if you do not surrender your backpack to the proprietors within thirty seconds, they will unleash motley cries of horror and assorted accusations (“Thief! Thief!”), as if you have just molested an infant. You are given half a playing card to hold onto and if you have any questions about whether the store has a particular title in stock, you are told to fend for yourself. Clearly, despite being in retail for years, this miserable couple has failed to grasp the basic idea that showing a customer where an object of desire resides might result in a sale.

I generally avoid this place because I find it disheartening to see something as inspiring as a large collection of books sullied by the variegated vagaries of glum vendors as yet uncategorized in the DSM-IV. The last time I had browsed the bookstore, I was reprimanded for not buying anything. And it was suggested then that I was somehow contributing to the store’s financial shortfall.

My friends know me as an easy forgiver. And since my last encounter with these jaded overlords had been a year ago, since I was in a cheery mood, since I happened to be in the neighborhood, and since I had recently bemoaned how difficult it was to find Anthony Burgess titles that very afternoon with friends (outside of A Clockwork Orange), I thought I’d give my revived Burgess hunt a go.

Burgess, I should point out, is an author I adore. A brave, playful and remarkably prolific writer writing across several genres (science fiction, historical fiction, pointed British satire) who is no longer alive and whose books remain in print only through the most precarious of midlist conditions. If ever there was a time to buy Burgess, the time was now. Before he became relegated to the dust heap of forgotten novelists, until the inevitable “rediscovery” essay in the April 2039 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Burgess, I’m delighted to report, was found: specifically, The Long Day Wanes, a collection of Burgess’ Malayan trilogy that I had not read. I approached the counter, ready to welcome Burgess back into my life. The wife was there, a moribund look hidden beneath hanks of stringy gray hair.

“This book’s been sitting there since 1998,” she said. “No one has touched it.”

“Well, I’m glad I rescued it from extinction. It’s a pity that Burgess has been on the decline the past ten years.”

The second sentence was the wrong thing to say.

“Oh boy. Have you heard my rant?”

Before I could say no thank you, the woman let loose a hysterical rambling about how most people can’t read, how 50% of America can’t even read street signs, and how barely anybody in the City reads books.

“Did you know that?” she sneered, tapping her fingers on a counter pocked with numerous dents and scratches, waiting for the inevitable moment to deliver part two.

“Wait a minute,” I replied. “We’re the top national city for bookstores. Number ten on the most literate city list.”

She didn’t hear me. She carried on with how money was being siphoned off for computers instead of books in the libraries. Homeless people waiting for three hours to check their email in lines. Bill Gates and his financial stranglehold on schools. And then she revealed the ultimate demon itself! The Internet. All a bunch of rabid lies.

“Actually, the Internet’s been pretty good to me. There’s an ongoing debate over literary issues. And without the Internet, I don’t think I’d have nearly as many John P. Marquand books as I do. Of course, I hit every used bookstore I could find first.”

“Where did you order?”


“Where did you order?”


“Let me tell you something about Alibiris. It’s one giant warehouse.”

“Really? That’s strange. I’ve had packages come in from used bookstores in Utah and Illinois.”

“It’s all a front. You need to order from Abe Books.” (As it turns out, the lady was right on this point. Alibris sends consigned books with inflated prices for titles that used sellers provide through its warehouse with the bookstore’s name and logo on the packages.)

Admonished for making a mistake I wasn’t aware of, I didn’t receive a thank you. And given the moribund harangue and the rampant accusations, I certainly won’t be buying from the place again.

But it does make me ponder how anyone can remain in the used bookstore business with any shred of sanity intact. Any retail business is ripe with problems, subject to the cash flow of any given month and whatever remains in savings to stay afloat. But that’s still no excuse to bombard your customers with vitriol. After all, they’re the devoted dreamers keeping the bookstores alive.

Literary Royale: Marilynne Robinson To Duke It Out With Andrea Levy on Small Island

The National Book Critics Circle Award winners have been announced:

NOVEL: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
BIOGRAPHY: De Kooning: An American Life by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
CRITICISM: Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontlnie of a Hip-Hop Planet by Patrick Neate
GENERAL NONFICTION: The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
POETRY: The School Among the Ruins by Adrienne Rich

The Chickenhead Sqawks

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first in a series of brash generalizations and self-serving paraphrasing known as Mabusianism. Proponents of this philosophy must agree absolutely with each and every point, no matter how poorly framed or unfairly stretched the argument. Mabusianism will eventually serve as the philosophical backbone for Zeus Sodomized, Edward Champion’s gripping 5,000 page novel debut, which has yet to find a publisher.]

Lev Grossman, who was designated Chickenhead of the Month back in December 2004, has responded to criticisms leveled at his article, “Pop Goes the Literature”:

I loved that McSweeney’s collection! It’s astonishing to me that you could distort my point of view like that — I called the book “trashy but in the best possible way,” “remarkably pleasing,” “gorgeously creepy,” etc.

levgrossman.jpgGrossman’s response is disingenuous. Since Grossman is content to place his review out of context (much like a silly movie ad), let’s recall the original paragraph:

McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories skews a little trashier but in the best possible way. It has the promiscuous atmosphere of one of those speakeasies where socialites slum with gangsters in an effort to mutually increase everybody’s street cred.”

In other words, the McSweeney’s collection is an enjoyable lowbrow offering with no redeeming artistic qualities other than being a fun read. Yet another one of those nutty speculative fiction endeavors that’s meant for wild-eyed geeks, cranks and insomniacs, rather than devoted and passionate readers who don’t discriminate between genres. Further, Chabon’s collection is all about literary types obtaining street cred rather than demonstrating the breadth of their craft.

“Remarkably pleasing” is the kind of phrase (much like “Could use improvement”) that I recall seeing on report cards in elementary school, and it still suggests that horror, fantasy, or science fiction are somehow beneath the panoply of quality lit. “Gorgeously creepy” is downright redundant. Why Time‘s editors are encouraging Grossman with these dreadful modifier combos is a mystery I’ll never know.

But here’s the rub: If Grossman truly enjoyed the collection, then why did he go out of his way to be snarky about it? Why was he so interested in showing how much he hated literature by accusing Michael Chabon of being “flowery” and called Jonathan Lethem’s stories “literary in their bones, maybe too much so” (and in Lethem’s case, dismissing some of his endings as “maddeningly pointless”).

Return of the Reluctant stands by its original assessment and awards Lev Grossman a second Chickenhead of the Month Award for March 2005. Clearly, his squawking has no two-drink minimum.