Annoying Message Week

President Bush has signed into law a bill that would make posting an “annoying” Web message or sending an “annoying” email message without disclosing your identity a federal crime, subject to stiff fines and imprisonment of up to two years.

You know, I find advertising especially annoying. But you don’t see me calling for special forces to axe in the doors to Madison Avenue offices and haul all the copywriters and executives into a gulag.

Beyond the fact that this is in clear violation of the First Amendment, I’m terribly concerned about the implications this will have on free speech. Let’s say that you’re a worker in a sweatshop and you want to expose to other Americans just how grisly the conditions are. Of course, if you use your name, then not only do you potentially get la migra on your ass, but you also get potential retribution from your boss. Because of course, your boss finds the idea of unearthing this reality “annoying.”

This is not the United States I know. And I ask my readers to join me in loudly rejecting this absurd law. Would such magnificent web writers as Miss Snark, OGIC and TMFTML have come to fruition if such a law had been in place, let alone enforced?

For starters, I pronounce this week Annoying Message Week.

I am inviting all Return of the Reluctant readers to send me emails that might be considered “annoying.” If you have an annoying message that you’d like to send to the world, pass it along to ed AT with the subject line “Annoying Message Week.” I will preserve your anonymity and post the messages here as they come in.

Part of what makes the Internet the special place that it is are the crazed freaks who post anonymous screeds that most sensible people find “annoying.” So let’s learn to love the points of view that we despise. Let’s learn to accept the fact that all of us here will be annoyed in one way or another, but that nobody has to go to jail for it.

Okay, Cigarettes Are Evil, But This is Getting Ridiculous

EXHIBIT A: Clement Hurd author photo retouched. “HarperCollins said it made the change to avoid the appearance of encouraging smoking and did so with the permission of the illustrator’s estate. But Mr. Hurd’s son, also a children’s book illustrator and author, said he felt pressured to allow it.” (See also Mr. Beck’s hilarious ode.)

EXHIBIT B: Reuters: “The attorneys general of 32 states are asking Hollywood’s major movie studios to place an anti-smoking announcement on DVDs, videos and other home entertainment products to combat teen tobacco use.”

Why should art and cultural heritage be modified or affixed with warnings to “protect” people? We have no problem accepting Falstaff as a loyal companion who has imbibed too much sack. We have no problem glorifying guns (which frankly I find more evil than cigarettes) in action blockbusters. No warnings there. No digital erasures of the bag of sack or the guns (well, save Spielberg’s “restored” E.T., but at least he was decent enough, unlike Lucas, to provide us with the original version).

So why should cigarettes be any different?

Not only does digital erasure or pre-movie warnings take away from a piece of art, but in some cases it utterly destroys it. Can you imagine, for example, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party without the cigarettes? At one point, Beverly (played by Alison Steadman) browbeats the nonsmoking couple (Angela and Tony) to light up and it’s a brilliant revelation on how Beverly manipulates the people around her to serve her own ends and how susceptible the couple is when they’re trying, like most British middle-class people, to be polite at the most horrid party imaginable.

So leave the photos and the films alone. Let art go where it needs to go and stop imposing limits on what people can and cannot say. People can make those kind of decisions for themselves. Or is it now de rigueur to assume that most contemporary audiences are intellectually bankrupt?

When You’re a Fink, You’re a Fink All the Way

If you have a Yahoo email account and you eventually find yourself writing about something that might be considered inexplicably dangerous (if not now, then perhaps in the not-too-distant future), you may want to ensure that your personal information is fabricated. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang has confirmed that Yahoo provided journalist Shi To’s private information to Chinese authorities. The journalist was then sentenced to ten years in prison. What was Shi’s crime? He dared to spell out media restrictions in place within China. Former President Bill Clinton also weighed in at an Internet forum, saying, “The internet, no matter what political system a country has, and our political system is different from yours, the internet is having significant political and social consequences and they cannot be erased.” He then went into a panegyric about how none of this had any negative effects on e-commerce.

It’s good to know that in the Clinton and Yang vision of the Internet, business comes first and that political extradition and freedom of speech is as expungable as a spam message.

The Christian Science Monitor: A History of E****** — First Draft

Some scholars have suggested that it all began with a 1749 novel written by John Cleland. The novel’s title was composed of two words: The first being a slightly naughty term for one’s, uh — how shall we put it? That thing you sit on. The second being more acceptable for the Christian ear: namely, “Hill.” However, this hill must be clearly distinguished from the immoral “thrills” one might find on another “Hill” immortalized in rock and roll music. Or perhaps not. It’s clear that the parallels here are inevitable. I must warn you, dear reader, that should you spend at least five minutes contemplating this issue, you may find yourself spending most of the weekend praying to God for forgiveness.

This book, written by Cleland when he was in debtor’s prison, was the first e***** novel. It depicts a certain young woman’s initiation into things we really can’t talk about in this publication. Let’s just say that Ms. Hill, the eponymous character, wasn’t exactly spending all of her spare time cross-stitching.

