BREAKING NEWS: Cloud Atlas Film Adaptation in the Works

In what may be one of the oddest cinematic adaptations of all time, First Showing’s Alex Billington reports that Run Lola Run/The International director Tom Tykwer is hard at work attempting to adapt David Mitchell’s imposing novel, Cloud Atlas, for the big screen. He has enlisted the Wachowski Brothers for help. While Mr. Billington seems to possess an unfamiliarity with Michell’s great novel, asking Tykwer “which of the six he would be focusing on” (which, uh, sort of defeats the purpose), what’s interesting here is that Tykwer, who has written all of the scripts for his films, is even trying to adapt what is possibly an unfilmable novel. Whether or not Tykwer has asked the Wachowski brothers to read several books before reading Mitchell’s novel and getting to work on the script remains unknown. (Hat tip: mdash)

WaPo Book World: History Repeats Itself

To jump off from the previous post, in 1973, Washington Post cut the standalone Book World section, leaving at the time only The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times Book Review as the only standalone sections published in this country.

Does this sound familiar? The parallels increase once you plunge into Ronald Smothers’s New York Times 1973 article on the initial folding. The article is behind a paywall, but there are some interesting facts: (1) The section was closed because of the high cost of paper and because the tabloid format was a waste of space. (2) If you think the current dilemma of 12 tabloid pages is bad, consider that the 1973 cut reduced books coverage to a four-page pullout in the Sunday Style section. (3) Carol Nemeyer, then the staff director of the Association of American Publishers, is quoted: “a danger signal to publishers who see the outlets for advertising and media reviews diminishing.”

And of course, the article contains much of the same arguments. Former Book World editor Byron Dobell — perhaps the Steve Wasserman of his time — noted, “A book review supplement should not have to pay for itself in advertising any more than a sports section should.” In November 1973, then Book World editor William McPherson disseminated a letter, reading, “These are parlous times….Will the books that most of us hear about be the major selections of the major book clubs, the highly touted bestsellers, what George Plimpton is advertising on television, and certain sensational items like The Sensuous Woman?”

Now keep in mind that all this was occurring when there weren’t any of those pesky bloggers banging out diatribes in Terre Haute basements.

Book World, as we all know, was revived as a standalone section in the early 1980s. And in an era of Kindles, G1s, and iPhones, what’s not to suggest that Book World won’t emerge yet again as a standalone section in a new format?

I get very well that the Jane Ciabattaris of the world are terrified of the present. But fear and desperate anxiety has rarely solved anything. Instead of ranting and raving about doom and gloom, and starting meaningless email campaigns, it might help to be more constructive and pro-active about current realities. Yes, Book World has taken a hit. But it’s not nearly as severe as the one leveled in 1973. Yes, you won’t see a standalone section anymore. But what about the hundreds of reviews that are still going to be published this year?

Literary journalism isn’t going to go away if we keep fighting for it, but we must consider the present realities. Hysteria certainly didn’t work for Book World in the 1970s. But adjustment and reaching out to readers did. Let us learn from the lessons of history. This time, we even have a better way of getting the word out.

[RELATED: Kelly Burdick has some interesting ideas over at Moby Lives.]

Thomas Gladysz Laid Off from Booksmith

gladyszI have learned that Thomas Gladysz, the events coordinator for the now less wonderful San Francisco bookstore Booksmith, has been let go by new owners Christin Evans and Praveen Madan. No explanation given, but presumably it’s “the economy.” Thomas had been at the Booksmith for 21 years, and the man had events coordination down to a science. Not only was he one of the vital guys who held the Haight’s literary community together, but he was always very kind and courteous — even to loudmouth regulars like me. One of his many achievements involved organizing and hosting Allen Ginsberg’s last reading — this, when the man was dying. Without Thomas, the bookstore simply won’t be the same. I recognize the need for change in this ever-shifting economy, but getting rid of Thomas is hardly conducive to making a store “an integral part of the neighborhood,” as the smug Chuck Nevius boasted only a few weeks ago. Evans and Madan owe the San Francisco literary community a transparent explanation for this disgraceful move. Canning veterans like Thomas is hardly “building the independent bookstore for the 21st century,” as the Booksmith’s website now boasts. It’s more like lopping off one of the legs that made the bookstore a serious player in the first place. (Rather criminally, there is no mention of this terrible news at SFist or the ostensibly Bay Area-based litblog, Conversational Reading. What a way to stand up for the little guy. For goodness sake, Smokler, can you look into this story?)

Forthcoming Coverage

In addition to a rather enormous roundtable discussion that I have in the works here (author and book to be revealed soon), I should note that I’ll also be reporting on New York Comic Con and Tools of Change. There will be a considerable number of podcasts and written reports. Our Correspondent, who does not require alternating current and is somewhat adventurous, will most certainly not be confined to Podcast Alley, expecting people to come to him. Our Correspondent will be considerably more pro-active, walking the floor, and interviewing numerous figures of interest. But a few sitdown interviews have been scheduled. While most media outlets will be circling like moths around the high-profile lightbulbs, the emphasis at both affairs will be on the people who aren’t getting that kind of attention. If you are attending either event, please tap Our Correspondent on the shoulder and whisper the words, “Tom Spurgeon didn’t return my emails,” if you have something interesting to say. I anticipate being bald and beardless at both conferences, although any number of factors could affect my hair status. So there are no guarantees.

Review: New in Town (2009)


I am not necessarily opposed to romantic comedies. In fact, I even confessed to my moviegoing companion on the subway ride back that I enjoyed Notting Hill. I’m pretty certain that, given the choice between rewatching a Lucio Fulci film or Notting Hill, I would opt for the former. But the truth is the truth. Notting Hill more or less works and has some good dialogue, even if Julia Roberts plays Julia Roberts and the narrative is more obvious than the need to apply suntan lotion in 120 degree weather.

Richard Curtis would go on to make one of the most unpardonably atrocious films of all time. New in Town thankfully isn’t as bad as Love Actually. But that’s hardly a consolation, for it isn’t nearly as good as Notting Hill, and Notting Hill isn’t nearly as good as at least a hundred wonderful romantic comedies. By the time you get to New in Town‘s schmaltzy tapioca spraying scene (which reminded me of Zoolander‘s satirical gasoline montage), you know that any sliver of faith you’ve placed in the film can’t possibly be redeemed.

You see, New in Town is a romantic comedy that has a modicum of charm and better acting than a derivative movie of this type has any right to possess. Here is a movie that has pilfered elements from other rom-coms: the corporate crusader vs. the working man advocate at the heart of You’ve Got Mail, the city slicker humbled by the charms of small town life from Doc Hollywood (complete with a David Odgen Stiers-like character played by J.K. Simmons), and the romantic protagonist as a business exec who busts up companies in Pretty Woman (Renee Zellweger has replaced Richard Gere). It’s a movie so quaint and anachronistic that it even has the opening credits at the beginning. The way they used to. The way that audiences conditioned themselves to accept condescending junk without question.

I felt a strange emotional conflict sitting through this movie. I was appalled by the Minnesotan stereotypes, the obvious music cues (“Walking on Sunshine” when Zellweger attempts to escape to Miami), the reliance upon coincidence (a snowstorm), the pat happy ending, the union rep who doesn’t object to unpaid overtime, and the terrible Jesus jokes (redeemed by a better populist joke about belief later in the movie). I wanted the people of New Ulm, Minnesota to hail their conquering hero or make more intriguing efforts to welcome the woman who came to dinner. If only the filmmakers could understand that small towns are laden with life and a lot of fun, that the people who live there aren’t caricatures, that having a good ear for regional dialogue is a must, and that this movie’s potential audience would have augmented tenfold if the New Ulmites hadn’t been treated like one-dimensional rubes. Unfortunately, screenwriters Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox seem to think that phony parochialisms like “Ain’t that a kick in the keister,” “Oh for crying in the bean cheese soup,” and “We don’t give a goose fart on a muggy day” represent verisimilitude. It’s abundantly clear that these two Hollywood hacks whipped this shit up in a room and genuinely thought they were being clever. If only they were real writers who headed to Minnesota on Hollywood money to get their dialogue right. There’s also the token guy living in his ex-wife’s basement, the unbelievable idea of a woman as capable as Zellweger’s character not heading to Minnesota without winter wear, and a ruthless company not cutting Zellweger loose after she’s defied orders for tapioca pursuits and tapioca storytelling.

But just as I was about to give up, something slightly interesting would happen. Frances Conroy would evade bad direction to speak like the Fargo people by speeding up her line delivery, and it was a marvel to watch her improvise under the circumstances and bring something to lackluster material. A New Ulm resident would momentarily evade the stereotypical trappings with a small irony on how only city slicker idiots froze to death while walking down the highway in subzero temperatures. The camera would linger on Zellweger’s hair for more than a minute as she was emerging from a hangover. (No, you’re not exactly going to get Eric Rohmer takes in a movie like this, but, really, how often do you see a long take like that in a mainstream comedy?)

