Ragtime (Modern Library #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Old Wives’ Tale)

In 1975, the New York Times‘s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt initiated his review with this typically hyperbolic sentence: “E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ is a highly original experiment in historical fiction.” Unfortunately, because Lehmann-Haupt possessed middling erudition, he could not ken that Doctorow had, in fact, ripped off Heinrich von Kleist for his novel’s most memorable character.

In a 1978 interview with Jared Lubarsky, Doctorow declared, “I realized as I went along that the model for this book, in terms of its narrative distance, was the chronicle fiction of the German master Heinrich von Kleist. His novella ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ was very much in my mind when I found the black man Coalhouse Walker, driving up the hill in his Ford.” In 1983, Doctorow was somewhat more honest about his carjacking with the notably sharper Larry McCaffery:

Several years ago my wife related a true story she’d heard about a housemaid in our neighborhood who bore a child and then buried it in a garden. I knew when I heard this I’d use it someday. I found myself using it in Ragtime, where I never knew in advance what was going to happen. Suddenly there was Mother discovering the little brown newborn in the flower bed. There was Sarah coming to live in the house with this baby. Obviously, she would have tried to kill the child only from overwhelming despair or sense of betrayal. So there had to be a father. I had introduced Houdini driving up Broadview Avenue. He came along in his shining Ford, an older man, and he said, “I’m looking for a young woman of color.” Where had he been? I decided he was a musician, a man who lived on the road, going where he found work. Now he was back to make amends. He starts to court Sarah and when she refuses to see him, he plays the piano for the family in their parlor. And that’s how I found the central image of the book. Then I began to think about the implications of a black man owning his own car in the early 1900’s. I knew Sarah would forgive him and they would be reconciled. But that car: What would happen to that lovely car of his is what happened to Michael Kohlhaas’s horses. I had always wanted to rework the circumstances of Kleist’s story. I felt the premise was obviously relevant, appropriate — the idea of a man who cannot find justice from a society that claims to be just. So there it was — I’d finally found the use for that legend I’d hoped to find — but not until the moment I needed it.

Yet four years later, in a Yale Vernacular interview with Liesl Schillinger, Doctorow downplayed “reworking the circumstances” to being “very much inspired by Kleist.” And in a 1988 interview with Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz, Doctorow would identify his theft as “a quite deliberate hommage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time.” That same year, Doctorow would offer an altogether different defense to Winifred Farrant Bevilacqua: “somewhere along the line as I was writing Ragtime I realized I was writing chronicle-fiction with a certain mocking or ironic tone but nevertheless with the same distance with the characters that you find in chronicle-fiction, that is to say, a distance not as great as a historian, not as close as the post-Flaubertian novelist, but somewhere in the middle and maybe that’s why I remembered that I’d always wanted to use ‘Michael Kohlhass’ in some way, it was a story for me.” But by 1997, Doctorow (sounding more like Cory than Edgar) said to Michael Silverblatt, “The source of what you use finally doesn’t matter….The sources don’t matter as much as the act of composing.”

As The New York Observer noted on March 23, 1998, there was clearly more going on than composing. Doctorow had ripped off many key elements of “Kohlhaas.” Both Kohlhaas and Coalhouse are stopped by men who demand toll. Both figures seek a vigilante form of justice, enlisting men to their eventual deaths when denied proper recourse. Both feature the horse and the car returned in perfect condition. Doctorow’s Booker Washington fills in for Kleist’s Martin Luther. Both feature very specific imagery of significant others receiving a blow to the chest from a weapon (and, as the Observer points out with its citations, the passages from both narratives are quite similar).

But let us inform our good thief Edgar why the sources do matter. According to Broadway World, the 1998 Broadway adaptation of Ragtime grossed close to $80 million during its two year run. The 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime, which featured a working Model T automobile (the very story element that Doctorow ripped off and altered for his use) as a dominant part of the set, grossed more than $5 million. Not bad for a musical that was budgeted at $11 million and faced declining revenue due to the recession. That’s an $85 million gross over a little more than a decade on a musical based on a novel that ripped off another narrative. If Doctorow can be compared to a robber baron (in Ragtime, he does seem strangely at home writing about JP Morgan and Henry Ford), it’s a remarkably barren robbery.

Doctorow would prove quite defensive and more than a bit smug when called on the carpet more directly. “I find it surprising that this is being brought up 22 years after the event,” he would tell the Observer, seemingly not seeing why a highly successful Broadway adaptation might shine a brighter Klieg on the Kleist pillaging. “I have a sense of a readership that is sophisticated and understands how literature works. There are others who may be naïve about that. And that naïveté is taught by example.”

* * *

But was the 1975 novel really all that sophisticated? I read Ragtime twice for this essay. While I enjoyed it slightly more on the second read, I had severe doubts about Doctorow respecting a readership who “understands how literature works.” Ragtime‘s parody of a junior high school textbook grew tedious. I do everything in my power to accept a book for what it is (Updike’s Rules for Reviewing and all), but I wanted to feel these figures rather than look upon them as one-dimensional. Even Harold Bloom, writing in an introduction for a 2004 study guide, confessed that Ragtime “is far from being Doctorow’s most eminent work.” Was Ragtime a second-rate Doctorow?

Nearly four decades after its publication, one of the book’s biggest surprises is how patronizing Doctorow is. Above all, Doctorow is driven by the need to repeat and explain, as if his readership is a simpering mass of small children, perhaps plagued by amnesia or an uncanny inability to look up a vaguely arcane word, that he must speak down to. We are introduced to “the famous architect Stanford White” in the first chapter. A mere two chapters later, Jacob Riis decides to “interview the eminent architect.” Two chapters after that, we encounter Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who is “throwing a commemorative ball in honor of her friend the late Stanford White, the architect of her home. He had designed her home in the style of a doge palace. A doge was the chief magistrate in the republic of Genoa or Venice.”

It’s regrettable that this generic repetition extends to generic and sometimes cartoonish character description. Of the great Booker T. Washington, we are offered this redundancy: “He was an orator and his voice was strong.” Of Houdini, Doctorow writes, “Pound for pound he was as strong as any man he had ever run up against.” That’s pulpish, but somewhat fair. So why then do we need to be explicitly reminded about this already established strength only two sentences later? “He was immensely muscular and agile and professionally courageous.”

Of a strike, Doctorow offers this homely description: “The bosses want you weak, therefore you have to be strong. The people who will help us today will need our help tomorrow.” The reader who flips the next page will read the page that comes after this one. E.L. Doctorow has written a masterpiece. He has written a masterpiece because the book is on the Modern Library list. The Modern Library list, which is still regarded highly by certain literary geeks, is one method of locating masterpieces. Autistic readers are most welcome. Insert your logical fallacy or your X=Y observation of choice here.

Doctorow’s doggerel is hardly confined to phrases or sentences. Here is the man attempting to mythologize American heft as Taft ascends to the White House:

All over the country men began to look at themselves. They were used to drinking great quantities of beer. They customarily devoured loaves of bread and ate prodigiously of the sausage meats of poured offal that lay on the lunch counters of the saloons. The august Pierpont Morgan would routinely consume seven- and eight-course dinners. He ate breakfasts of steak and chops, eggs, pancakes, broiled fish, rolls and butter, fresh fruit and cream. The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime.

If this is deliberate comedy, then it becomes tedious by the third sentence and spoiled by the fifth sentence’s desperate laundry list retreat. If this is intended as literature, then the third sentence’s passive voice and eyesore adverb infringes upon lexical decency. If this is intended as wisdom, then the concluding homily is no different from a barfly’s botched wisdom.

There’s also something of a creepy misogyny running ragged through Ragtime. It’s there early on in the lurid manner with which Harry Thaw demands proof of his wife’s “devotion and it turned out nothing else would do but a fellatio.” But not long after we first meet Emma Goldman, Doctorow depicts Goldman giving Evelyn Nesbit a sensual massage with dimebag imagery: “Goldman rubbed the oil into her skin until her body found its own natural rosy white being and began to stir with self-perception.” Mother’s Younger Brother, who has been stalking Nesbit, bursts out of the closet mid-jerk, firing off “great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like fallng ticker tape.” As if this silly masturbatory fantasy isn’t enough, Evelyn is next seen taking Mother’s Younger Brother as her new lover. The reason? “It was characteristic of Evelyn that she could not resist someone who was strongly attracted to her.”

And it is characteristic of Doctorow that, with the possible exception of Mother (and even this is dubious, as I shall soon demonstrate), he cannot write about women without objectifying them. Mameh, wife to Tateh, is forced to let her landlord “have his way on a cutting table” and is never seen again. When Evelyn eventually leaves Mother’s Younger Brother, she is never heard from again. Why can’t these women be interesting or useful to the narrative outside of the boudoir? Sarah, lover to Coalhouse Walker, spends most of her time mute and sequestered from the family when Coalhouse arrives. We do see Sarah laughing not long after a fortuitous development, but her happiness flows “in the milk of her breasts.” When Sarah finally does speak, she is bludgeoned by thugs. (And, again, keep in mind that this one-dimensional character is Doctorow’s appropriation from Kleist.)

Doctorow would likely defend such slips as a wry reflection of history’s male-centric sweep (“something I was always planning to do”), from which the narrative “we” (which undoubtedly includes the mysterious boy digging through trash at the family hotel) likely originates from. But when I remembered how William Kennedy’s Ironweed (a much superior novel) worked a time period and a setting somewhat close to Ragtime without this fatal flaw, I became even more bothered by Doctorow’s dickering. Even after her apparent transformation into someone slightly more autonomous, Mother is viewed with her underclothes sticking to her limbs, “recognized in her wet form the ample woman in the Winslow Homer painting who is being rescued from the sea by towline.” Why couldn’t Doctorow, a novelist who clearly loved writing about Houdini’s escape or Theodore Dreiser adjusting his seating position, find his own precise way out of this patriarchal predicament? If history is merely an alluring flipbook of silhouettes to find one’s fortunes and invent a baronetcy (the true underlying pull in this novel), then surely the decent thing for a novelist to do — even one claiming to specialize in mock chronicle-fiction — is to avoid having one’s German chocolate cake and eating it too.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim!

The Bat Segundo Show: Anne Enright

Anne Enright appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #417. She is most recently the author of The Forgotten Waltz.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Troublesomely willing to sign on the dotted line.