One might argue whether these unspeakable actions should even be put to pen. The risk of offending so many people clearly outweighs the value of rationally discussing what some have argued to be an everyday and harmless issue.

And yet, almost cavalierly, the writers couldn’t refrain from writing. There were volumes penned by Frank Harris in which this ineffable subject was broached. D.H. Lawrence, thought to be innocent enough with his classic story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” demonstrated his true colors and ineluctable perversion with “Lady Chatterley’s L****,” causing at least four septuagenarians to have cardiac arrests before they had finished reading the first chapter. And then there was that Henry Miller guy who wrote about what shall henceforth be referred to in this essay as It, banging out descriptive passage after descriptive passage of It It It with all the gusto of a man who hadn’t discovered the advantages of tight breeches…

[Whoops! Did I just write that? Editor, please strike.]

…with all the gusto of a man who hadn’t discovered the advantages of, uh, abstienence.

Soon, e****** became a cottage industry. Together with its less steamier cousin, the H******** romance, everyday readers became drawn to cheaply produced paperbacks that not only featured vivid descriptions of It, but dared to suggest It with muscular, long-haired hunks [Editor: Is that too much?] rescuing ripe beauties clad in diaphonous clothing [Oh come on, Editor, you asked me to write about it!].

Even Penguins Can’t Placate Their Fear

Berkeley Breathed on Opus strips devoted to reporting: “Yes, and they weren’t appreciated by my clients a year ago. It’s a different time than it was in my prime years, for sure. I can’t even print the word “gay” in my strip without losing clients. To say the least, editors are weirdly on edge right now. I think they’re all worried that they may have to become religious pamphlets in order to survive.”

Always. Be. Listening.

We’re in meetings most of the day, but in the meantime:

To paraphrase Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross: “The States are weak?” Fucking States are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been a citizen of this nation for thirty-one years. FUCK YOU, that’s my name!! You know why, Mister? ‘Cause you drove your daddy’s oil money to get here tonight, I drove a car that I purchased with my own cash. THAT’S my name! And your name is “you’re wanting.” And you can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t win this war. And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

Disagree With a Politician and You’re a “Security Threat” — Even When You’re a Minor

Common Dreams reports on a very disturbing incident that occurred at a Delaware Barnes & Noble (as more specifically reported here). Eighteen year-old Hannah Shaffer saw that Senator Rick Santorum had a book called It Takes a Family and that he would be reading at Barnes & Noble. Shaffer decided to go there with with some friends the idea of telling Santorum that he disagreed with his policies. Noting Santorum’s stance on gay rights, someone suggested that Santorum sign a book by Dan Savage.

Apparently, an advance team working for Santorum overheard this, concluded that Shaffer and her friends were “a security threat” and asked them to leave by a Delaware State Policeman named Mark DiJiacomo. The group was then told by DiJiacommo that anyone who didn’t leave would be sent to prison immediately on a trespassing charge. Most of the people left, with the exception of two brave kids named Stacey Galperin and Miriam Rocek, where more threats apparently ensued.

Even worse: DiJiacomo didn’t consult B&N’s store management and he was on Santorum’s employ.

Pero, Piense en Los NiƱos!

Our Rocky Mountain pal and colleague has the scoop on the campaign to divest Denver’s libraries of racy fotonovelas. After having removed 6,000 of these “tawdry” books, a full review of the libraries’ 2.5 million circulation is now being considered, leaving some wags to opine that “indecency” might be more of an elastic term than explicitly stated, perhaps used as a euphemism for purging the catalog of, shall we say, less Anglo-friendly titles.

Photographic Protest

So freelance photographer Steve Malik was taking some photos of MUNI Metro. Suddenly, a hodgepodge of fuzz came and tried to arrest him. But get this: there’s no statute in the books to prevent people from taking photos of city property.

Tomorrow afternoon, several photographers will meet at the Embarcadero Center at high noon and take photos out of protest.

I’m going to have to dig up my digital camera, but if you’re in San Francisco, bring your camera to Jackson West’s photographic protest. If I can find my cam, I’ll post the pics.

(via Smoke)

It’s Good to Be Right When You Have 500 Imaginary Parents Backing You Up

One thing that always amuses me about reactionary revisionists, aside from the fact that, on the whole, they have no sense of humor and rarely appreciate the finer joys of bowling or karaoke, is that the so-called legions of “citizens” championing “literary standards” have no names. In the case of the “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools,” not so much as a “Joe” or “Orville” or a “Babbitt” can be found in the comments section.

It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan. What better way to maintain the “safety” of your “controversial” perspective when stringing up another man and torching his home then by keeping a hood over your head?

For all I know, this group could be just one 42 year-old guy living with his mother who has a lot of spare time on his hands. I’ve sifted through this site and I’ve found absolutely nothing in the way of contact information.