Such moments were too few. When Harry Connick Jr. told Zellweger, “You know you’re not so bad when you’re unconscious,” I had the strange feeling that he was talking directly to me. Maybe he might take me home and try to molest me. Perhaps he might show me his package. (Does he have a decent package at 42? I certainly hope so.) Or maybe he wanted me to be unconscious so that I might forgive the movie a little more. Maybe if I “wouldn’t be so bad,” I might wake up in a snug bed and pretend to watch wrestling on TV after we lip locked. Because that’s what Minnesotans do apparently: watch and elect wrestlers. Maybe I could take Connick’s daughter to the big city for shoes and I could walk around airports in high heels to show that I was just as assertive as Zellweger. This was, after all, what womanhood was to director Jonas Elmer. For all I knew, this definition extended to manhood. Walking around in high heels and having a man like Connick unzip a suit while I was trying to pee. Romantic escapades like that.

You get the picture. I honestly didn’t hate this movie as much as I probably should have. But I didn’t like it all that much either. Ain’t that a kick in the keister?

Does The End of Washington Post Book World Mean the End of Books Coverage?

Even though there has yet to be an official announcement, the NBCC is once again unofficially “reporting” “unofficial” and unsourced news that Washington Post Book World will print its last issue on February 15, 2009. Efforts to reach Marcus Brauchli to clarify answers have been unsuccessful (the man does not want to talk, even though it is claimed that he’s the only one who can answer), but perhaps a clue to Washington Post Book World‘s possible demise might be found in this blog entry at Short Stack, whereby specific links to “hard times” and “good news” suggest a tenable connection.

Conjecture, however, is hardly journalism. It still strikes me as journalistically irresponsible to report unconfirmed and unofficial rumors, particularly after Maureen McLane’s embarrassing array of bread pudding posts over the weekend. While this approach may work for Harry Knowles or Perez Hilton, it’s a bit dismaying but not particularly surprising to see that it likewise works for Jane Ciabattari.

[UPDATE: Thankfully, Motoko Rich has done some reporting, getting some interesting quotes from David Ulin, Steve Wasserman, and Douglas Brinkley, and talking with sources inside the paper. As Ulin notes, the death of a Sunday stand-alone section does not necessarily translate into an end for robust book coverage. It apparently hasn’t occurred to some of the NBCC’s inflexible fulminators that merging books coverage into general cultural sections may actually get more people reading books coverage. Is not such an approach better for the long-term health of literary journalism? And does it not attract a broader readership who otherwise may not have known about a specific book or author?]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Teachout also has thoughts, adding, “Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.”]

[UPDATE 3: Sarah Weinman notes, “Instead of passive intake, this is a world of active consumption and discussion, where people seek out what they want, when they want it at their own discretion. Looking for guidance and seeking things out aren’t mutually exclusive, but readers should be – and are – suspicious of entitlement and suspicion that comes with books coverage being wholly separate from the larger world.”]

[UPDATE 4: To jump off from Terry and Sarah’s thoughts, one advantage that a print-based newspaper has over a blog is the manner in which a reader can discover an article adjacent to another, much like the way in which you discover an unexpected book next to another in a library or a bookstore. Given this exploratory reading tendency, does it even make sense for any newspaper today to maintain a stand-alone books section? I’m wondering if the time has come for newspapers to stop segregating books coverage. A naturally curious reader, interested in the many pressing issues of her day, might very well find a newspaper book review to be of value. Hell, the reader may not even know that the newspaper features books coverage. Maybe the time has come for newspapers to stop considering how a newspaper’s house style dictates the tone, and think more about how individual voices bring life, passion, and informed arguments to a newspaper. The gatekeeper may no longer be the outlet; it may very well be the individual reporter herself. Authority may now arise from an individual’s reputation and voice, rather than the trappings of institutional newspaper culture. And given how rigid, gaffe-ridden, and humorless many of these institutions are, this development may not necessarily be a bad thing.]

[UPDATE 5: A contrarian print-partisan take from Lizzie Skurnick, whose mind is in the toilet.]

[UPDATE 6: The Post itself offers a report, with quotes from Brauchli. According to Rachel Shea, three quarters of the roughly 900 reviews each year will be shifted over to the Style section. Shea herself invites comments from readers.

Carolyn Kellogg: “A lot of effort has gone into bemoaning book review changes and it’s hard for me not to think that, coming from book critics, it’s both self-serving and a little cheesy. And it’s certainly less interesting than engaging with books.” Meanwhile, Scott Esposito calls out newspapers for not getting “with the 21st century and [figuring] out how to sell bookpage adspace to entities other than publishers and bookstores.”

Orthofer: “[M]an, do we miss paper coverage.” And to address the print sentiments of Elizabeth Foxwell and Joe Flood, it’s worth observing again that there will still be a print section that you can curl up to. It’s just going to be merged into the rest of the newspaper. Flood observes that the review was “printed on the cheapest paper available – the CVS coupons are on much better stock.” Maybe the time has come for newspapers to adopt POD as a viable curling up option.]

[UPDATE 7: I’ve located an article from 1973 depicting the then closing of Book World. The pertinent parallels and details can be found here.]

Regretting the Error


[UPDATE: Apparently, it’s amateur hour at the New York Times. After fixing the above headline, Matt Bucher observed that The Broken Estate was not published in 1966. James Wood was then only a year old. (And, no, the above screenshot wasn’t faked. I resized it to fit it into the window.)]

[UPDATE 2: More errors in the piece. “More important, the move to a small town seemed to stimulate his memories of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart, Ollington.” It’s Olinger. Also, John Updike was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1968, not 1967. Also, it’s Terrorist, not The Terrorist. It should be “outsized talents,” not “outsize talents.” Good Christ, don’t they employ copy editors and fact checkers at the Gray Lady?]

[UPDATE 3: The Gray Lady has fixed these errors, without “regretting the error.” In the haste of my horror, I added an extra L to Olinger — as pointed out by a pedantic commenter named Albert. This has been fixed. I regret the error.]

RIP John Updike

I have just been informed by several people that John Updike is dead.

Words fail me right now. And I have been lurched over for the last few minutes. Updike meant a lot to me. As much as Westlake, McGoohan, and David Foster Wallace. And I hope that I can bring myself to articulate something in the next few hours.

In the meantime, I will just say that one of my favorite Segundo interviews was Show #50, in which I had the good fortune to interview the man. I will reveal more of the story behind that interview later, and offer more words when I have a clearer head. But this is a major blow to American letters. Rabbit and Bech are now truly dead.

Theater Review: Queens Girl

Queens Girl is a one-woman show written and performed by Lauren LoGuidice. It is playing here in New York at a venue called Stage Left on January 29, 30, and 31st. From there, it moves on to San Francisco. I was contacted out of the blue by a publicist and opted to attend. My +1 had to back out. My alternate +1 likewise found himself busy. I was frankly too lazy to enlist a third +1. So I attended alone. I was one of two press members in the audience. I am still not entirely sure why I was contacted.

I am informed by Ms. LoGuidice’s website that the show was once called Skinny Girl, but there is no specific reason given for this title change. My own titular preference is Queens Girl. And having seen the show, my own preference would have involved less multimedia and more performance. I suppose the idea here was to suggest distractions which present one from being true to one’s self, but bombarding the audience with often needless visual information and regrettably obvious musical cues (e.g., The Godfather theme playing when we learn about the Italian neighborhood Ms. LoGuidice grew up in) only succeeded in this reviewer wondering why the real Ms. LoGuidice was still hiding, and why she cared so much about appealing to the crowd. The show’s truest moment came with Ms. LoGuidice impersonating a homophobic ruffian shrieking at “Ms. LoGuidice” to leave the neighborhood. That such a moment comes from the portrayal of another figure reveals the show’s central problem. We learn that Ms. LoGuidice has spent all of her adult life running to other places. Bombay, San Francisco, the Meatpacking District. But to what end? We never know. The multimedia proves too intoxicating.

Now ancillary information is sometimes a regrettable obstacle that hinders an individual from telling the truth. I can tell you that the show’s running time was sometime between 32 and 37 minutes. Had my cell phone battery not expired, I would be able to give you a precise figure. The other journalist attending the show, who was diffident about revealing his name and outlet to me, informed me that the show was 37 minutes. But he had determined this fact from looking at his own cell phone once the show had concluded. It read 8:37 PM. There was then a minor but conciliatory point of argument between us in the elevator ride down over whether the show started at 8:00 PM or 8:05 PM. I advocated the latter time, even though I truthfully wasn’t paying attention and suspected I was wrong. This was not what I would call a prevarication. I was merely being jocose. The idea here was to present a possibly erroneous piece of temporal information for this gentleman to correct me on. But I apparently conveyed my position to him with some entirely unintentional authority, a deadpan confidence that had him believing that the show had started at 8:05 PM. And even though I began to get the sense that I was probably wrong, I politely agreed that the running time might possibly be 32 minutes instead of the 37 minutes he had initially estimated. We both agreed that it was a bit unusual to attend a theatrical presentation that lasted considerably shorter than our subway ride to Stage Left.