Author: Anne Enright

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel as a minute allegory of the Celtic Tiger, Gresham’s law, books with shifting moral alignment, marriage as a financial relationship, punctuation and subordinate clauses in prose, David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, people who interrupt each other, male and female dialogue, Enright being one of the great penis chroniclers in contemporary literature, the hydraulics of hard-ons, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” The Gathering vs. The Forgotten Waltz, flesh and fat in fiction, how women think about anatomy, stigmas against women writers, how character names can be used to describe fraught relationships, unsuccessful attempts to find a sexy Irish name for a man, Australian men, material that Enright would not write about, Catholicism and blasphemy, the specific conditions it takes to earn an injury, the relationship between spirituality and sensuality, Leonard Cohen, reflections and looks within Enright’s fiction, interior and exterior description, whether the world would be better if it were run by 12-year-old girls, characters who cling to what remains of youth, candid moments, the repression of consciousness, being blatant through the spirit of omission, faux partitive noun phrases, “the luxury of the kiss,” the origins of the character name Fiarcha, bountiful character populations in a novel, and old-fashioned knowledge.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all ask you about the notion of this book possibly serving as a mini-allegory or a minute allegory. I noted that there was the Gresham Hotel, which nicely mimics Gresham’s law in this book. And there were a number of lines about the acquisition of things. Flirting with someone just to flirt with someone. So I have to ask how you honed the right amount of allegory for this. Or was that even important? Was it kind of a bonus that came to your interesting series of squabbles here?

Enright: Yeah. I think the thing about allegories is that they stay still. And what I wanted to do was to write a book that shifted morally. So it was more morally poised than an allegory might be. So it’s a book that can be read by the likes of the readers themselves. So whatever the reader thinks of Gina Moynihan, who is the central character and who is either a woman in love, wonderfully in love, or a homewrecker — depending on your point of view. So I wanted the readers to maybe even shift their points of view about what Gina’s up to. So it does parallel the boom in Ireland. So there is a kind of allegorical content there for adultery, that feeling of just getting what you want, of getting away with it, was very suitable to Ireland in the last ten years before the boom. When there was so much glee and a kind of fantasy and a kind of denial that was going on. Also a huge amount of belief. You had to believe. If you didn’t believe in the economic miracle, you were kind of heretic, you know? Because if you take belief out of the system, there’s nothing left. There’s only debt and not money anymore. It’s a confidence trick. So I thought all of that was brilliant for an adulterous affair. Because you’re living at two levels at the same time, which was pretty much what people were doing.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is that it is money that has Gina and Conor marrying. Which I found to be an interesting choice. Gina’s view in terms of her relationships — whether it is Conor or Sean — is very much predicated upon, well, it happens to be there. And so this leads me to ask if this kind of moral concern predated the alignment with the Celtic Tiger and the like.

Enright: Money is both important and interesting. It’s also quite highly taboo. People don’t talk about their money. They think about money all the time. And they never or rarely articulate their relationship with money. Yeah. Gina and Conor get a mortgage almost before they get the wedding reception. But that was the reality. That is the reality in Ireland as it was. And I think in many places in the Western world, it was hard to find a place. And it was better to find a place if you were with somebody else. And I think marriage is also a financial relationship.

Correspondent: Yes.

Enright: Whether it’s primarily a financial relationship is — well, that varies from couple to couple. But I don’t think it was primarily here. I mean, Gina, she’s quite materialistic. But she’s not a greedy girl. I mean, she does think about money. But she’s not relentlessly acquisitive. It’s just that wanting is problematic when money is involved.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask about the use of commas and dashes throughout the prose.

Enright: Oh! Nightmare!

Correspondent: A nightmare?

Enright: My nightmare! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting because it does lend itself to a very conversational voice. But on the other hand, thinking of like The New York Times Book Review where you can always spot where they’ve edited it, where they have the dash and some sort of subordinate clause and then the dash, I’m curious as to how this worked for you. Whether some of these dashes and commas and various thoughts entered into the editing or were they there from the get go?

Enright: It was always a painful decision about punctuation. Gina is addicted to qualifications, subordinate clauses. A little bit more, a little on the side. The sentences don’t run really simply. It mirrors the way people think. I have a real problem, and I’m going to confess it to you now, with the run-on sentence and the semicolon. But I do like putting a clause in the middle of a sentence to disturb it a little.

Correspondent: The dashes, I suppose, are a more pure unit than say the colon.

Enright: Yes, they are. And they give a bit of space on the page. I like typing. Because I like the rhythm of typing. To me, it’s like dancing on a sprung floor. I like a bit of trip and a bit of rhythm in the prose. Because my narrators are often not omniscient. They don’t know exactly what the end of the sentence is. I like to surprise. I like to see their surprise as their thoughts leap along.

Correspondent: It would seem to me that this more free-form approach to prose will probably lend you to discover more about the characters.

Enright: For sure. But all the time, the content for me is a kind of given. And all the time, I’m trying to make the cadences and the rhythms somehow beautiful. And somehow to get the emotion and the poignancy into that rhythm. I mean, that to me is what it’s all about. And so I love the spoken voice on the page. I love the challenge of it. I mean, if you put a tape recorder on someone, they don’t speak in sentences.

Correspondent: Sure.

Enright: And the prose. Of course, even if you write in realistic type, first-person, it’s a mannered thing. David Mamet. There’s a guy who I love to read as well as…

Correspondent: The earlier Mamet. Not the more recent one. (laughs)

Enright: The earlier Mamet. And, you know, I worked in the theater very early on. And Caryl Churchill as well. Do you know Churchill puts a forward slash before interruptions?

Correspondent: Yes.

Enright: People interrupting each other on stage. Which is actually the way women talk. They rap off each other. It’s more improvisational. A kind of jazz thing that they do. So they’re always interrupting each other. Men are slightly more territorial about their speech. I’d love to be able to do that on the page. But, you know, it would wreck people’s head.

The Bat Segundo Show #417: Anne Enright (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Roger Corman

Roger Corman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #416. In addition to directing some of the most memorable and entertaining drive-in movies of the 20th century (among many other accomplishments), he is most recently the subject of a new documentary called Corman’s World, which is now playing film festivals and is set for release on December 16.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Not of this earth.

Guest: Roger Corman

Subjects Discussed: Corman’s infamous cost-cutting measures, unusual marriage proposals, bloated corporations, Occupy Wall Street, comparisons between Zuccotti Park and 1960s protests, keeping tabs on pop culture, not giving stars and directors a few bucks to stay around, Easy Rider, the philosophy behind the Corman university, picking people on instinct and the qualities that Corman looks for in a potential talent, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, directors who move up the ladder, The Intruder, why Corman didn’t make explicit socially conscious films after 1962, financing pictures with your own money, the financial risks of being ahead of the curve, looking for subtext in the nurses movies, the sanctimony of Stanley Kramer, Peter Biskind’s “one for me, one for them” idea, simultaneous exploitation and empowerment, the minimum amount of intelligence that an exploitation film has to contain, throwing calculated failures into a production slate, distributing Bergman and Fellini through New World, why Corman believes it was impossible to produce and distribute independent art house movies in the United States in the 1960s and the 1970s, the importance of film subsidies, why Corman gave up directing, Von Richthofen and Brown, the allure of Galway Bay, getting bored while attempting to take time off, the beginnings of New World, the many breasts in Corman’s films, Annabelle Gurwitch’s “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Bimbo,” targeted incidental nudity opportunities, enforcing nudity clauses in contracts, questioning why actresses can’t be sexy without taking their tops off, Rosario Dawson, the undervalued nature of contemporary films, and Corman’s thoughts on how future filmmakers can be successful.


Correspondent: I have to get into your eccentric temperament right from the get-go. There is a moment in this documentary where your wife Julie confesses that you proposed to her. And she said yes. Then you disappeared for a week into the Philippines. And she tried to get in touch with you and finally did get in touch with you and asked, “Well, is the marriage still on?” And you said, “Oh yes, of course.” Your justification was, well, you didn’t want to pay the expense of long-distance telephone. I told this story to my partner and I thought it was amusing. But she was absolutely horrified by this. And this leads me to ask if the notorious reputation you have for aggressive cost-cutting, perhaps one of the finest cost-cutters in the history of cinema — well, how much does this lead into your personal life? And your private life? I mean, surely, when you’re talking about sweethearts and fiancées, you can afford to spend at least a buck or something. I mean, come on!

Corman: Well, that story is possibly true. But the fact of the matter is I’d been in the jungle. At that time, there were no phones. So that was the real reason for the call.

Correspondent: That was the real reason. But this does raise an interesting question. I mean, under what circumstances will you, in fact, pay the regrettable cost of maintaining a relationship like this? Whether it be professional or private.

Corman: Well, I would have to divide that into two answers. Privately, and particularly with my wife and children, I’m much more liberal in spending than I’d ever been on films. On films, I really watch every penny.

Correspondent: Yes. But are there any circumstances you’ve regretted? Either spending extra money or not spending the dollar? Or not spending the dime so to speak?

Corman: I don’t think I regret any overspending. I think, once or twice, I should have let pictures go a little longer and spent a little bit more. These were pictures that were coming in on budget and on schedule. I might have added a couple of extra days to the shooting schedule. But I felt this was a fifteen day schedule. This is the thirteenth day. I have to make a decision. We’re going to shoot it in fifteen days. In retrospect, had I gone to sixteen or seventeen, the additional quality — for lack of a better word — might have been greater than the expenditure.

Correspondent: Well, what’s the cost-benefit analysis for this quality to spending ratio that you’ve devised over the years? Is it largely instinctual? Is it largely looking aggressively at the books? What of this?

Corman: It’s a combination of all of the above, plus just the calculation. I’m always looking for the greatest quality. I’ve done pictures — The Little Shop of Horrors — in two and a half days. I did that with very little money. But I did the best possible job I could do with the amount of money. So I’m looking for the highest possible quality. But since I back my pictures with my own money, which is something you’re never supposed to do, I have to be certain — well, I shouldn’t say certain. I have to have a reasonable guess that I’m going to come out of this one okay.

Correspondent: Do you think that such brutal, Spartan-like tendencies might be applied to, oh say, balancing the federal budget? Or perhaps creating a more efficient Department of Defense? Do you have any ideas on this?

Corman: Well, I believe that it isn’t just the federal government. I believe large corporations or the Department of Defense, which of course is part of the federal budget — I think there’s a certain inherent waste in any large organization, whether it’s public or private. I think they all could be streamlined or — let me put it this way, I think they all should be streamlined. But I question whether it can be done. Because the bureaucracies are in place. And it’s very, very difficult to move.

Correspondent: It’s difficult, I suppose, not just in motion pictures, but for everybody right now. Do you have any thoughts on the present Occupy Wall Street movement that’s been going on in this city while you’ve been here?

Corman: Weirdly enough, I was at the Occupy Wall Street meeting — or sit-in. Whatever you want to call it.

Correspondent: You went to Zuccotti Park?

Corman: Yeah. Just about an hour ago.

Correspondent: Really?

Corman: I donated a little money and they had a couple of pictures taken of me there. Which they said they wanted to use in some way. And I told them I was totally in support of what they’re doing.

Correspondent: I’m surprised you weren’t down there with a movie camera getting master shots for a later production based on Zuccotti Park or something like this. There should be an Occupy Wall Street movie. Is there some possible narrative? Some bucks in this?

Corman: Well, it’s the kind of thing I did before in the 1960s, with the various protest meetings and anti-Vietnam demonstrations. I was there with cameras. And we did use the footage. And this one at the moment isn’t quite that big. If it grows, however, that will be a different thing.

Correspondent: Well, did you see it at Times Square on Saturday? It was actually 15,000 people. And it was pretty aggressive with the cops arresting people. 88 people that day too.

Corman: We came in on Saturday.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Corman: And actually I saw opposite ends of New York. I came in, went straight to the opera, went straight from the opera to Comic Con to sign autographs. So I figured if I went from New York to the opera to Comic Con, I saw various aspects of New York.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask you about how you collect your ideas or how you maintain your attentions as to what’s going on in contemporary society. It seems to me that going down to Zuccotti Park, you’re still very much interested in finding out what the present concerns are. I mean, how often do you do this now in your daily life? Just to keep tabs. How do you know, for example, that Hell’s Angels or LSD or Zuccotti Park might be a salable idea?

Corman: These are just aspects of pop culture that come to the surface. And I’ve been involved in all the previous ones. Or most of them, one way or another. And the Occupy Wall Street movement is new. And I went just to see what it was like. And it was strange. There’s a real similarity to the 1960s here. And I don’t know if the young people of today know that what they’re doing, the signs they have, the music they had playing, the discussions — it brought me right back to 1968.

Correspondent: Do you see any differences by chance?

Corman: I saw very little differences. I did notice this. The police were not antagonistic. They were standing there. But I didn’t see any of them make any harmful moves. Where in the ’60s, I did see police make harmful moves. Maybe they’ve learned something over the years.

The Bat Segundo Show #416: Roger Corman (Download MP3)

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Laura Miller’s Black Helicopters

Last Wednesday, Laura Miller offered another typically incoherent tirade, perhaps demonstrating some closet desire to become the Maureen Dowd of the literary world. Her column attempted to stir up controversy over the apparent problem that this year’s fiction finalists for the National Book Award were, with the exception of Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, composed of “low-profile and/or small press offerings.” Failing to comprehend that awards often represent opportunities for readers of all stripes to discover new titles, and lacking anything even approximating facts, Miller resorted instead to the conspiracy theories that one expects from undergraduates passing a pipe in a dorm room to stave off boredom. She put on her tin foil hat, detecting “the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public” and not understanding that the National Book Award judges are too busy reading hundreds of books to worry about what their decisions will mean with “the press and the public.”

Miller writes that the press “expresses bafflement” when some obscure writer wins, but fails to cite any examples. Sure, there was some minor controversy one year over the five fiction finalists all being women from New York. But that was seven years ago. Last year, Jaimy Gordon certainly surprised the audience by winning the National Book Award over such literary bigwigs as Peter Carey and Nicole Krauss. But what specifically is Miller referring to? The New York Times merely reported it as “a surprise pick,” which was accurate reporting. Much as Maureen Dowd once got a ridiculous column out of some mythical meeting between two senators, Miller seems to be implying some similar clink of glasses between NBA judges and the press. But as someone who has covered the National Book Awards multiple times, and who hasn’t been able to get anything from the judges (despite a combination of charm and silly questions), I can confidently report that Miller doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Miller’s column is little more than irresponsible speculation. It belongs in a neighborhood circular, preferably distributed by lunatics off a moving truck in the middle of nowhere, not a distinguished online magazine. Even though she’s clearly unfamiliar with “whatever policy each panel of judges embraces,” Miller’s ignorance certainly doesn’t prevent her from engaging in relentlessly uninformed speculation. Miller claims that “the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention.” But when we refer to two recent judges who were kind enough to share their National Book Award experiences, Miller’s deranged theories don’t add up. In 2006, judge Marianne Wiggins wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times outlining the process:

In our first conference call, we began to try to define what we were looking for. A “national” book? A work of fiction that spoke to the “American” character? Judge No. 1 wanted “readability,” and No. 5 wanted “a sense of discovery.” I just wanted writing that would set my hair on fire.

We see with Wiggins a variety of motivations. But neither “readability” nor “a sense of discovery” fits into the hypothetical sidelining of successful titles.

More recently, Victor LaValle wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly responding to Miller’s claims: “If such a thing ever happened then the NBA are really nefarious because they wiped my memory banks clean.”

If Miller had taken the time to consult Wiggins’s essay or contacted any of the judges, then she would not have written such an intellectually bankrupt column. She certainly would not have leaped to the paralogic contained in the unintentionally hilarious paragraphs that follow, whereby “the larger reading public has also proven recalcitrant” (really?) and even has the effrontery to dictate the qualities that “don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers or even put them off.”

I’d like to inform Ms. Miller that this outsider was so intrigued by Jaimy Gordon and Paul Harding’s respective award-winning books that he invited both authors to discuss their books at length on The Bat Segundo Show. (Both graciously accepted. You can listen to my conversation with Gordon or Paul Harding, if you like.) I would like to think that Ms. Gordon and Mr. Harding would have found their way onto the program eventually. But it was the awards that allowed resources, permitting these two writers to make their way to New York and talk with me. I don’t especially care how obscure or popular any writer is. And I also don’t especially care whether a book is “so obscure as to be virtually invisible.” I only care if the book is interesting. What Miller doesn’t seem to get is that if people like a book, then they are not going to stay silent about it. To the extent that awards can encourage such enthusiasm, I don’t really see what the problem is. Unless you are someone who hates books or, like Miller, you hate any independent mind or mechanism offering an alternative to your unadventurous, huckster-friendly sensibility. As Dan Green has noted, “by now it’s clear that Laura Miller has staked her claim to critical influence on a defense of ‘ordinary’ readers against fancy writers who write too much and that she’ll stick to that story, however misguided, lest her standing as a critic to be heeded is threatened.”

Occupy Wall Street: The Morning They Didn’t Clean the Park

They were saying on Thursday night that it was all over for the protesters. Brookfield Properties, the owner of Zuccotti Park, had asked the NYPD to uproot the people who had been occupying their park. Mayor Bloomberg had said it would be clean on Friday morning at 7 AM. And there were petitions and pleas and hues and cries. Just after midnight, I was paying attention to the cracks of thunder and the white lightning flashes and the hard rain rapping against the pane of my window in Brooklyn. I was reading reports of protesters shouting with joy against the heavens. They didn’t give a damn if they were being doused. Yet I fretted hard about the whole scene and couldn’t sleep and hit the subway station less than two hours after these ruminations, hitting the subway station close to the golden palindromic time of 2:22 AM.

While waiting for the train, I listened to a thin middle-aged man loosen his incoherent rap addressed to our present President from some semblance of a Black Power haze, conflating a CIA conspiracy to flood drugs into poor neighborhoods with an anti-Semitic plot involving 9/11. His umbrella nib stabbed through the air with each improvised line. In ten or fifteen years, could this be an Occupy Wall Street protester? Not out of the question. A little more than a week before, I went to Zuccotti and the surrounding areas after the Foley Square arrests. The open talk had transmuted into something more quiet and cautious after mikes caught quite a lot but sullied the message. There had been talk of interlopers and intruders and betrayers. And while hardly an expert in American politics, I knew my history, remembering how it had all fizzled out in the years before my existence. The thin middle-aged man gave me an opportunity for more sentimental equations, and I couldn’t shake my heart’s troubling tendency to play the long game.

When I hit Zuccotti on a very early Friday morning, the park was more pristine than I expected. The protesters were determined to keep it clean. The trash was neatly packed in careful sheaths. I observed a plastic lid on the ground, then watched as it was scooped up by a stray hand a mere thirty seconds later. Such stunning efficiency reminded me of Disneyland’s garbage policy.

The mood was more sanguine than the previous week. Two vehicles, circling round and round and round the park, were capturing images. I was certain that my face was now in a database.

“Hey guys,” shouted an enthusiastic man, “instead of surveilling, why don’t you check out the 24/7 live stream?”

It was a little before four. The TV news vans were mostly parked on the other side of Cedar. Their insides were dark, still as coffins. I looked above at the mannequins in a Men’s Wearhouse, their dead forms serving as sentries for the lively sea I was swimming in. Then I watched a man in a Santa Claus suit sweeping the curb. Thinking of the approaching winter, I wondered if this morning cleanup, this last moment of dignity, was the end of the movement.

I walked around, didn’t see any apparent plan for seven that morning. One sanitation car, one garbage truck. If the authorities had something up their sleeves, it was as unplanned as lint in a belly button. Not long before, Bill O’Reilly had called the Occupy Wall Street protesters “drug-trafficking crackheads.” But the only smells in the air were cigarettes and incense and the fresh urban aura that settles in just after a storm. Narcotics? The only person who came close was a Wikileaks reporter making a pleasant show about cadging a cancer stick. And who can blame him? He was one of the few reporters the protesters trusted, probably because most of the media had dead opportunism in their incurious gazes. I watched a dark-haired radio reporter in his early thirties, a dutiful employee wearing a tie, talk with a man who had been fired in 2009, a man who was trying to explain why he and his fellow protesters were there. The reporter quoted some circuit case, but it was his eyes that unsettled me. They were more concerned with winning rather than listening, perfunctory as a man trapped in a weekend escrow seminar.

It was difficult to ignore the media presence. As more reporters settled around Zuccotti’s perimeter, with few of them wishing to enter the square, the scene resembled some Mephistophelean metaphor from a Scorsese movie: more steam pluming from the grates on the corner of Liberty and Broadway, a plump and devilish photographer staring rabidly at his recently snapped images with a cigarette undulating up and down in his mouth like some phallic fount and backlighted by the harsh gleam of a TV news camera. In fact, the more these media types were concerned with image, the bigger their waistlines tended to be. It was almost as their cameras badgered their torsos into requiring more space.

“Nobody really marches anymore,” complained an anxious and experienced protester behind me. “We’re out there for America and they don’t even appreciate this.”