Stage Left itself is located on the fifth floor of an edifice located on West 37th Street. There is nothing, aside from the space’s proximity on the western side of the building, that suggested a possible origin for the name. Perhaps there was another imputation behind the name: fringe theater that came out of left-field. But none of this really matters.

I can also report that I was one of only five men in the audience. My audience estimate was 25 people, most appearing to be friends of Ms. LoGuidice. I took notes in a five subject notebook — a knockoff that I had purchased two nights before for $2.79 from a small shop in Tribeca that was something between a bodega and a pharmacy. The pen I used to take notes — a black Uniball — was on its last legs. In looking at the eight pages of notes I took, I am struck by two things: the gradual waning of the ink and my own fierce efforts in the dark to force more ink on the pages. Given that I also took notes on Wednesday night during the Barnes and Noble New York Times event and did not use any of them, I think that I will do the same for this piece. But I will present one note, picked entirely at random, that might give you some sense of my theatergoing experience: “Relies too much on music.”

Those last three paragraphs may be interesting to my friends, but they don’t really tell you anything.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Denby

David Denby recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #261.

David Denby is most recently the author of Snark.

Please also see our lengthy essay, in response to Adam Sternbergh’s review. This conversation represents an effort to get Denby to answer questions raised by both pieces.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ordered against using a snarky tone.

Author: David Denby

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not Denby feels battered, unsuccessful attempts to pinpoint the definition of snark, the club of the clued-in, newspapers and narratives, Denby’s reservations about the Web and decentralization, snark’s relationship to voice, Sturgeon’s law, panic in mainstream journalism, satire and a corresponding set of virtues by implication, prototypical voice, the Sarah Palin prank, Spy, contempt for New York celebrities vs. contempt for money and power, investigative reporting and the Web, peer-to-peer journalism, Josh Marshall and the attorney scandal, Private Eye, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the need to take sacred cows to task, Pitchfork, “Ugandan discussions,” endearing jargon vs. in-the-know references, why Denby doesn’t find Gawker and Wonkette funny, fickle public memory and disappearing websites, Perez Hilton at 40, fighting slander, accounting for corrective impulses on the Web, privacy as a bourgeois triumph, whether or not Denby can truly have an informed opinion on Twitter if he’s never used it, quibbling with Denby’s uniform assessments of mediums, accounting for the visual innovations of Spy Magazine, the visual notion of snark, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, circumstances in which being ruthless towards someone is okay, Mike Barnacle, nastiness and self-deprecation, Penn Jilette, snark practitioners as flip-floppers, Maureen Dowd, superfluous anger vs. righteous indignation, constructing a narrative in which you can locate yourself, Alcanter de Brahm’s irony symbol, Perez Hilton’s lack of anonymity, defending Tom Cruise, why photographers haven’t fought Perez Hilton, legal remedies, being dragged into the celebrity culture, and raising an army of thoughtful writers.


denbyCorrespondent: Let’s talk about this idea of trash talk vs. snark. You indicate in this book that it’s okay to have a vituperative remark or a savage wit, if there is a corresponding set of virtues. And, in fact, you say “a corresponding set of virtues by implication.” Now “implication,” I think, is the important word here. Because to go back to the Sternbergh review, I would argue, to defend him briefly, that he is attempting to point out that Television Without Pity and the snark tone that he champions — I mean, is there not a corresponding set of virtues perhaps that is in the initial stages? In the prototypical stages perhaps? I mean, don’t people have to start from somewhere before they reach this level of thought that you are advocating in this particular book?

Denby: Well, we don’t know, do we? But I don’t see much of that in Television Without Pity. Mostly, it seems to me, whenever I look, it’s enormously long plot summaries with a lot of snarky adjectives. And it’s fun. Because it’s like friends who gather at a house to watch a TV show, and you compete with one another to see who can be funnier. But I would forgive them everything if they jumped up and down with joy when something original and difficult came out. Like in their movie stuff, I don’t notice them celebrating There Will Be Blood or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. What gets their jets going is trash like Bride Wars. In other words, they’re invested in trash. And that’s why I say that these people are really thugs of the conglomerate in a way. In other words, they’re part of the commercial system. They’re not really interested in anything adversary. For all of their nasty tone, they’re part of the commercial system. They’re not adversarial at all. They don’t push the little guy — you know, the protest against the system or the artistic revolutionary. That’s not what they’re into. They’re into fandom. Now let me come back to Sternbergh.

Correspondent: But also to point out the initial thrust of this question. As a prototypical model, for some people, snark is the way to get to this more virtuous plane that you’re advocating here.

Denby: Well, I hope you’re right. And maybe they’ll just…

Correspondent: I can say this from experience. Because I was a little snarky when I started writing.

Denby: But people get older and they realize that I’m not pushing my weight. That this is too easy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Jessica Coen, who ended up going from Gawker to New York Magazine. She wrote an essay. I’m sure you’re familiar with this. You don’t quote it in the book. But I’m sure in the course of your research, you found it out. She pointed to the negative feelings that she had, and she wanted to go to this more thoughtful plane.

Denby: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m saying that perhaps, maybe, instead of essentially fanning the flames of discontent against this type, it’s steering them in the right direction. Which you do do in this book. Maybe this is just a growing stage before they blossom into some writer of virtue.

Denby: Well, that would be nice. Also, I think they’re naive if they think that they can make a whole professional career out of this. Because you cannot underestimate the ruthlessness of editors. In other words, this is something that Adam Sternbergh doesn’t know. That his kind of wise guy stuff pales very quickly. And when styles of humor change, editors get rid of you if you don’t keep up. So there can be something naive. It’s a way of gaining a professional foothold. But you’ve got to move beyond it pretty fast. But just to return to Sternbergh, as I remember, the main thrust of his critique was that snark is an appropriate response to a corrupt and dishonorable world. Well, I’m not going to argue with his characterization. I think it is a corrupt and dishonorable world. But the appropriate response to it is not snark. The appropriate response to it is criticism, analysis, and, best of all, satire. Which is what I praise over and over again. The kind of stuff that Stewart and Colbert do. Most of snark is weak. It’s mostly impotent. It’s more a confession of defeat than an appropriate response to anything. I mean, he’s way off on that.

Correspondent: Okay, well, to look at this question of prototypical voice from a different vantage point, you suggest that Philip Weiss’s infamous Spy article, in which he infiltrated Bohemian Grove “discovered only where power hung out and what its vulgar habits are.”

Denby: Yeah, who took a pee where?

Correspondent: Yeah. But if we are to discount this article as nothing more than an amusing prank, I point to the Quebec comedy duo who revealed Sarah Palin’s lack of qualifications with this wonderful prank. And while their particular tone may not have been thoughtful or political, it did lead to people rethinking Sarah Palin’s qualifications.

Denby: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Isn’t there something to be said about how people react to a particular prank or an act? Or how people run with the ball of, say, the Bohemian Grove scenario? And try to investigate it further? I mean, that’s what thought is.

Denby: Yeah, but that’s what Spy never did. I mean, it kept promising more than it delivered. The Sarah Palin prank was brilliant. And that she didn’t catch on for, what was it? Ten minutes? They had her going. It’s just astounding. But the trouble with Spy was that it never did investigative reporting. It did a kind of junior league infiltration of the powerful, rather than the hard work of going to the library and looking up records, and so on and so forth. That true investigative reporting requires before you can nail someone in dishonest behavior or corrupt behavior or collusive behavior. So it never actually delivered. And since it was written basically for people who wanted to join the money….

Random Stranger Shouting Into Mike (Presumably Disenfanchised): Wha…what?

Denby: (to Stranger) Thank you. That was good.

Stranger: You’re welcome.

(Photo credit: Casey Kelbaugh)

BSS #261: David Denby (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #260.

Azar Nafisi is most recently the author of Things I’ve Been Silent About, as well as Reading Lolita in Tehran.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reliving transcendent memories.