I chalked this up to raw nerves. What the protester didn’t know was that in a few hours, the collective hope would be vindicated. For now, more blue boys had arrived at Broadway. The human microphone system had adjusted itself to the city’s noise code. But when it came time to respond with jubilation, the protesters lived up to the bargain.

There was a Superman and two Captain Americas in the crowd. I wondered if there was some crossover between Occupy Wall Street and New York Comic Con. I had obtained press credentials for the latter many months before, but I had decided to blow it off. It seemed superficial in light of recent developments. One Captain America told me that he was tempted to go on Sunday when the tickets were cheaper. But it was clear that Zuccotti needed more superheroes than Jacob Javits. And the superheroes I observed – even the ones with Alan Moore’s Guy Fawkes homage – didn’t really need costumes. It wasn’t a surprised that their masks stayed mostly off.

I saw a kid peacefully sleeping on the perch on the park’s western corner and, vexed by what was set to go down in less than an hour, I became very protective. But he woke up and I was relieved. I walked back to Broadway and I stole wifi from McDonald’s. While snickering over this strange irony, I saw a guy trying to pick a fight. Something about twelve hundred dollars, one guy bopped on the nose. The NYPD stepped in and issued citations. The protesters urged those surrounding this duo to stay calm and nonviolent. This was to be a running theme of the morning.

People who wear T-shirts and who have a week’s worth of stubble (my mien on Friday) get different answers from protesters than people who wear ties. Even so, the protesters had been here long enough to employ caution. After two weeks, you had to be an old timer to get any bites. And I had only been at Zuccotti about seven times. So I spent most of the time just observing.

Still, the protesters were kind. Two asked how I was doing, perhaps sussing me out. A hearty man who identified himself as Keeper of the Trail Mix offered me a generous portion. Two men circled the perimeter swinging incense. There was a peaceful ding from a bell. “Good morning. Good morning. Spread the love.” DING! “Good morning. Good morning. Spread the love.” Ginsberg’s “oms” would not have been out of place.

Then, with less than an hour to go before the 7AM showdown, the blue boys began clearing the sidewalk on Zuccotti’s Broadway edge. But this precious isthmus between the edge of the protesters and the cops, tricky to negotiate on scant sleep, narrowed. And it thinned further when the union men came in with pickets decrying the NYPD standing up only for the rich.

“I’m trying to move!” shouted a burly man at a cop as the throngs thickened. “Don’t push me!” I hoped it wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. I squeezed in and out of the mass; it now took about five minutes to wade through the pea soup of a crowd. I noticed that the cops had formed phalanx positions at the two open corners of Broadway.

But revolutionary talk stayed strong. “We….are….the 99%!” shouted the crowd. I watched two empty NYPD buses shuttle down Broadway. The crowd remained very confident, but I did notice workers squeezing in between the cops and the barricades and wondered what was up.

Then word arrived that the Zuccotti cleanup would be delayed and there were cries and cheers. I hadn’t been quite sure of the news, in part because it seemed anticlimactic, but another man confirmed it. And the promise of a new plan, intimated by the double-layered trickle of repetition only minutes before, had come to fruition. But what to do?

“All week, all day, marching down Broadway!” shouted some people. There was a guy with a whistle. But for some reason this pledge didn’t catch on. There was still a tremendous cluster in Zuccotti. As the daylight arrived, I somehow caught on to this two step gambit and followed the group, finding myself near the head of the march.

Then there was a call to march on Wall Street – a celebratory response to recent developments. And the people with whistles piped in time to “Whose street? / Our street!” At first, they walked slow. A smiling woman stood atop a trash can, shaking her fist in unison to the chant. I liked her a lot. Another woman raised her open pink umbrella into the sky. I liked her a lot too. We were close to Bowling Green Park. I saw the two empty police buses that I had noticed earlier parked to the right. I was troubled by the police presence at the other end, which was close to the Charging Bull (protected by the same grille barricades used at Zuccotti). Were they leading us into a trap similar to the Brooklyn Bridge?

Judging by the number of bandanas over various mouths, the other protesters had the same worry. If I had to be pepper spayed, so be it. At the head of the march, many protesters had taken the brooms from Zuccotti, sweeping them along the surface of Broadway. It was a perfect protest metaphor.

Then the march rounded a corner towards New Street, with many protesters hopping a diagonally raised platform. “Banks got bailed out! / We got sold out!” A normal-looking guy, around my age and close to my male pattern baldness (I like to look out for my fellow balding members) and wearing a blue T-shirt, held a simple sign reading SAVE THE MIDDLE CLASS, with two humble red stars. He stood out from the others, and I wondered if he was part of the fresh influx that MoveOn had called upon.

But then the crowd began to run, for reasons unknown. At first, I thought it was general euphoria. But there seemed a genuine rush to run down the street, followed by protesters chanting “Walk! Walk!” to prevent any problems. And then we reached a new set of barriers, with a few white shirts and boys in blue. And I wondered again if we were being deliberately trapped. Being near the head of the group, I walked along the length of the barricades with the other protesters, bathed in the red neon light of freshly opened cafes to my right. And at the other end, there were several police mounted on horseback. White shirts commanded me to move on the sidewalk. “Keep walking,” they shouted. I ambled around in a slight daze. Somehow I ended up in the middle of the street, away from the barricades. I looked up and saw several horses headed my direction, with one mounted cop looking directly my way.

Not really knowing the protocol for how mounted policemen contend with guys drifting into the street, I felt the best course of action was to keep walking down Broad Street. Surely the other protesters would be behind me. They were not. It looked as if the NYPD were closing the protesters in. I somehow ended up in a Starbucks on Broad and Beaver, where the sight of mild-mannered white collar workers, many of them miserable, grabbing lattes before work proved a strange contrast to the recent excitement. I stole wifi from this Starbucks, as is my wont with a Starbucks, and attempted to consult Twitter to find out what the hell was going on. The signal was intermittent. I was only able to send tweets. So I returned to the streets, where I saw cops approaching with white ties dangling on their belts moving down Beaver.

I had asked a few people if there were any arrests. They said that there weren’t. But the great irony is that, only a few minutes later, after I was trying to find the march again, five people would be arrested at the very corner where I had just found refuge.

I did manage to pick up one part of the march again, greatly enjoying someone who had gone to the trouble of dressing in a shark costume, top half covered by giant jaws. The march turned left again on New Street, following the same pattern as before. I intercepted the march again when it headed down Beaver. There was a great roar of beeps from the cars moving in the other direction. I was to hear Wall Street workers grumble disapprovingly about traffic. But then there were about five NYPD scooters that pushed forward against this traffic in the street. Not quite Corman’s The Wild Angels in reverse, but I was still curious. At first, they appeared to be amicably following the protesters on their march. But I was later to see that some on these scooters were trying to intimidate protesters. I was relatively safe, somehow scooped up with all the video cameras that were following the angry red rear lights. In the distance, I saw one protester stand in front of the scooters, pacing back slowly. Then a scooter roared inches past me to my right. (Later in the morning, one of these scooters would run over a protester’s foot.) The protesters ran again. I saw a white shirt run into the street, his hand reaching to his belt, and I didn’t know if he was going to raise hell. So I pointed my camera at him and started filming. He saw my camera and then beat a retreat forward.

And then something amazing happened. An entire circle of protesters surrounded the scooters. They shouted, “The whole world is watching!” Behind us, a band arrived, composed of drums, horns, and flutes, and all dressed in green shirts. In the mad rush, I didn’t catch what group this was. But I appreciated their peppy offerings. And I wasn’t alone. There was a guy with a thatchy green scarf around his neck and a burgundy sweater who was clapping his hands and swaying his body to the music. He was nodding his head at his friends and smiling wide.

A witness later told me that five people had been arrested at Broad and Beaver. I decided to track back and noticed that there was a huge police presence moving down Broad – perhaps sixty cops. I decided to follow them. But when the last cop made it past the barricade, they closed the opening behind them. So much for my stealth tactic.

I decided the best option was to return back to Zuccotti. The mood there had not been broken, but the police presence remained strong. When I walked past Wall Street and saw a barricade manned by several police, with a few cops checking the IDs for all employees walking through, this was a dispiriting sight, like unexpectedly setting foot into an old Eastern European country. I decided that I had dodged enough arrests and barricades for one day.

It was Friday morning and it wasn’t over for the protesters. I headed home to grab a few hours of sleep.

The Bat Segundo Show: Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #415. She is most recently the author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering an alternative timeline with the golden retriever rising as the heroic dog of choice.

Author: Susan Orlean

Subjects Discussed: Rin Tin Tin references in Finnegans Wake, Rinty’s indefinable charm, Jack London, dogs in World War I, the state of marketing in different time periods, flawed people and dog heroes in early animal films, soldiers reading poetry, mass cultural mediums and heroic animal images, emotional connections with animals, Burt Leonard’s desperate efforts to revive Rin Tin Tin, Paul Klein impersonating Lee Aaker at conventions, Rin Tin Tin as the blank slate for the American obsession, Strongheart, Rinty’s durability as an American icon, devotion to dogs, a tense 1955 photo shoot with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin appearing on the cover of TV Guide, fierce competition between Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, having “bitten exclusively” written into a contract, Daphne Hereford and Rinty’s obsessive defenders, sinking one’s savings into battling intellectual property law, the perils and nature of giving into passion, knowing Lee Duncan through records, going through a dead man’s ATM slips, respect and “intimate eavesdropping” into subjects, occupational hazards in quirky journalism, cultivating trust with subjects, the bigness of passion, avoiding Rin Tin Tin overload, the rising population of German Shepherds in the 20th century, whether Rinty was bad in any way for history, the rise of fascism, and contrary images that meet on the battlefield.


Correspondent: I wanted to start off with something unusual. I had found this accidentally. Because I started to read Finnegans Wake a month ago. I’m now on Page 20. But on Page 12, I was very happy to find this. There is this passage: “She knows her knight’s duty while Luntum sleeps. Did ye save any tin? says he.” Now this comes after Joyce has laid down all sorts of Germanic references. And of course, While London Sleeps? Rin Tin Tin film.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: So this seems as good a pretext as any to ask, well, if Rin Tin Tin got the approval of James Joyce, what accounts for his appeal? What accounts for his enduring popularity? What is the ultimate quality of Mr. Rinty here?

Orlean: You know, I think, in a way, that you can’t quite answer that is the answer. There’s a kind of charisma that certainly the first Rin Tin Tin had, but also this symbol of a dog, which is a dog who is brave and true and loyal and heroic. That resonates with people. He embodied it — especially the first Rin Tin Tin — so well that I think it touched something that was already there. The desire to have a superhero who was credible and not some comic book figure, but actually something real.

Correspondent: Krypto before Krypto.

Orlean: Yeah.

Correspondent: A superdog to match a superman.

Orlean: Exactly. I also think that, if you could say what it is that makes something endure, you’ve ruined it in a way. That there is something mysterious and wonderful about something that connects something with so many people and that lasts for so long, that shouldn’t be something you could put in words. I think that it defines itself by being something emotional that you feel and that you respond to. That can’t quite be described.

Correspondent: Well, I want to point out something you mentioned in the book. You point out that in the 19th century, dogs had only been recently domesticated. They were considered to have deep feelings. They were capable of expressing their emotions more than humans. Now I should point out that Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang — well, this was only fifteen years before the Rin Tin Tin film. I’m wondering. How did World War I, I suppose, tilt this fixation from dogs as emotional beings to this heroic quality that we’re talking about? Was hero worship the next inevitable stage in the evolution of this man-dog perception situation?

Orlean: Well, for one thing, there were so many dogs in the war. People in World War I saw dogs performing heroically. When you think of a battlefield and dogs being brave and being companionable and working hard, which they did, and maybe not showing as much fear as a soldier might — because dogs don’t have the apprehension of death or the worry of mortality the way people do. So they have the chance to be brave in a way people can’t. So there’s no question that seeing dogs and being alongside dogs in the war had a very huge impact on their perception. I mean, there were tens of thousands of dogs in World War I. So I imagine this entire generation of soldiers coming back, filled with awe. It was also a time where dogs were working not as our servants — the way they might have on a farm or a ranch, but as equals pretty much. I mean, dogs were in the trenches with soldiers. So the feeling that they were our partners almost more than our possessions arose during that time.

Correspondent: Well, you mention this move toward the cities.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: That’s still ongoing even in our time. It’s interesting to me that we went from dogs being perceived as “Well, let’s figure out when they’re domesticated, when they come from the wild, and vice versa.” Those two Jack London novels. And then you have this situation when suddenly they’re fighting wars with us.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: I’m wondering what it is about that turns a dog into a hero as opposed to some emotional being or tapping into some sort of primordial instinct or what not. Do you think that the original folks — Lee Duncan and company — sort of knew that they had to push the dog thing further?

Orlean: I think what Lee did was totally instinctual. I don’t think he was somebody who did a lot of strategizing and projecting forward what would be good. And, in fact, I think that’s part of what’s so touching about him. He seemed to be somebody who was really responding entirely out of this feeling of “I have this wonderful dog and I want you to appreciate how wonderful he is” rather than “Hmmm, I can make some money off of this if we write scripts that make him such and so.” Remember too that people consumed entertainment in an entirely different way in the ’20s. It wasn’t the juggernaut that it is today. You come up with a good character. You can then merchandise it and turn it into a multi-platform marketing device. It wasn’t like that. I think it was a simpler thing. How the idea of the heroic character evolved? Well, first of all, animals very often appeared in early literature as having heroic qualities that were selfless. I think selflessness is something that an animal can have more easily than a person.

Correspondent: Or it’s easier to understand altruism when it’s placed within an animal as opposed to a man.

Orlean: Exactly. And I think that it may seem a little funny to us now. But when you look at an animal doing something heroic, you don’t project a million things onto it. You don’t think “Oooh, he reminds me of my Uncle Milton who I didn’t like that much” or “I’m sick of this type of person always being the hero” or “She isn’t my race or gender or color” or whatever. A dog is something else. So you can look at it and admire it and maybe be in awe of it without bringing a lot of your own baggage to it. It’s not a person. You don’t look at it with the critical eye that you might look at a person with. So there’s a way that it’s easier to be thrilled by them and not have that reserve of thinking, “Oh, I don’t know.” I mean, it’s funny in those films. The early Rin Tin Tin films. The people are all so flawed. Each one of them has some terrible character flaw. Even the heroes among the humans have some — they’re either naive or they’re — they all fail. And whether that’s some aftermath of the war, in which people saw what terrible things people could do to each other. That feeling that human beings were deeply flawed. Maybe that’s what made a dog a hero that could be admired more freely and with less reservation.

The Bat Segundo Show #415: Susan Orlean (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Yannick Murphy III

Yannick Murphy recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #414. Her most recent novel is The Call. She has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #158 and The Bat Segundo Show #41.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Terrified of picking up the telephone.

Author: Yannick Murphy

Subjects Discussed: Chatty people named Ed, imagining the proper format for an illusory veterinary log, husbands who claim prodigious memory, how little bits of anecdotes help fiction, the virtues of limitations and structure, the candor in Here They Come vs. the candor in The Call, seasonal cycles, working with editor Maya Ziv, how fiction can be inspired by thinking about things in a car, the national economical environment, sensing possibilities without having a sense of time, publishing a book as a paperback original instead of a hardcover, crackpots who telephone you at home, earning the right to know the name of the character, the unanticipated origin of fictional spacemen, being asked by Dave Eggers to contribute a “sci-fi story,” Kirk Maxey and sperm donors, inventing thoughts of mice, flies, and other animals, judgment in contemporary fiction, avoiding cliches while pursuing earnestness, independent will and work, balancing ambiguous and precise description to relay the observational spirit, injecting life into side characters, and characters who read within a novel.


Correspondent: I was really honored to identify with the Ed who likes to talk with people. I don’t know if I was possibly an inspiration. That might be presumptuous of me. But it was nice to see a very chatty Ed in your novel.

Murphy: Okay. Well, you might have been at the back of my mind, but…

Correspondent: The rearest. First off, I wanted to determine where the daily log format arose from. Call, Action, Results. This is what is the framework of the book. I’m wondering if you consulted specifically with log books — your husband is a veterinarian — and whether you scoured through that. Did you try varying formats before you found something that was just right? What of this?

Murphy: Well, I think the idea came from the fact that my husband doesn’t keep any call logs. And I’m always wondering why not. That would be something I would do. I would know who I visited on what date and what I did to actually treat that specific animal. And he says, “No. I don’t need that. I just remember this stuff. Or, if I don’t remember it, it really isn’t relative to the next case that the animal may have or that I’m treating the animal for.” So I think it arose out of my disbelief that he doesn’t have this kind of system.

Correspondent: How does he stay organized?

Murphy: He’s pretty organized.

Correspondent: Just no log.

Correspondent: He’s one of those people who remembers. And I always thought, “What if he had a call log? What would it look like?” Because it certainly wouldn’t look like what I think it should like. It probably would look more like the book, or how the book is written. Where it’s his ruminations on the world and ruminations on just driving around and who he meets. He loves to talk with people and he really has a knack with the New Englanders. Even though they tend to be stoic, he can draw out their life stories. So what I find really fascinating is when I go along with him on those visits and he engages people and gets them talking and it’s this kind of windfall for me. Because I get to hear their stories that I would never dare to ask. Because I’m more shy than he is.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask two questions. But let’s talk about these stories. How many of these anecdotes did you make up? And how many of them came from your husband’s chronicles?

Murphy: Most of them came from his chronicles. Some were mixed up with others. I think very few I had to imagine completely. There was a little bit of inspiration behind all of them that was based on a real incident.

Correspondent: Yes. So having little bits of the story helped to have your imagination fire up and invent further?

Murphy: Right. Right.

Correspondent: Well, what about the actual log format itself? If you had no logs at home, did you consult any veterinarian associations? Other veterinarians?

Murphy: No. No. I just started writing. Okay, what is the reason the veterinarian is going out on the call? Well, I’ll call that THE CALL. And then, okay, ACTION. What did I do there? RESULT. How did that end up? And then when he would leave that particular farm, then it was what I saw on the drive home. WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER. So I was able to integrate his home life with his work life that way.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is, as you read the book, you find that he isn’t able to compartmentalize as much as he thinks he can. I mean, we start to see that even though he starts to think of something, it then goes into describing the action. And what’s also interesting is that, when you have WHAT THE WIFE SAID, you often have him interjecting. It’s almost as if WHAT THE WIFE SAID is like an open quote with which to carry on here. And so I’m curious. To what degree were you conscious of this design? Or did this just happen through the course of a sentence in this book in the early draft?

Murphy: Well, I knew partway in — maybe a couple pages in — that the structure had to be a little more wieldy than what I had set up. I knew that I was going to run into trouble really fast and that I had to have as much fun with it as I could. So when you set up a structure like that, sometimes you can have a lot of freedom with it. Because you’re in the structure. So you can see where places are that you need to jump out of. It actually — for some reason having the imposition of a structure actually liberates my writing a lot more. So I know that as long as I stay within that framework, I can say anything I want to say. Which makes it a lot more fun.

The Bat Segundo Show #414: Yannick Murphy III (Download MP3)

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Dwight Macdonald: A Case Study for Great Responsibility

“Macdonald had given the hint that the clue to discovery was not in the substance of one’s idea, but in what was learned from the style of one’s attack.” – Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

Forty-four years ago, on a temperate October afternoon charged by a mass temper, more than 100,000 people occupied the Lincoln Memorial to protest the Vietnam War. Among them were Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, and Dwight Macdonald. A good third of this group, led in part by the literary trio, would soon march upon the Pentagon with the intention of levitating it. Mailer would write one of his best-known volumes from these events, earning both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But Mailer could not have done so without Macdonald, whose fiery approach had helped him “to get his guns loose.”

For the critic Macdonald, such heady protests were old hat. During World War II, he had raised hell through the antiwar Workers Party against the collective failure to condemn Soviet foreign policy. He was also involved in the March on Washington Movement, an effort to end racial discrimination in the armed forces. As the cultural critic James Wolcott has suggested, Macdonald “wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty.” Yet he was inclusive of any emerging figure who posssessed these virtues. Of an antagonistic young man who challenged the arrogant Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy in the Atlantic‘s pages, Macdonald was to confess that he “could not help liking [William] Buckley.”

After a shaky political start as a waspy young journalist on the make, Macdonald revolted against his employer Henry Luce and began editing Partisan Review, where he raised his pugilistic fists through words. When not attacking Stalinism from the left (later in life, he would identify himself as a “conservative anarchist”) or questioning the responsibility of intellectuals, Macdonald spent time successfully persuading the likes of Edmund Wilson and George Orwell to contribute to his pages. But Macdonald’s contentious personality eventually led him to form his independent journal, Politics, which flourished from 1944 through 1949, until Macdonald’s energies and resources diminished.