Author: Azar Nafisi

Subjects Discussed: Authenticity, W.G. Sebald, photographs and text, Iranian birth certificates, being true to the story when writing a memoir, accuracy and memoirs, the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, “A Memoir in Books,” constructs within constructs, Emily Dickinson, dreams that are tainted by reality, The Great Gatsby, Nafisi’s mother creating a dream out of a frozen past, unhappy marriages, presenting a cardboard version of yourself, frankness, books vs. reality, Dorothy Sayers, Henry James and World War I, asserting life in totalitarianism, Italian neorealists, great things that come from limitations, Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, Czslew Milosz vs. Witold Gombrovich, Ferdowski, The Prince, and others as frameworks to understand 20th century Iran, human beings and the creative impulse, writing a book of literary criticism on Nabokov that resonates with the Islamic Republic, prying mothers and outrage, personal connections and subjective viewpoints in relation to books, collection vs. hording in relation to storytelling, feeling regret, the commercial shadow of Reading Lolita, avoiding the Iran categorization, subconscious Nabokovian themes, the memoir as betrayal, Muriel Spark, Speak, Memory, and self-consciousness.


nafisiCorrespondent: Fariba’s birth certificate is fake, you note later on in the book.

Nafisi: Yes.

Correspondent: And also the marriage of your parents was built, as you say, on a lie. So you have this scenario throughout your life in which you have the most authoritative text, being a birth certificate, being unreliable. So this brings me back to the question of the pictures and the text.

Nafisi: Definitely. I mean, authenticity itself is such a dubious word, isn’t it? Authentic to whom? And at what point in your life? Authenticity itself changes. But definitely. And especially in regards to my life in Iran and with my mother. The question of what appeared and what people claimed to be real. And what one discovered to be the truth. Those two were running parallel to one another. Seldom meeting, actually.

Correspondent: I guess the question though is: How can you, who specializes in books throughout your life — I mean, that’s your living!

Nafisi: (laughs)

Correspondent: So here you have this unreliable relationship with text that your life is predicated upon. How you can even trust text if there is this lack of authenticity?

Nafisi: Well, you have to trust the story. Because if you want the story to be good, quote unquote, you have to be true to the story. And it takes you places where sometimes you don’t want to go. It forces you to reveal things that you don’t want to reveal. But if you’re focused on the story, you realize that the story will take its revenge if you don’t give it what it needs. So that is why I think so many authors, or so many people keep saying — like Vita Sackville-West, in terms of her diaries. She says that, “I am writing because of truth. Because there’s so many pieces of the truth. And you reveal your truth.” It is not because you have hold of the truth, but because the process of storytelling reveals the truth both to you and hopefully to the readers.

Correspondent: Does it matter then if you don’t quite have the exact truth? I mean, there’s a lot of controversy — here in America, in particular — about what a memoir really should be and how accurate it needs to be.

Nafisi: Well, there’s two thins I need to say about that. One is when you deliberately fabricate something. And unfortunately, a lot of times, in terms of the recent events, it is to sell. I tried to very much — actually, the scandalous parts of my book are very much buried. This was a test for me. Can you write a memoir? Which is a family memoir. Which doesn’t come out with fireworks. And it can still attract people. Because what is extraordinary to me is what we call the ordinary. You know, nothing is ordinary. That was what I was trying to investigate. So if you deliberately fabricate, I think then that we are entering a different world.

But a memoir, because its a narrative and its a story, by nature, it’s a construct. I think we should admit that at the outset. That it is a construct. You try and remain true to facts. But what are facts? From whose point of view? And one thing that I discovered — which is very obvious now to me, but it wasn’t then — is how much you select. There were people in my life who were very central to my life. Like my brother, whom I love and we’ve had many, many experiences together. But he was not necessarily central to the story. So you cut-and-paste, according to the themes that your story demands. And so how can you say that a memoir is not a construct?

(Photo credit: wip_partnership)

BSS #260: Azar Nafisi (Download MP3)

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Review: Donkey Punch (2008)


In 2006, the critic David Edelstein confirmed his cinematic cowardice by asking this of the infamous nine-minute anal rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, “Noé means to rub your nose in the violence and make you loathe it, but my nose had been pretty well rubbed after the first two minutes. For a while I stared at the EXIT sign, then closed my eyes, plugged my ears, and chanted an old mantra. I didn’t understand why I had to be tortured, too. I didn’t want to identify with the victim or the victimizer.”

I don’t believe that the torture porn issue should especially concern itself with the filmgoer’s rights. In the case of Irreversible, Noé draws our attention to the horrible reality of rape through his unique structure — ten-minute installments arranged backwards, with the “later” events happening first — and by demonstrating how these “later” actions reveal primal motivations that occurred “earlier.” Much as Almodovar had the courage to play a twelve-minute rape scene in Kika for laughs, Noé is interested in suggesting to the filmgoer that our quotidian gestures may very well be laced with savagery. And if the filmgoer feels uncomfortable with this ethical question, he has the option to walk out of a theater if he cannot handle what’s presented before him.

If cinema is to endure as an art form, then it must permit opportunities for the filmgoer to enter into uncomfortable territory. Perhaps Edelstein would have been better off writing about the latest audience-pandering “art-house film” that refused to take chances. His viewing concerns fail to consider the film on its own terms. It is, instead, all about Edelstein, and such attitudes are damaging to films that play fast and loose with comfortable sensibilities.

The torture porn question hinges less on the content and more on whether a film can offer a convincing portrayal of dirty human realities. Let us consider Eli Roth’s oeuvre. This horror auteur displayed some primitive satirical promise with Cabin Fever and Hostel, only to betray this talent in Hostel: Part II with one of the most misogynistic scenes seen in a horror film in years.

In Hostel: Part II, Heather Matarazzo is punished for being eager, geeky, and curious about the Slovakian village which contains the factory in which affluents pay to torture and kill victims. Roth has children spit in Matarazzo’s face when she offers a mint. Her friends lie about the alcoholic content of the cider she drinks. (Matarazzo’s character does not drink.) Whereas even the asthmatic in the first film got some action, in the second film, Matarazzo isn’t even given a chance to get laid — even when she goes on a boat ride with a schlumpy guy. She’s abducted to the torture factory, and doesn’t even get so much as a kiss. The kiss comes later, when she is dangling upside down — naked, chained, humiliated for the camera, essentially raped by the schlumpy guy. Indeed, the schlumpy guy fires up a cigarette just before the torture factory staff bags her head. His breath, polluted by the phallic cigarettes, won’t even partake in an embrace.

And that’s just the beginning. Roth doesn’t even give Matarazzo a moment in which she can upbraid her two companions or display any strengths. She’s a character who exists to be mocked and tortured. She dangles from the ceiling, her breasts bobbing at the top edge of the frame like some cheap chandelier, and another woman — the client who has requested her — proceeds to scrape her skin with a blade, with the camera lingering on Matarazzo’s flesh in full closeup. Torture soon follows, with Matarazzo cut open, screaming, and the blood dripping down onto the nude client’s body. There is nothing remotely ethical or particularly probing about this scene, even if one accepts that it’s “just a movie.” It is cheap, exploitative, incurious about the human condition, and not particularly interested in exploring the relationship between the tortured and the torturer. Matarazzo’s body is presented, but it’s all in the interest of misogyny. And while Roth has another woman cut a client’s dick off near the end of the film, as if to suggest that emasculation represents a kind of female empowerment, the brutal cheekiness (a dog chows down on the cock just after it is thrown across the room) adds nothing particularly substantial to the revolutionary possibilities of the horror genre, much less the talent that Roth displays in other scenes (such as the DePalma-like torture bidding, split-screen montage seen early in Hostel: Part 2).

* * *

Which brings us to Oliver Blackburn’s film, Donkey Punch, part of the Magnet “Six Shooter” series, which has clearly taken Eli Roth’s two Hostel films as its inspiration. Here again is a film presenting spoiled young people going on vacation, taking everything without giving back, and getting lost in gruesome violence. “Check it out,” says one character of the boat in which the action takes place, “It’s, like, the TARDIS.” Like the Matarazzo dilemma in Hostel: Part 2, geekdom resides just under the surface, but it is actively discouraged. Dare to be thoughtful, curious, intelligent, or abstain from drugs, and you will be punished. For it is the vacationer’s duty to be dumb and irresponsible in these films.

Here again is a film that replaces even the crudest concern about the human condition with boorishness and misogyny. Three young women join four young men on board a boat. And what is the allure exactly? This film is too idiotic to pin it on anything more complicated than a vacationer’s crude pursuits of debauchery. These Bacchanalian impulses don’t stop Blackburn from giving his women the Matarazzo treatment. The three women wander about the boat and note that it “smells of boy.” The titular “donkey punch” is a sexual position that involves punching the woman on the back of the head during orgasm. It’s brought up by the marble-mouthed thug Bluey — the stupidest and cruelest character in the movie, and the big “experienced” man who the other three look to for guidance. “What’s in it for the girl?” asks one of the women. The reply? “I don’t understand the question,” followed by selfish laughter.

The donkey punch is carried out. A woman dies. The action is caught on a video camera: a vacation snapshot that transforms into a lucrative Internet possibility (just like Elite Hunting in the Hostel films, which offered a business card with merely an email address). And, of course, the man who caused the death can’t take responsibility. Nor do these characters make any attempt to calm each other down. “Why don’t you fix us a meal?” orders one of the young men later in the film. The object is to evade the police and to carry on with the partying, and to make sure that these “bitches” stay down. After all, they had it coming.