Never especially good at mushrooming his ideas and views into books, Macdonald became a pen for hire, directing his attentions to perceived cultural threats: homogenization, dry academic writing, and sundry commercial forces. Many of Macdonald’s best cultural essays have been collected in a recently published volume, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. These pieces permit us to see the varying fluency with which Macdonald applied the political attack dog approach so valued by Mailer.

* * *

Macdonald functioned best when he had a fixed target in his crosshairs. “By Cozzens Possessed,” a career-killing takedown of the novelist James Gould Cozzens, is a merciless exercise, attacking the then revered 1957 novel, By Love Possessed, for its prose style, its use of arcane words, the feverish and often thoughtless critical acclaim, and its inaccurate portrayal of human behavior. It is so brutal and stinging an assessment that it might almost serve as a handbook for any young critic hoping to make a big splash. But Macdonald stood for a clear set of values. He wished to protest “the general lowering of standards” and “the sober, conscious plodders…whose true worth is temporarily obscured by their modish avant-garde competitors.”

Such sectarian language sounds not unlike Macdonald’s political missives from decades before. Sure enough, it was this nexus of self-deception and ascension in status which served as the common whetstone for Macdonald to sharpen his sword. Before Macdonald begins his attack, he establishes Cozzens’s financial and critical success in the first paragraph, showing that Cozzens in a position to take it. (This is very much in the tradition of American hatchet jobs. Mark Twain’s essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” also opens with three epigraphs attesting to the alleged worth of Cooper’s writing.)

Macdonald’s essays also inadvertently raise the question of whether a critic really deserves this much power. In his invaluable John Cheever biography, Blake Bailey made a convincing case that Macdonald’s drive-by impacted the 1958 National Book Award, pushing Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle into the winning slot. (Cheever thought highly of By Love Possessed, calling it “excellent” in his journals. Years later, after learning that Cozzens had revered his work, the guilt-ridden Cheever became so upset that he came close to sending Cozzens a family heirloom.) Did James Gould Cozzens sully culture as much as the Great Books (which Macdonald rightfully chided as “densely printed, poorly edited reading matter”) or the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (which Macdoanld rebuked for destroying the King James’s lexical zest)? Probably not, especially if one values the positive qualities of oddity.

Macdonald sent copies of his essays to his targets, thereby permitting them to respond, if so desired. Thus, in book form, Macdonald’s essays frequently contain appendices, such as George Plimpton lodging his objections and corrections at the end of Macdonald’s attack on Hemingway. Reading such annotations in the early 21st century, which closely resemble today’s blog and comment culture, one gets the uncanny sense that, were Dwight Macdonald around today, he would likely be some wild-eyed blogger operating out of a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment.

In an age when many online enthusiasts think nothing of embedding Amazon links into their blogs or sign away their Goodreads reviews without consideration of the “royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content,” there are ineluctable connections between culture and commerce. And Macdonald’s lengthy essay condemning Masscult (“a parody of High Culture”) protests a cultural world in which “everything becomes a commodity, to be mined for $$$$, used for something it is not, from Davy Crockett to Picasso. Once a writer becomes a Name, that is, once he writes a book that for good or bad reasons catches on, the Masscult (or Midcult) mechanism begins to ‘build him up,’ to package him into something that can be sold in identical units in quantity. He can coast along the rest of his life on momentum; publishers will pay him big advances just to get his Name on their list; his charisma becomes such that people will pay him $250 and up to address them (really just to see him); editors will reward him handsomely for articles on subjects he knows nothing about.”

Macdonald’s argument may need to be revised to account for recent technological developments, but his general beef with cultural philistines still holds considerable water. This year, we have seen bestselling novelist Lev Grossman, whose books are now being developed into a FOX television series, write a review of George R.R. Martin’s Dance with Dragons, describing it as “the great fantasy epic of our era” without disclosing the fact that Grossman secured a glowing blurb from Martin for The Magicians. Another critic, Laura Miller, openly invites her readers to ban books: “As deplorable as real-life book banning may be, there’s some required reading that those of us at Salon would love to see retired from the nation’s syllabuses simply because we were tortured by it as kids.” Given these affronts to integrity and intellectualism, where is today’s Dwight Macdonald to contend with these two hydrophobic mutts in the woodshed?

It’s certainly easy for a myopic reader to interpret Macdonald’s essays as snark, for Macdonald had a clear enmity for rock music and television. Yet snark, as David Denby has remarked in a book on the subject, involves a contempt for absolutely everyone. While elitist in tone, Macdonald’s cultural essays also commended the proliferation of symphony orchestras and art house movie theaters. He did honor the artistically and intellectually ambitious, although often with brutal paradox. He recognizes Hemingway as a stylistic innovator, yet writes, “I don’t know which is the more surprising, after twenty years, the virtuosity of the style or its lack of emotional resonance today.”

At times, Macdonald’s cultural essays read as if they were more concerned with swimming in a stream of brimstone. His 1972 smackdown of Norman Cousins, editor of a now largely forgotten biweekly magazine, feels more desperate and superficial than Alan Grayson’s recent obliteration of PJ O’Rourke on a recent installment of Real Time with Bill Maher. When he lost his focus, it was easy for Macdonald to reveal hypocrisy. In his 1967 essay “Parajounalism,” Macdonald condemns Tom Wolfe for his cruel assaults on The New Yorker‘s Wallace Shawn, yet lacks the courage to acknowledge his own malicious barbs toward others in the past. And when Macdonald writes about Wolfe’s attack being “more in the kamikaze style – after all he was thirty-three when he wrote it while I was thirty-one when I wrote mine,” one wonders if Macdonald was jealous of Wolfe’s increased attention and his ability to get through to younger readers.

Despite his pugnacity, Macdonald could be kind. In his essay on James Agee not long after Agee’s death, Macdonald writes, “I had always thought of Agee as the most broadly gifted writer of my generation, the one who, if anyone, might someday do major work.” In January 1963, The New Yorker published Macdonald’s essay on Michael Harrington’s The Poverty of America. Macdonald put a considerable amount of work into the piece, which featured an impassioned demand to the upper and middle classes to reverse “mass poverty in a prosperous country.” Macdonald’s essay attracted great attention and helped reverse the book’s flagging sales.

Yet it’s possible that, for all of his righteous exactitude, Macdonald wasn’t kind or motivated enough. His clumsy and alcohol-fueled elitism (according to Michael Wreszin’s page-turner of a biography, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, Macdonald needed a ration of twelve drinks a day) inspired Saul Bellow to savage him in Humboldt’s Gift. In Bellow’s novel, Macdonald appeared as the “lightweight” intellectual Orlando Higgins, where “his penis which lay before him on the water-smoothed wood, expressed all the fluctuations of his interest.”

To offer a Masscult metaphor that Macdonald would loathe: with great power comes great responsibility. If a critic’s responsibility involves standing against the contemptible forces transforming independent voices into soothing consumer-oriented bores who are no different from the hucksters who sell fabric softener, then nearly every working critic in America can learn a lesson from Macdonald. On the other hand, Macdonald’s lack of versatility demonstrates how a prominent tiger can be swiftly forgotten if he doesn’t change his stripes.

Postscript: The above essay was originally scheduled to run in a literary journal. What I did not anticipate was that much of the subtext concerning “style of one’s attack” would be misinterpreted by the estimable editor as a series of attacks. After some lively back-and-forth and many concessions on my part, I was forced to withdraw the piece on amicable terms and publish it on these pages. I still carry great respect for this literary journal and, as far as I’m concerned, the editor is still a sweetheart. But I relate this metafactual episode to demonstrate the distinct possibility that even a quasi-Macdonald approach, one also revealing a distinct arthritic quality in the lunge, may no longer be welcome nor encouraged in our present culture.

The Old Wives’ Tale (Modern Library #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Call of the Wild)

I am fairly certain that I found The Old Wives’ Tale compelling for reasons that Arnold Bennett did not intend. After my great excitement with Jack London, Bennett was something of a letdown, reading more like fossilized culch than a lively adventure from the 20th century, although I experienced a great deal of pleasure as characters began to die and as they became needlessly blamed for other deaths. Consider the manner in which Sophia, assigned to watch over her bedridden father, sneaks away for a few minutes to chat with the strapping Gerald Scales. When she returns, something terribly odd occurs:

After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid’s natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia’s brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia’s horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose!

As I continued to push through this 600 page novel, surprised by such lively spurts written in a mode I initially appraised as kitschy, there was a part of me that longed for the invention of time travel. I might roll a joint and get it into Bennett’s hands before he banged out another overly serious manuscript. His eccentricities, however, were also part of the charm. I must confess that I couldn’t quite shake Bennett.

* * *

Bennett was hot shit at one point in time. I suspect his inclusion on the Modern Library list involves some guilt over his swift fall from grace. In 1923, Virginia Woolf got nasty with an essay entitled “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”: “he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.” And many seemed to believe her. The literary critic FR Leavis dismissed Bennett in a sentence. The situation became so desperate that Margaret Drabble felt compelled to publish an appreciative 400 page Bennett biography in 1974.

I asked several literary friends if they had read Bennett. But only one had. And this friend made strong suggestions that Anna of the Five Towns was one of the more dispiriting reads in her formative years. I was roundly rebuked for daring to mention Bennett, the name as ancient and as displeasing to her ears as Linda Ronstadt, and was banned from discussing literary matters with my friend for a week. It’s very possible that I’m one of the few Americans under the age of 40 who has actually finished one of Bennett’s novels. (Apparently, I am not the first to raise this observation. Shortly after drafting this essay, I discovered that Wendy Lesser, writing in The New York Times in 1997, had also pointed out Bennett’s stunning precipitation. Fourteen years later, the Bennett situation is considerably worse.)

In recent years, Bennett has found a few (still living) defenders in Drabble, Francine Prose, and Philip Hensher. And while two of these boosters can be rightly praised as skilled novelists, by all reports, this collective humor-impaired trio cannot be said to be especially vivacious at social gatherings. That’s part of the problem. To get Bennett, you have to take him somewhat seriously. And that means abdicating a healthy skepticism deeply valued by any freethinker who grew up in a post-Nixon or a post-Thatcher world. These days, Arnold Bennett is best known for an omelette recipe established at the Savoy. It’s worth observing that Bennett did not come up with the recipe. He was too busy writing a novel. There are certainly worse fates for an author. But despite my gripes, I still believe Bennett deserves more than a mere legacy of haddock and peppercorns.

* * *

The Old Wives’ Tale is a strange novel, imperious and engaging at times, but I cannot call it a classic — despite its admirable narrative ambition in tracking two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, and their families from youth to old age. It is plagued by inhebetating verbosity (“The horror of what had occurred did not instantly take full possession of them, because the power of credence, of imaginatively realizing a supreme event, whether of great grief or of great happiness, is ridiculously finite”). It feels the need to bully the reader into excitement with obnoxious exclamation marks (“This was what he had brought her to, then! The horrors of the night, of the dawn, and of the morning! Ineffable suffering and humiliation, anguish and torture that could never be forgotten!”). It is often condescending towards its characters, using bizarre interrogatory to suggest feeling (“But why, when nearly three months had elapsed after her father’s death, had she spent more and more time in the shop, secretly aflame with expectancy?”).

There is something needlessly systematic and almost Asperger’s-like in Bennett’s fixations. Here is Bennett describing the inner life of Constance’s son:

He had apparently finished his home-lessons. The books were pushed aside, and he was sketching in lead-pencil on a drawing block. To the right of the fireplace, over the sofa, there hung an engraving after Landseer, showing a lonely stag paddling into a lake The stag at eve had drunk or was about to drink his fill, and Cyril was copying him. He had already indicated a flight of birds in the middle distance; vague birds on the wing being easier than detailed stags, he had begun with the birds.

Bennett is more interested in positioning objects rather than being explicit about what his characters feel. His fixation on external imagery prevents him from contending with emotions. And this inferential approach does have its drawbacks. Even in describing the engraving, Bennett isn’t quite sure: “had drunk or was about to drink his fill.” Shortly after this moment, Cyril feels his mother’s hand on his shoulder and, before he replies, Bennett writes: “Before speaking, Cyril gazed up at the picture with a frowning, busy expression, and then replied in an absent-minded voice.” Frowning, busy expression? My mind drew uncomfortable parallels with the autistic passages contained in Tao Lin’s Richard Yates. One could make the argument that Bennett’s superficial imagery reflects both Cyril’s transformation into a young artist or the overall shift from bucolic business to a more modern age. Yet this aesthetic approach is hardly confined to Cyril. Of one of Sophia’s clients in France: “There was a self-conscious look in his eye.” Near novel’s end, Bennett even makes a big show of how characters look at others: “Peel-Swynnerton had just time to notice that she was handsome and pale, and that her hair was black, and that she was gone again, followed by a clipped poodle that accompanied her.” Considering these odd emphases and the sweeping melodramatic statements contained elsewhere in the book, it became necessary to investigate the man further.

* * *

Arnold Bennett began writing The Old Wives’ Tale on October 8, 1907. We know this because he wasted no time marking the notches in his journal:

Yesterday I began The Old Wives’ Tale. I wrote 350 words yesterday afternoon and 900 this morning. I felt less self-conscious than I usually do in beginning a novel. In order to find a clear 3 hours for it every morning I have had to make a time-table, getting out of bed earlier and lunching later.

The next day (October 10, 1907), Bennett offers this exacting news, worthy of Trollope or a chartered accountant: “I walked 4 miles between 8:30 and 9:30, and then wrote 1,000 words of the novel.”

Bennett would finish his novel less than a year later, noting on August 30, 1908: “Finished The Old Wives’ Tale at 11:30 A.M. today. 200,000 words. Now I can begin to keep this journal again.”

Bennett was indeed a man of his word. The volume I am presently consulting from, which contains all of Bennett’s journal entries, is more than 1,000 pages. While assembling this essay over several days, I have been on the lookout for a cockroach, hoping to test the density of Bennett’s private thoughts against a very 21st century dilemma. Unfortunately, the apartment is clean, the exterminator who last doused the place (along with my own independent boric appliqué) was too efficient, and I have not seen any insect life in the order of Blattaria for many weeks. Now I can begin to write this essay again.

As Bennett was working on The Old Wives’ Tale, he worked with an industry that might put Joyce Carol Oates to shame. He wrote two short novels (Helen of the High Road and Buried Alive), any number of articles and short stories, a scenario, a play, and a few popular works of reductionist philosophy (throughout his life, Bennett was a one man self-help book factory, writing such prescriptive pabulum as How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and Self and Self-Management; he even had the temerity to argue that men were superior to women). As he was to explain in an April 9, 1908 journal entry:

Habit of work is growing on me. I could get into the way of giving to my desk as a man goes to whiskey, or rather to chloral. Now that I have finished all my odd jobs and have nothing to do but 10,000 words of novel a week and two articles a week, I feel quite lost, and at once begin to think without effort, of ideas fora new novel. My instinct is to multiply books and articles and plays. I constantly gloat over the number of words I have written in a given period.

One curious quality about this period is Bennett’s reticence to name-check his fetching French wife Marguerite. I should hasten to add that Bennett’s “habit of work” came only a few months after his marriage. Bennett does register that he walked with his wife in the pouring rain on October 16, 1907, but he is more devoted to discussing how he enjoys “splashing waterproof boots into deep puddles” than Marguerite’s feelings on the matter. When Marguerite does show up in Bennett’s journal, it is mostly through “we” rather than “Oui!” And even then, Bennett is more driven by his inner “I” than any subtle references to Marguerite’s enticing third eye. By January 4, 1908, he is preoccupied by what he misinterprets as “unconscious and honest sexuality” from a Scottish woman in a London hotel.

I mention Bennett’s myopic matrimony not because I want to gossip about an English novelist who has been dead for a good eighty years (well, that’s not entirely true; on the other hand, since Bennett was writing a column of book gossip for New Age under a pseudonym during the same period, perhaps I am unintentionally avenging his targets, even though they are now all dead and have long stopped caring), but because his treatment of Marguerite is remarkably similar to the transactional manner that salesman Samuel Povey treats Constance Baines after they are married in The Old Wives’ Tale:

The basis of this contentment was the fact that she and Samuel comprehended and esteemed each other, and made allowances for each other. Their characters had been tested and had stood the test. Affection, love, was not to them a salient phenomenon in their relations. Habit had inevitably dulled its glitter.

* * *

What does a reader do with Arnold Bennett in 2011? Bennett undoubtedly had the stuff to stir the reader, but it’s difficult to let some of his more impetuous ideas about human behavior slide. This was a weakness cited by his most ardent defenders. Even Rebecca West was to confess that Bennett struck her “as being one of the most observant and unobservant persons I have ever known. He would remember the order of the shops in an unimportant street in a foreign city for years, but he was curiously blind about human beings. He would know a man and a woman for years and see them constantly without realizing that they were engaged in a tragical love affair; he could meet a man shaken by a recent bereavement and notice nothing unusual about him til he was told.”

Yet despite Bennett’s obvious blind spots, I feel a charitable impulse for the man. Few of today’s novelists are willing to write in such a reckless yet revealing manner. Were he working today, Bennett’s work would be rent in an MFA minute. But without this rampant rashness, Bennett would not have kept up his voice.

Next Up: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime!

Occupy Wall Street: After the Brooklyn Bridge

On Saturday night, I returned to Zuccotti Park. It was 55 degrees. Winds lashed at tarp and tents, flapping up flaps and whipping at sleeping bags. But the protesters remained calm and good-natured. Some spun hula hoops around their bodies as the calls and responses carried on.

“The rain is really the only obstacle,” said a protester who had been at Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. “Tonight’s the only night that it’s been actually cold.”

He informed me that there were plenty of Mylar blankets and sleeping bags at the comfort station — the results of ample donations.

A man who had once worked on Wall Street and who lived five blocks away was leading the crowd:

“I think you people aren’t crazy.”


“I love the way you communicate.”


“The world has noticed your voice.”


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A rumor had circulated that Marines were coming all the way from Florida on behalf of the protesters, to protect them from the NYPD. “I didn’t fight for Wall Street,” posted serviceman Ward Reilly on his Facebook wall. “I fought for America.” Reilly had pledged that a Marine formation would be held that night. But the Marines hadn’t yet turned up in Zucotti Park. They must have been tied up in traffic.

I talked with a young man, who identified himself to me as “Big Ben” and who was busy blowing bubbles.

“I just picked this thing up a second ago,” said Ben. “I saw it on the ground. I figured that I could just dip it like I am and the wind would take care of everything else.”

I had arrived shortly before 10:00 PM: only a few hours after 700 people had been arrested at the Brooklyn Bridge. On Saturday afternoon, protesters had decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Police blocked the bike path, leading them down the main road, where orange nets and arrests awaited. Natasha Lennard, a freelance reporter for The New York Times, was one of those arrested. An NYPD spokesman had informed me earlier in the evening that most of these protesters would be charged with disorderly conduct at minimum and that some would be singled out for additional offenses.

(Image via Brenda Norrell.)

I was uncertain who was at fault. As it turned out, The New York Times didn’t know either. Within twenty minutes, the New York Times had shifted the blame on its website (adding Al Baker to the byline) from the police to the protesters.

[10/2/11 PM UPDATE: The Voice‘s Nick Greene talked with the New York Times City Room about the changes, which include disappearing paragraphs and the videos that the Times relied on for its version of the events. As Bucky Turco has tweeted, there’s a mysterious edit in the second video.]

I talked with Jesse, a friendly and excitable young man with a $100,000 education in industrial design and no job prospects. He had arrived at Zuccotti Park that very day from Philly. He had been at the Brooklyn Bridge and spoke of “awesome photos.” His story cast some aspersions on the revised New York Times angle.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened!” said Jesse. “They pushed people. They blocked. I think the goal was to go on the bike path. And every one of the cops were in front of the bike path. So everybody walked down on the road. ‘Hey guys! This way!’ That’s what they did. And so everybody went down that way.”

But Jesse got the sense that something was up.

“I was standing there for a couple of minutes,” continued Jesse. “But after like ten minutes of me going like, ‘Guys, if you don’t go, I’m going to go without you.’ I just fucking left. I was not getting arrested. I was too close! I was walking forward. I leave them. And I see all these hands go blazing down underneath the bridge. And they come up behind the protesters.”

Jesse hopped the fence to escape arrest.

“So as I’m going the other direction, there’s fucking four New York buses backing out and backing all the way onto the bridge with the cops. And they’re getting ready to fucking arrest everybody.”

I asked Jesse if he knew why people started walking on the road when the bike lane had been blocked. Whose idea was it?

“It wasn’t an idea,” he said. “It was ‘Well, the cops wanted us to go this way. So we’ll go this way.’ Do you know what I mean? It was like nonpassive. You have people, police there. And you have no police there. So nonpassive. You don’t go through the cops. You go around the cops. You know what I mean? We’re not trying to hurt anybody. We just want to yell and scream.”