More forgiving critics are likely to defend Donkey Punch as “a cautionary tale.” But this too easily exculpates both the filmmaker and the filmgoer from the failure to find a purpose, or a common territory, for the violence. This is most certainly an exploitation film, but it lacks the chops to get us interested in these characters on a rudimentary level. The film’s setting suicidally, and rather stupidly, begs comparisons to Knife on the Water and Dead Calm, which are both considerably better.

Neither Donkey Punch nor Hostel: Part 2 offers anything half as interesting as Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer (which is available online for free; the film is in the public domain). Ferrara’s feature debut is a structural mess, and he hasn’t quite found his voice. (That would come later with his first masterpiece, Ms. 45.) But he does depict madness and violence in a way that draws us into the madman’s psychology. The film’s later scenes of the madman drilling people around New York works both as exploitation, and as a very unusual examination of class and art vs. consumerism. We can observe the violence as horrifying, fun, pleasant, and unpleasant. And that is because Ferrara is genuinely curious and passionate about his warped madman (so much so that he played the part). The violence caused the film to be labeled a “video nasty” when it hit the UK.

Now the new label is “torture porn.” But filmmakers such as Blackburn and Roth aren’t really interested in tinkering with the stigma. Instead of using their freedom and their notoriety to advance cinematic form and mess with heads — as Noé and Takashi Miike’s films often do — they prefer to wallow in misogyny for misogyny’s sake. Their “daring” choices become childish and predictable, and it becomes evident that a flapping penis (and there are many in Donkey Punch) is less about flaunting conventions and more about crass commercialism. This kind of filmmaking stance isn’t courageous. It’s riddled with cowardice and contempt. It performs a great injustice to the horror genre, which, in the best of hands, can be fun, thoughtful, and dangerous.

The Mysterious Origins of “Oh Snap!”

Is it possible that the 1910 children’s novel, The Bobbsey Twins at School, was a prescient influence on hip-hop?

“Oh, Snap! Snap!” cried Freddie. “Don’t go there!” But Snap kept on, and Freddie, afraid lest his pet dog be bitten, caught up a stone and threw it at the place.

Probably not. But “Oh snap!” and “Don’t go there!” were clearly phrases that begged to be loosened into the English language. And they both made their way into the American vernacular through hip-hop.

This article concerns “Oh snap!” — that handy phrase which accompanies a moment of consternation or a dutiful dissing. The phrase has seen more frequent use in mainstream media, and, in 2009, it is just about at the point where “My bad” was in 2004. Here again, we have two words that linger in popular culture well past their shelf life, a term that once populated the lingua franca of a minority subculture and that is now loosened from the lips of Caucasians who think they are in the know.

But where did “Oh snap!” came from? And why did it take two decades to establish itself prominently in mainstream culture?

I’ve become more than a tad obsessed with these questions, but I have developed a working theory.

Now if you’re interested in slang, you can take one of two positions. Get excited by it or get smug about it. The Indianapolis Monthly‘s Cara McDonald (writing in July 2004, no less, well after “Oh snap!” was in popular use) chose the former:

She sparkles and burbles, all oh my goshes and oh my goodnesses; when she forgets where she put her tracks and shouts, “Oh, snap!” — presumably a euphemism for “shit.”

And here’s what the linguists have to say. We are informed unhelpfully by The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that “oh snap!” was “used as a mild oath.” But there appears to be no effort by Connie Elbe, the cited linguist who “discovered” the phrase in October 2002 and published the results as editor of UNC-CH Campus Slang, to track down its cultural references. (Elbe, incidentally, was thanked in the acknowledgments section in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, which may explain why that novel’s campus patois is out-of-touch.)

In Alonzo Westbrook’s 2002 book, Hip Hoptionary, he identifies “Oh, snap” as either an “epiphany; to understand something, like a light turned on” or “a gesture where one literally snaps a finger after a statement to emphasize a point, like the period at the end of a sentence.”

But the first time I heard “Oh snap!” was in Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.” (The usage is best observed in the above video at the 4:12 mark, so that one can get a sense of the timing preceding the “Oh snap!” moment.) This was in 1989. And “Oh snap!” was quickly picked up by many of the high school punkasses — including me — who were likewise amused by Markie’s deliberately awful singing.

Markie, however, was hardly the first. The earliest written trace I can find of “Oh snap!” is in William Hauck Watkins and Eric N. Franklin’s 1984 volume, Breakdance!:

I said, “Oh, snap, what’s that?” He said, “It’s the new style called breaking.” I said, “It looks like you’re going to break your body.”

Breaking did not quite survive. But “Oh snap!” certainly did. A hip-hop group by the name of Latin Empire used “Oh snap!” in a Spring 1991 interview published in Centro 3, 2. The first USENET use of the phrase was, not surprisingly, on November 7, 1997 on Even a rock fan by the name of Dwayne Lutchna used the phrase in a This Week in Rock segment that appeared on MTV. “Oh snap!” was making the rounds.

But it didn’t entirely stick. At least not in the way that it has today. For a while, it looked as if the phrase would disappear into the crevices with “Hells yeah!” and “getting jiggy with it.” But then comedians like Tracy Morgan and Dave Chappelle began using “Oh snap!” in their routines. Then it became fair game for everybody. (It is now used regularly by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.)

The big question is where Markie and his friends got the tip from. Is it possible that the phrase came from England?

From Norman Harrison’s Once a Miner (1954) — a hard depiction of Southeast English mining:

Oh, snap. All right; you’d better get yours if you want.

We see the phrase also in the 1994 film, Tom and Viv, which is interesting, considering that the film is a period piece. “Oh snap. I was in Lagos,” says Maurice Haigh-Wood.

From Peter Ackroyd’s novel, First Light (1996):

“Tell me,” he added, more comfortably, “what are you drinking?”

“Gin and it.”

“Oh snap. So am I. Isn’t it lovely?”

So we see a British usage of “Oh snap!” from four decades before that is quite similar to the American usage of “Oh snap!” in the 1980s and 1990s.

If “Oh snap!” did come across the Atlantic and make its way into the hip-hop community, one wonders how this happened. Was there some seminal moment in which “Oh snap!” was unfurled at a breakdancing showdown? A moment in which all witnessing the usage of “Oh snap!” felt compelled to remember it and cite it to their friends? Did “Oh snap!” serve as a response to “Snap out of it,” which was possibly considered a less definitive term?

These are questions that require an investigation in which it may not be possible to find the missing link. But assuming that “Oh snap!” crossed the Atlantic, the American and British forms prove that a phrase can evolve in two different nations and adopt an attitude specific to each, even when the phrase conveys the same meaning.

New Policies

For all future posts, whenever I make a claim, I plan on emboldening my efforts to get related individuals on the record.

Likewise, because there has been a slight uptick in comments left by people pretending to be other people, or people who cannot be bothered to leave real names (or, if they choose to remain anonymous, specific blogs, websites, or email addresses where they can be contacted), as of today, I shall enact a new policy.

All commenters must now leave a real name or, if they wish to remain anonymous, a website or an email address where they can be contacted. (I will, of course, keep your email address confidential. But if you can’t be bothered to return an email, or the email attached to your comment bounces, then your comment will not appear on this website.)

This does not mean that I am curtailing my satirical assaults. Nor am I attempting to enact censorship. My feeling is that everyone needs to be held accountable for what they say, and that goes for me too.

You can say anything you want about me or what I write, and I will continue to approve your comments, as I have in the past. But since I have put my name on everything I have ever written for this website, it seems only reasonable that commenters are held to the same standard. Getting into arguments with individuals who want nothing more than to fan the flames and who do not possess a set of virtues that they are simultaneously standing for is a waste of time, and it certainly doesn’t promote healthy and spirited discussion. So let’s all try to do better.

In Which I Talk with Tanenhaus

On Wednesday night, Sam Tanenhaus and I talked. I was in the middle of arguing with my colleague Levi Asher about the future of literary coverage, saying something to him about a priori arguments in relation to rumors about The Washington Post Book World. A soft voice behind us asked, “Book World?” It was Tanenhaus.

I must give Tanenhaus credit. It was a particularly freezing evening and Tanenhaus clearly wanted to go home. But he did take the time out to chit-chat.

Our discussion was fiery but civil. I had blunt words to say to him about the New York Times Book Review‘s paucity of translated fiction coverage and its poor attention to genre — particularly science fiction. (I suggested a replacement name for Dave Itzkoff when he asked.) He had blunt words to say to me about the harsh language directed his way on this blog — and there has been, much to my present shock, quite a lot of posts devoted to Tanenhaus. But any man who can tell me to my face that he doesn’t care for my work, without a cowardly online pseudonym or an entirely batshit perspective, can’t be all bad. And I certainly took no offense to anything he said.

I had approached Tanenhaus earlier in the evening, just after he had concluded a talk at Barnes & Noble. I came to him pointing out that I merely had one question, that there would be no ambush journalism on my part, and that I simply hoped he could clarify the record. Why had seven of the top ten books of 2008 been granted to Knopf? He did not know who I was initially. It could have been the beard. And while he grew visibly agitated when I told him I was Ed Champion, he did stick around a bit to answer my question.

He indicated to me that the books selection process was publisher-blind and suggested that “the readers don’t really care.” (He seemed to be insinuating that the NYTBR only cared about the “common reader.”) In a scenario in which one conglomerate dominated the top ten monopoly (in 2008, nine of the ten titles had gone to Random House), Tanenhaus was strongly against the idea of offering a level playing field in which a few titles from another publisher might fill in some of the slots. “We can’t really say to ourselves which one doesn’t fit,” said Tanenhaus. Although he did insinuate that “seven Graywolfs” would also be great, if the selection process had veered down that direction.

But what of a hypothetical alternative list that involved splitting up the top ten books among multiple publishers? Or one that considered genre? This was, in Tanenhaus’s perspective, reflective of “commerce at the center.”

I then pointed out to Tanenhaus that commerce was perhaps more “at the center” when the NYTBR placed 90% of its top ten list with one conglomerate, and noted that other newspapers had different criteria in place to present such a scenario from happening. Tanenhaus tsk-tsked this, before another guy, who looked to be either a friend or a colleague, came to rescue Tanenhaus and extract him from my inquiries.

I returned to my amigos, and we began shooting the shit about all this. I believe Eric was the first to point the predictability of Tanenhaus’s answers. But one had to try. Tanenhaus then came rushing by, looking for his coat. I then introduced Tanenhaus to Levi, notably responsible for the excellent “Reviewing the Review” weekly series. I asked Tanenhaus if he had found any of Levi’s observations helpful. He said no.

And so we left to grab drinks. I had joked that Tanenhaus’s inflexibility to other perspectives made him the “George W. Bush of the literary world” and suggested that perhaps the NYTBR “needed an Obama” to restore coverage back to the heights of John Leonard. The group then suggested that I was that Obama, and I responded that they couldn’t possibly be serious.

As it turned out, my Bush comparison was also wrong. For Tanenhaus did talk with us about twenty minutes later. He did express some regret that he hadn’t given enough space to translated titles, but he had no answers as to how or when he would do this in the future. The sense I got was that Tanenhaus was completely reliant on his editors’ respective judgments and that this judgment permitted him to do what he needed to do in an executive capacity, but prevented him from plunging first-hand into some of today’s realities. Levi brought up the rather unfunny offerings to be found in The Back Page. And Tanenhaus suggested to us that we should send him ideas on how to improve it. The Back Page was largely freelance.

Ideas? Freelance? I know damn well that there’s no way in hell that I will ever write for The New York Times Book Review, but I decided to present a mock hypothetical. What if I were to pitch him ideas? He suggested that my journalism was “irresponsible” and “defamatory.” I asked him when he had last read my blog, and he indicated it had been many years. Well, how could he be certain that everything I was writing was “irresponsible” and “defamatory?” Another editor had told him. I mentioned the 1,600 word response to Adam Sternbergh’s review of David Denby’s Snark.

Tanenhaus was stunned to learn that I had been published in other newspapers. There was a tinge of fury flushing through his face upon hearing this news, but Tanenhaus did keep things civilized. He insisted that my “defamations” were not up to the New York Times‘s “standards.” I had the feeling he had been wanting to say much of this for some time and, given that I had zinged him here multiple times, it seemed only fair to shut up and let him deliver his apparent vitriol. I pointed out that I went after all targets, and Levi and I both observed that these posts were largely satirical. Levi defended me and compared my work to Paul Krassner. A kind and humbling comparison, but I doubted that Tanenhaus had much appreciation for a yippy.

“Ad hominem” was the key term on Tanenhaus’s mind. And I pointed out that Leon Wieseltier’s review of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint was just as ad hominem as anything I had ever written in calling Baker’s novel “a scummy little book.” Ah, Tanenhaus responded, but Wieseltier was attacking the book, not the person. (I probably should have said to Tanenhaus that the definition of ad hominem involves attacking the object of the argument instead of making an effort to discredit it. Wieseltier calling Baker’s novel “a scummy little book” is just as low and pointless, a missed opportunity to explain to the reader why it doesn’t hold up as a novel.) This was where Tanenhaus remained stubborn. I had pointed out that Wieseltier’s aside about liberals vs. conservatives had very little to do with the quality of the book. Tanenhaus flatly declared that it was a tight argument.

“You don’t have to like what I do. I don’t have to like what you do,” said Tanenhaus. Fair enough. But this seemed absurd. Couldn’t we agree on a few common points?

He was particularly fixated on my “The Knopf Times Book Review” post, in which I had proposed that The New York Times Book Review had been bought and paid for by Knopf. But the words I wrote, while quite blistering, were satirical in the end. And beneath the vituperation was the telltale entreaty to Tanenhaus that he should exercise more judgment in his selection process if anyone wanted to take the New York Times Book Review seriously, with Dwight Garner’s recent work as daily book reviewer held up as a more virtuous model. (Not unlike Tanenhaus’s entreaty to me that I should stop tossing around ad hominem bombs. But Tanenhaus has admired Tom Wolfe and Joe Queenan, both writers who specialize in ad hominem. There were, of course, double standards on this question.)

In the end, I’m glad that Tanenhaus and I finally got to chat a bit. No, we’re not going to be BFF anytime soon. And I will continue to criticize the NYTBR‘s inadequacies, particularly when Tanenhaus and his team continue to perform grave injustices to covering translated fiction, debut fiction, graphic novels, and genre. But we were able to come together and have a civil disagreement and an exchange of views, and clear up a few points. That, in the end, is a healthy and constructive form of communication.

[UPDATE: Levi Asher has posted his report of the events.]

The “Save Gary Coleman” Petition!

Even though I have yet to hear back from Marcus Brauchli concerning the future of the Washington Post‘s book coverage, and not a single journalist or NBCC board member has confirmed a specific decision, I believe that the time has come to blame what nobody really knows on actor Gary Coleman.

Coleman, who once ran for California governor and is therefore thoroughly qualified to know about the Washington Post‘s internal decisions, needs to be saved. The information needs to be extracted from Coleman’s seerlike skull. And the action needs to happen now. Before Friday, January 23rd. By email. Because we all know how email gets lost and caught in spam filters. But a campaign like this sure beats sitting around and speculating. One suspects that Coleman can handle the pressure. And besides, everybody needs a scapegoat. And perhaps Coleman knows something that not even Marcus Brauchli knows. Let us always consider our strangest hunches.

Here is the plea to Gary Coleman and his editors:

“As chronic speculators and worrywarts, we write to implore you to go to Washington, DC, and kick a few asses. There are bloggers writing in Terre Haute basements who actually love what they do, and they are apparently being read and hired by some newspapers. The only solution is to beat a few people around and prevent these upstart bloggers from having the same prestige and influence of newspapers. As book critics, we have earned the right to write reviews that we believe enriches culture. Yes, it may read like the equivalent of castor oil sometimes. But it is our God-given right to pollute books section with bland and humorless drivel.

“We believe that you have important information about the newspaper business contained within your head, and that you have been rather selfish about sharing your vital data with the elitist book critics. We therefore wish to save you, so that we can save ourselves. The anemic discussion of books is vital to an elitist society. ‘James Wood defected to the New Yorker! What the fuck are we going to do?’ wrote an editor of The New Republic last year. And it is safe to say that since we do not know what the fuck we are going to do, then you will likely be in a better position to do something about it. We checked in our spines with our coats at last night’s book party.

“We call on you to preserve the Washington Post‘s books coverage, and to give it all to the dullest critics now working in America. We also call on you to ensure that not a single idiosyncratic voice or blogger will ever write for its pages again.”

(Photo: Eek! Online. For more petitions of the “Eek!” variety, go here.)

Episode XLIV: A New Hope

obamapresToday is the beginning of a new epoch. The slate is clean, the road ahead is paved with shrapnel, and the body language between the Obamas and the Bushes just before their preinaugural coffee is wonderfully comical. While I retain my hearty skepticism about politics, I can say, without reservation, that I am very proud to be an American right now. The last eight years nearly destroyed my faith in government, transformed me into something of a fiery curmudgeon in matters pertaining to politics, and made me wonder if we could ever set this country straight. But this morning, upon seeing Obama walk into the White House, there was one overwhelming and seemingly inconceivable thought: My god, this man will be our President.