Jesse also confirmed reports that police had singled out men for arrests more than women, telling me of a woman with a dog who was able to get around the tape at the other end by dint of possessing a pet.

You can listen to my interview with Jesse here:

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Occupy Wall Street: SlutWalk NYC

They came from as far away as San Diego and Delaware to participate in SlutWalk, holding signs that read CONSENT IS SEXY and WE DEMAND RESPECT. This was part of a wave of protests initiated in April in Toronto and continuing with additional walks in Australia, Chicago, and London. SlutWalk’s ostensible purpose is to protest associations between rape and appearance. Women (and some men) dress slutty in an attempt to take back the word.

“I think it’s going to have a definite impact on the people who we can talk to and who we can reach out to,” said Andrea, part of a group of fifty women who identified themselves as the Delaware Sluts. “Because so many people think that women are raped because of the way they dress or the way they present themselves. Or they’re too drunk. But, you know, that’s not always the case.”

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On Saturday morning, many hundreds gathered in Union Square to bring this movement to New York City. I decided to attend because I was curious about the philosophical overlap between SlutWalk and Occupy Wall Street.

I was to discover some startling differences. When I began talking with people last week at Occupy Wall Street, a guy there slipped me his business card (containing a phone number right after “Press Inquiries”) without comment. I very much appreciated the swift nonchalance and unintrusive nature of this gesture. But when I wandered around with my microphone seeking to understand the SlutWalkers, I was informed by three separate people (one identifying herself as a “media coordinator”) that there was a media scrum on at 11:45. I observed another journalist get into a five minute discussion about the interview availability of one of the main organizers. The journalist was informed that the organizer’s schedule was quite busy.

It was as if the SlutWalk organizers were top-level politicians or entertainment figures who had to approve every interview request. Quite frankly, I didn’t have time for this. And I certainly didn’t experience anything like this at Occupy Wall Street. So I just walked around and talked with people.

This top brass tendency to drown out the very people who wanted to listen or have a conversation reached a comical crescendo when I talked with a very thoughtful participant named Jen, who was holding an endearingly geeky sign reading </patriarchy>. She had helped to organize SlutWalk San Diego.

As we were discussing protesting issues, another SlutWalk lieutenant — standing only a few feet away from us — boomed “Attention all media! We’re going to be having a media scrum in five minutes on the steps!” into her amplification device without warning. Second later, there was another “Attention all media!” from another lieutenant. This left Jen and I desperately seeking intermittent thirty second pockets to talk, hoping that the lieutenants weren’t going to bark over our conversation, which involved whether a political protest with a narrow message could attract the same 99 percent involved against Wall Street.

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Despite the martinet-minded organizers, most of the SlutWalkers didn’t prepare their signs in advance. The majority affixed marker to board shortly before their participation. It was almost as if they wanted to write out the first thing that came to their minds. I couldn’t help but compare this against some of the cardboard placards that had been placed in Zuccotti Park with more permanent messages in mind.

There was a fair amount of media at SlutWalk NYC. I liked the 1010 WINS reporter, who asked many thoughtful questions. I wasn’t impressed with the CNN crew, who proved so lazy that, when the WINS reporter was interviewing a SlutWalker at length, the CNN crew propped his camera up and hoped to siphon off the WINS reporter’s labor. Suddenly there were two mikes recording the woman’s words. I felt compelled to insert my own mike into the shot to make the woman look more important on screen. You can listen to what I recorded of the WINS exchange here:

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As seen by the way that the young man in the blue jacket checks out women in the above photograph, one little discussed aspect of the SlutWalk is the male gaze. I tried chasing this guy down after I had taken this photo. I wondered if his clipboard meant that he was an organizer or possibly a member of the media. It’s possible that his gaze was innocuous or that he was lost in thought.

Why is this important? Because I overheard a separate conversation between three young men on the perimeter of the protesting area. They didn’t know what the walk was all about. One of them, wearing an orange hoodie, shouted, “They say that women get raped because of what they wear. No, it’s because they crazy loons! If I’m in the jungle at two in the morning, there shouldn’t be crazy loons out there.” The man in the orange hoodie kept enunciating “crazy loons.” I tried to approach this man for a radio interview, curious if he could elaborate on his point and his curious redundancy, but he swiftly disappeared.

“Stop the rapes! It’s a global epidemic around the world! From babies — yes, babies are raped — to grannies! And that’s around the world! And in New York City, we have a rape epidemic! Rapes are up. The stats on rapes are up. And yet rapes are under reported. Because women don’t want to be cross-examined by Joe Tacopina and Chad Siegel. Women don’t want their vaginas compared to a Venus flytrap!”

This protester was especially vociferous in her tone. You can listen to some of her speech here:

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I was fortunate to meet Becky, another of the Delaware Sluts. She helped me clarify the origin of the group. I was grateful to learn that the Delaware Sluts was part of an on-campus feminist group called The V-Day Club. The group performs The Vagina Monologues every year to raise money for women’s charities. Hearing of the SlutWalk, they brought the whole group up via bus. Becky also told me that online mobilization was one of the reasons she and her friends were here.

“I read feminist blogs and stuff on the Internet,” said Becky. “And I know that a lot of other people in the organization do too. So I think a lot of people just found it by themselves and then came together through that.”

It sounded to me that, for many who were at Union Square, SlutWalk had come together in a manner not unlike Occupy Wall Street.

Becky confessed to me that she didn’t know a lot of details about Occupy Wall Street. She was still playing catchup.

“I’ve been reading a little bit about it just over the past week,” she said. “But it’s very basic information on my part. I don’t think that anybody feels that we can’t co-exist. I mean, issues are issues. But everybody needs to go out there and be heart. I don’t think it’s really diverting attention from either one.”

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But while Becky expressed a desire for peaceful unity between SlutWalk and Occupy Wall Street, I began to discover some unanticipated fissures. In search of SlutWalkers who didn’t fit into the demographic of mostly young women, I discovered a middle-aged couple named Murray and Sandy. Both were dressed up for the SlutWalk.

I asked them about Occupy Wall Street.

“I’m very aware of it,” said Murray. “I have a number of friends there. I think the message here is perhaps a little more clear and direct. Over there, it’s a little muddied. But, you know, we definitely wish them luck.”

“I’m not sure why they’re there,” interjected Sandy. “I mean, I know the economy sucks. But I’m not sure what picketing Wall Street is going to, you know, do to help the economy.”

I asked them why they thought the Slutwalk message was clearer than the Occupy Wall Street message.

“Cause this kind of stuff has been going on for as long as I’ve been alive, I think,” answered Sandy, who told me later that she used to work in Wall Street. (She also said later that she approved of Mayor Bloomberg’s parochial statement about bankers struggling to make ends meet.) “That women get accused of inviting rape or whatever by the way that they’re dressed.”

“This is an event that started from an idea with a message,” said Murray, “whereas Occupy Wall Street, I think, just came from…”

Sandy: “General dissatisfaction.”

Murray: “Let’s just go make noise and see what happens.”

When I pressed both of them further on their characterization of Occupy Wall Street as “just noise,” Murray defended SlutWalk as a permanent event and a planned event.

“It’s reasonable to work with authorities on something like this,” he said. “You want to find a compromise. We do have free speech in this society. And for the most part, it is granted. You just have to make compromises to make it work. And I think this is what happens when you make compromises. When you just kind of start showing up, you’re going to get a mass like you have down at Wall Street.”

You can listen to the fascinating five minute exchange I had with Murray and Sandy here:

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There seemed to me a very conservative thrust to the type of protesting Murray and Sandy were talking about. Occupy Wall Street’s message, while very general, had nevertheless managed to be more inclusive to the public. By contrast, SlutWalk’s more narrowly defined message caused about 500 people to show up on Saturday afternoon.

Yet SlutWalk’s “more clear and direct” message had also attracted participants like Veronica — another member of the Delaware Sluts. Veronica wore very little. When I asked Veronica if I could take her picture, she said, “No thank you.” (During our conversation, she told another person not to photograph her.) When I asked her why she was dressed the way that she had, she told me, “Well, I like how my body is. I love my body and I think I deserve the right to display it the way I want and not be judged because of it.” She told me that SlutWalk hadn’t pushed her over the edge on the issue of judgment and appearance, but that “guys at my college pushed me over the edge on that issue. I’m glad that we have this organization where we can display this dislike of people’s judgments.”

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Occupy Wall Street: Friday Afternoon

On Friday afternoon, the crowd density at Occupy Wall Street had thickened quite a bit from earlier in the week. Many of the new attendees were journalists. I counted close to thirty media types as I canvassed Zuccotti Park, watching TV vans and cameramen and reporters taking notes on their notebooks and BlackBerries. I saw NY1, CNN, Slate, a concatenation of outlets I had not seen when I hit the park on Tuesday.

“Cough drops!” barked a man with several lozenges in his hand. “Get your cough drops! So when CNN talks with you, you’ll have a clear head for your ideas.”

I hit Zuccotti Park in the late afternoon: just before a march upon NYPD headquarters. I estimated the crowd at a few thousand. More poured into the park, some lured by the prospect of a rumored Radiohead appearance at 4PM.

While the park’s perimeter remained open to pedestrian traffic and the cops remained fairly calm (perhaps due to the heightened media), I wondered it the increased media attention would cause more people to come, testing the limits of occupation. I also wondered what plans the NYPD had in store. Cops clad in riot gear? By now, a hackneyed effort to intimidate. Yet across the street from the park, I noticed a badly dressed undercover cop, wearing sunglasses and very much on his own, feebly pretending to be an activist with brand new crutches and a limp that didn’t match the way he was clutching his aluminum.

When attending a large-scale event, it is often my practice to stand in one spot and listen to the surrounding people. The protesters were fully aware that they were putting on a show. Many greenhorns — some considering themselves journalists — had come to gawk. Their intent was to document. They wondered why these people were still sticking after two weeks. Some of the bona-fide journalists appeared to be mystified about why they had been assigned this story.

If these slogans and sentiments on cardboard and posterboard appear flip and cliched, what then is the best method to get a message across? In recent days, there has been a modest debate about whether the protesters should dress up and improve their aesthetic.

But from what I have seen in my visits to the park, it isn’t just scruffy kids wearing tie-dye tees. There are many lingering into the park from their day jobs, wearing dress shirts and backpacks. I suppose your sartorial flair depends on the degree to which you’re participating and how long you stick around. (For my own part, I was wearing a red George Orwell shirt.)