Let us hope that he will not blow it. Let us also hope that the American people will live up to the tenets of the Constitution and consider every decision made by President Obama, who possesses every sign that he will be a first-class communicator. I believe that President Obama will be transparent about his actions and atone for the last guy, who was secretive and uncooperative and will almost certainly have a lonely existence for the rest of his days. It is a faith that I place today and that may be discarded tomorrow, for I will be watching the new guy like a hawk. Nevertheless, I can’t even begin to describe what the climate shift means. We have moved from an obdurate-minded autocrat to a man who may have ushered in a new political era of national concert and civil disagreement.

My nation has snapped out of an eight-year nightmare. Let us hope that this will translate into a new age of maturity and civilization. Let us learn from our mistakes and emerge stronger than we were before.

I’m Feeling Lucky About My Google Job

From a fascinating collection of emails from former Google employees:

In one TGIF in Kirkland, an employee informed Eric Schmidt that Microsoft’s benefits package was richer. He announced himself
genuinely surprised, which genuinely surprised me. Schmidt, in the presence of witnesses, promised to bring the benefits to a par. He consulted HR, and HR informed him that it’d cost Google 22 million a year to do that. So he abandoned the promise and fell back on his tired, familiar standby (”People don’t work at Google for the money. They work at Google because they want to change the world!”). A statement that always seemed to me a little Louis XIV coming from a billionaire.

A company that generates several billions of dollars a year in profit — that reported revenues of $5.54 billion during the third quarter of 2008 — is, from the perspective of CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt, a man who earns a $1 annual salary but who owns more than 10.7 million shares of Google, considered a place where people work simply because they “want to change the world.”

From Emerson’s “Compensation”:

Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse. It is to answer for its moderation with its life. For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner. Nature hates monopolies and exceptions. The waves of the sea do not more speedily seek a level from their loftiest tossing, than the varieties of condition tend to equalize themselves. There is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with all others.

NBCC Rumormongers About Washington Post

Late Friday, the National Book Critics Circle demonstrated its commitment to accuracy by reporting a rumor that The Washington Post Book World was closing up shop. Instead of picking up the phone or talking directly with the appropriate people at the Washington Post or committing any elementary act of journalism, Eric Banks saw fit to create a wave of panic through the online world by suggesting that “a reliable source” was reporting that Marcus Brauchli was recommending to the board that Book World be eliminated. The unconfirmed rumor was likewise disseminated by Scott McLemee, who claimed that “a prominent young American historian” had told him the same thing.

By the way, a dancing leprechaun has been tapping me on my shoulder all afternoon about this. I know he doesn’t work at the Post, but trust me, he’s right about all this, even if he still can’t find his Lucky Charms.

All this, of course, was erroneous. Because nothing has been announced and nothing has been confirmed directly with the appropriate people. And Brauchli was then forced to email Jane Ciabattari to set the record straight. He informed Ciabattari, “We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas.”

And instead of Ciabattari, McLemee, and Banks offering an apology for reporting a false rumor, or even putting up a retraction so that readers would know that the news was phony, Ciabattari merely annotated her post with a doubting “Fingers crossed.” When, in fact, it has not been established by anyone that The Washington Post Book World will be closing up shop.

For what it’s worth, I have contacted individuals at the Washington Post in an effort to obtain correct information about what is going on. Rather than dealing with third-hand information or playing a game of telephone, I think it’s important for all “journalists” to stick with established facts. Should I learn anything hard and specific, I will certainly report it here. It’s worth pointing out that what Brauchli may have in mind is similar to what happened with the Los Angeles Times: folding the current material into the daily sections. But since I haven’t heard anything from anyone, all we have right now is speculation. I invite Mr. Brauchli to contact me directly, in an effort to confirm any short-term or long-term plans for what he has in store for his newspaper.

[UPDATE: Politico’s Michael Calderone is claiming that “[h]igh-level discussions about ending Book World have indeed taken place, according to a Post source with knowledge of the talks.”]

[UPDATE 2: Sources within The Washington Post indicate that some reorganization is now in effect and that all inquiries on this subject need to be directed to Marcus Brauchli.]

How Jane Smiley Outfoxed Coherence

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote a 1,672-page novel about horse racing. Though I portrayed an array of upper-class characters and still remain more than a bit mystified by the thoughts and sentiments of the working class, it was easy for me — indeed, perhaps easier — to declare to all of my rich friends in Napa that I was a good liberal, and to always point to my work in defense of this claim. My fiction always informed my readers just how much I cared. I adored Latinos because I adored my Latino apprentice-jockey’s jaunty buttocks. And sometimes, I’d even drag out the Sybian just after pounding out a chapter. It was the only way for me to understand how not to be white, how not to be upper-class, how not to be a humorless twit.

To demonstrate my commitment to multiculturalism, I wrote a lengthy chapter describing how my character’s brown buttocks bounced atop a horse’s brown buttocks. Perhaps the ass-on-ass action here could help me to understand precisely how these people felt. After all, their skin was browner than mine. And although I had tried dying my skin like John Howard Griffin with catastrophic results, the Latinos had been so helpful to me over the years — cleaning my restaurant tables, working on my yard, toiling for very little cash. I figured that I could be helpful to them through the power of fiction.

I didn’t mind the charges that came later, because everyone in the novel was engaged in a single enterprise, and therefore I could become a distinguished critic and a legend in my own mind.

The last eight years blasted that all out of my head. Bush had been elected specifically to smite my fiction. While my friends (some of them no longer my friends) suggested that this clear evidence was something akin to that hack novelist Philip K. Dick’s paranoid delusions, they were wrong. (Lethem is crazier than that hack chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner if he wishes to afford Mr. Dick a few laurels, although I do like the sound of his surname.) I would read the newspapers and see that every policy maneuver contained some veiled horse reference. Indeed, the Bush Cabinet failed to appreciate the smooth and alluring curvature of a Latino man’s buttocks.

Horse Purgatory remains my favorite of all my novels. Wild Latino Stallions, A Million Acres, and Ordinary Lust & Good Will Hunting remain close seconds. But these novels were written before I discovered the salient connections between Bush and my writing. I wonder if my political awakening of the last eight years will prevent me from fully appreciating a Latino man’s character and prowess, much less anything outside the muddled cacophonies within my own head.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Although every novel is political and multicultural, and you’re just going to have to take my word on this without an example because I am, after all, Jane Smiley, good novels always feature long descriptions of a Latino apprentice-jockey’s buttocks. A Harlequin romance sells better than David Copperfield, and it’s because of those steamy descriptions. And now that Obama is about to be inaugurated, can we all go back to reading John Cleland’s Fanny Hill?

The key to whether Obama truly reforms the way our culture works is whether or not he can encourage more novelists to write lengthy novels about horse racing. There has been much talk of creating a new version of the Federal Writers Project, and I agree with this idea, but only if it involves more horse writing and only if it involves more buttocks.

I am, quite frankly, a bit clueless about what fiction has to do with politics. But having an uninformed opinion certainly hasn’t stopped me before. So I’ll just say this: Shakespeare progressed from tragedy to romance. Never mind that his most martial play, Coriolanus, came four mere years before The Tempest. The great thing about reframing literature in political terms is that one can conveniently skirt around common sense.

With this in mind, I hope to write more novels featuring descriptions of bouncing buttocks. I thank Obama for making this all possible.

When Is a Bar Not a Bar?

It changes its hours, its temperament, and its reasons for existing faster than the seasons. Faster than some contemporary hostler can rustle up fresh horses or the unseen manager can replace fleeing steeds who take legal tender while tending behind the isthmus separating employee from customer. There are some moments during the year when it serves coffee, and other moments when it dumps these java options in favor of more alcoholic ones. (The latter scenario is the present option. It has resulted in others fleeing to more dependable joints where coffee has been a regular option for at least six months.) The place has a perfectly respectable architecture that possesses hospitable potential: plentiful tables to talk or to read, a tawny aura that isn’t likely to be profiled in Architectural Digest anytime soon, but that might work with the right clientele and the right management. Unfortunately, for those who hope to stay, there’s a revolving door in place: those who own the joint and those who run the joint are fresh-faced neophytes who emerge every two months. And you never know where the previous folks went, even when you ask around. It’s safe to say that this constant confusion about what this place is exactly doesn’t permit a hearty staple of neighborhood regulars. Without even a shred of permanence, it remains a house devoted to transients. And it inexplicably survives.

This establishment blames its current woes on the economy, which was why it recently ejected coffee from its beverage repertoire and truncated its hours. But you can find four or five boisterous talkers on any weeknight itching to turn the place seedy. And one senses a certain resistance to this not entirely unsavory option from the staff, for you can almost always hear them them bitching about crazed drunks and lonely eccentrics who they had to eject.

The folks who hang out at this place are almost never from the neighborhood. They come from SoHo, Queens, and sometimes Inglewood. A few arrive late after watching strippers at the Slipper Room, and deliver fleshy reports to anyone who will listen. A large television is behind the bar, mostly muted. Like most bars, it’s a point of reference for anyone who can’t find some topic to talk about. And there are always things to talk about. Just check your brain in at the door and concentrate on small talk.

Perhaps this place is some outre port in the storm. The place that nobody knows about or cares to acknowledge. The place where anyone who walks in and carries some sign of living somewhere within a five-block radius is viewed with a natural suspicion.

I don’t wish to name this place. There’s a perfectly wonderful bar that I could go to a few blocks down the street, but I’ve long had a soft spot for the underdogs. I am fascinated by this bar’s almost total failure as a business and as a place of natural community, but I likewise harbor some small hope that it will figure itself out. It could very well be that the anxiety now in the national air — the transition from a dopey president who seems as unstoppable as Friday the 13th‘s Jason to a guy who might actually do something — has affected its staff and customers. Or it could very well be that those in the neighborhood are “wiser” than I am, going to the sensible spots where their evenings will be predictable successes. But this seems too easy an option in a city with one of the swiftest gentrification rates in the known world.

I don’t know how long this place will last, but I hope to carry on attending. I suspect I have some modest aspirations as a flâneur. Or perhaps I’m simply waiting around or hoping to instigate some moment in which the people of New York City finally throw off the shackles.

RIP Patrick McGoohan

Patrick McGoohan changed the way I looked at television. Before McGoohan, I had believed that television was merely a medium devoted to passing entertainments. But when I first caught an episode of The Prisoner playing out its surreal madness through a fuzzy black-and-white Samsung television at a very young and impressionable age, I realized that television could transform into a medium that grabbed you by the throat and had you pondering the mechanics and complexities of the larger world. McGoohan was the guy who proved without question that television was art. He created mesmerizing landscapes and provoked without apology. There were always fascinating motivations behind his creative decisions. Who were the strange guys sitting behind the Rover shrine at the end of “Free for All?” Why did McGoohan heighten the ends of certain sentences in his lines? He was often an eccentric actor, but he was always interesting and he refused to explain himself. To some degree, he was the thinking man’s Robert Mitchum.

It certainly helped that, as an actor, McGoohan played the consummate badass. Nearly every kid I knew who had seen The Prisoner wanted to be McGoohan. They wanted to build a kickass boat out of a faux artistic sculpture. They wanted to enter a room and not take any shit. McGoohan’s characters did all this without a gun.

As both Number Six and John Drake, McGoohan had one of the most commanding presences I have ever observed in a television actor. His fierce eyes, buried beneath his tall forehead, would shoot laser beams through the glass, demanding that you do something. Because he sure as hell was going to do something. So why couldn’t you? McGoohan smiled when he damn well felt like it, which was rarely. But he would crack that telltale grin every so often, letting you know that you could be in on the joke, if you had the smarts and the instincts to keep up. When McGoohan exploded in a furious rage, which was quite often, he had the talent of making you believe that the feral act was somehow rational.

Underneath his brazenness, McGoohan was a first-class entertainer, both as an actor and a writer-director. He had the rebellious courage to know damn well what he wanted. It wasn’t James Bond (which he turned down twice). And it sure as hell wasn’t playing John Drake forever. Instead, he used his status to produce one of the best television programs ever made. The episodes that he wrote, directed, and acted in had McGoohan dipping into wild surrealism (“Fallout”), devastating political satire (“Free for All”), and Beckett-like power plays (“Once Upon a Time” — see above clip).

Hollywood didn’t know what to do with McGoohan, but he stayed busy on episodes of Columbo (many of which he also directed) and appeared in a short-lived series as the brilliant detective Dr. Sid Rafferty. He was possibly too smart for the film industry, but he wasn’t too stodgy to send up his most famous creation in an episode of The Simpsons.

McGoohan was a maverick in a medium that prides itself on conformity and the lowest common denominator. But his fierce determination to make television better inspired other creative forces to turn out smarter material. For this, we have McGoohan to thank and his output over the years to marvel at.

Review: Blessed is the Match

seneshThe most truthful moment contained within Roberta Grossman’s documentary, Blessed is the Match, comes from parachutist Reuven Dafni. Dafni reveals, in what Grossman bills as his final interview, that he did not like the widely celebrated Hannah Senesh very much, but that he admired her stubbornness. One is curious to know why. But the question is never asked.

It is this journalistic diffidence that prevents Grossman’s documentary from being anything more than a helpful yet tendentious refresher course for those who wish to learn more about the intriguing Senesh. The film, littered with spoon-fed “recreations” of existing photos, Indiana Jones-style animated trails across maps, and Joan Allen’s stately, Oscar-nominated voice reading Catherine Senesh’s writings, chooses to present Hannah Senesh as a martyr, but doesn’t make any serious efforts to ask whether Senesh’s martyrdom was premeditated, or whether history has the right to judge Senesh’s life almost exclusively from her final days. All this is a pity and a missed opportunity. For are not noble actions committed without the expectation of credit? If Senesh set herself up to be a martyr, and there exists some possibility that she did, is there not more wisdom to be found crawling around the gray areas?

Senesh, of course, is known for her courage in parachuting into Yugoslavia, working her way to Nazi-occupied Hungary to rescue imprisoned Jews, only to be captured by Arrow Cross soldiers and systematically tortured in prison. But Senesh offered hope to her fellow inmates, singing songs and flashing vital signals with a mirror through her cell window. She communicated to her fellow inmates that there was indeed an end in sight, and Senesh did all this while brutal interrogators continued to beat her, punching out her teeth, and bringing her mother into the cell in an attempt to loosen the information.

Senesh did not talk. Her mother, Catherine, wandered up and down the streets of Budapest hoping to obtain her release. But despite Hannah’s reported eloquence before the judges during her tribunal, she was tried for treason and executed.

It is difficult to argue against the idea that Senesh espoused bravery. But Senesh was also a human being, flawed as human beings are. In 1939, she emigrated to Palestine to attend the Nahalal Agricultural School. Grossman presents but smooths over the fact that Senesh skipped town just after the First Jewish Law was passed in 1938, which restricted the number of Jews employed in liberal vocations to 20%. Known as a precocious intellectual among her largely upper-class peers in Budapest, the documentary informs us that Senesh wrote haughtily back to her family that she could put her abilities to better use. We are also informed that Senesh was exceptionally idealistic, but that she kept largely to herself and couldn’t share any of her concerns with others in the kibbutz. But instead of examining all this through interviews with surviving members of Senesh’s family, or even “recreating” these flawed moments, we’re given a film with an inflexible and somewhat primitive perspective, all set to Todd Boekelheide’s heavy-handed orchestral music.

Here is a fascinating and complex figure who deserves better than the Biography Channel treatment. Sir Martin Gilbert lends some gravitas to the project, providing extremely useful historical context. But what’s troubling about this film is that, long before the film is over, the audience has already made up its mind about Senesh’s virtues. As the current atrocities in Gaza cause any feeling mind to draw uncomfortable parallels with other historical actions, Blessed is the Match arrives in theaters without an ability to expand its perspective beyond simplistic good vs. evil dichotomies. With the high watermarks established by Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann, this is a film terrified of offending and presenting, and not altogether different from hundreds of other Holocaust documentaries.

Coming in March


For those readers who have enjoyed our lengthy roundtable discussions of Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, and various other books, let it be known that, during the first week of March, this website will be devoting an entire week to another elaborate roundtable discussion. (There will likely be a quite lengthy podcast interview as a supplement to the discussion.) The novel in question, which we will reveal at some point in February, comes from a writer you may not have heard of. (Indeed, it has been surprising to discover just how many have not heard of this writer.) But I can tell you this: the writer is ambitious, the writer has written several books pertaining to one character, and the writer is very much interested in the relationship between text and reality. There will be more details when we get closer to the date.

Conversations In the Book Trade

Deadlines and line dancing which pertains to deadlines will keep me occupied for the better part of today. So pardon the silence while I clack away on the keyboard. In the meantime, I should observe that Finn Harvor has managed to extract some possibly interesting answers from me on the publishing industry, e-books, the Internet, which mediums work best for fiction, online bookstores, literary agents, and numerous other topics.

(Also, as both the Washington Post‘s Bob Thompson and The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich observed this morning, the NEA’s outgoing chairman Dana Gioia seems to believe that the rise in blogs and online reading over the past five years had no effect on the rise in American fiction reading, but had everything to do with The Big Read program. What next? Will Gioia be attempting to persuade us that he invented the Internet? I also love how the NEA’s smugness, emerging from research director Sunil Iyengar in the Thompson article, is on full display in relation to genre. “Literary” doesn’t imply “highbrow,” says Iyengar. And that goes for mysteries, which the report recognized as the most popular genre. Well, considering that Kipen and company were actively pushing The Maltese Falcon as one of the Big Read choices last year, it seems to me that the NEA is eating a cold bowl of hypocritical stew.)