Fortunately, with the magic of WHOIS, I’ve determined that the “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools” is run by Janet Harmon and Gerry High of Lenexa, Kansas. The Kansas City Star reports that “five hundred residents” have signed a petition. But where is this petition? Why isn’t it displayed on the site, much less corroborated? If these people feel so strongly, what are their names?

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler tracked Harmon down for an interview. Among the highlights:

  • When the list was a mere fourteen books, Harmon hadn’t read all the books, thus rendering her conclusions highly suspect. (Even stranger, Barbara Kingsolver is listed twice.)
  • Ulysses was once listed as an “alternative” to these offensive books, only to be removed when someone had gone to the trouble of reading it.
  • Harmon didn’t like Lord of the Flies because it was “depressing.”
  • Harmon used to be a public school teacher. No word what her career is now. Her husband builds churches. And, not surprisingly, she homeschools her kids.
  • “Good books can deal with difficult issues and not use the f-word, use graphic descriptions of sex and violence. That’s what great books do.” No clue on where Harmon stands on Norman Mailer’s cowardly use of “fug.”

To which we reply, fuck that.

Apparently, Harmon’s efforts haven’t been very successful. The Blue Valley Board of Education voted to keep Tobias Wollf’s This Boy’s Life (the book that made Harmon’s head explode) on the curriculum.

(Hat tip: Michael Schaub.)

Did the Van Man Wear Ray Bans?

Ronald Jordan, known as the White Van Man, stole tens of thousands of Lonely Planet guides and hawked them on the street with help of a few shadowy vendors. But he’s now been caught. London police have described the case as “a flashback to Victorian London,” though when pressed on whether Jordan wore gaiters and a silk cravat, they were unable to offer clear answers. The internal affairs unit has unearthed several “large Thackeray and Dickens collections” behind police lockers. “The lads aren’t taking drugs,” said London Police spokesman Peter Thorin. “They were overworked and were getting bored with the tedious work. So they read a lot on their spare time and started seeing associations that didn’t exist.”

A Books-A-Million in Alabama has removed Playboy and Playgirl from its shelves. The decision came because Alabama has one of the toughest anti-obscenity laws on the books. Apparently, display of human genitalia, buttocks or female breasts “for entertainment purposes” is verboeten. I’m surprised that the bookstore didn’t counter this. It’s clear to me they were selling the magazines “for commercial purposes.”

If you’re wondering what happened to Freaky Friday author Mary Rodgers, she’s still around. (Yes, I read all those books when I was a lad too, including A Billion for Boris and Summer Switch.) She’s 73, and her 1959 musical Once Upon A Mattress is being staged for a comeback.

Big surprise of the day: McSweeney’s puts up something funny.

The Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida suggests that current economic trends may be discouraging vital creativity.

And The New York Times reports that Bonslav Pekic is staging a comeback from the grave. Purportedly one of the finest writers in the Serbian language, Northwestern University Press has announced that a translation How to Quiet a Vampire will be released in the spring.

Bright Lights, Big Menu

I was going to pull some second-person take on Jay McInerney as New York Times restaurant critic. But, dammit, Liz Spiers beat me to it.

Kate DiCamillo has won the Newberry this year for The Tale of Despereaux. The book concerns a mouse who falls in love with a princess, which is a story that (in all seriousness) I’m likely to get behind. In her early days, DiCamillo collected more than 470 rejection letters, which shows not only that persistence pays off, but that it probably kills a lot of trees in the process.

Monotori Kishi’s Misshitsu, a comic book depicting gonads and, well, a lot of sex, has been ruled obscene in Japan. The obscenity precedent was laid down in 1957 with a Japanese translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Meanwhile, here at home, the Supreme Court has said no to an appeal in the Tony Twist/McFarlane battle.

Marginalia and Other Crimes shows library book damages in all their sad glory. (via Maud, who’s now back from her trip in Florida).

And, damn, Spalding Gray is missing. (via Bookslut)

The Cincinnati Enquirer is a Purveyor of Filth

Cincinnati Enquirer: “And for those outraged that the low-rated Doonesbury survived while Boondocks didn’t, we made the decision to drop Boondocks because we did not want to keep publishing a comic that we regularly needed to censor. During the past year, Boondocks was substituted a number of times because it was deemed inappropriate for a family newspaper. And not just this family newspaper. Editors across the country were making the same decisions.”

Well, you have to give the Enquirer credit for a creative excuse. Some folks have caled Boondocks unpatriotic or racist. But this is the first time I’ve heard of it being “inappropriate for a family newspaper.”

But is the Enquirer really a family newspaper?

August 5, 2001: This expose trying to demystify the N-word, mentioning “nigger” ten times and “nigga” ten times.

Peggy O’Farrell, April 9, 2003: “Dr. Safwat Zaki, a urologist with UC Physicians at University Pointe, says products purported to enlarge the penis don’t work. Some surgical options are available: Pumps can be implanted into the penis, and fat can be injected to increase its girth. But the injections don’t last, and the implants carry the risk of infection and scarring.” The Enquirer informing its readers on how to increase penis size? Indecent!

Margaret A. McGurk, Boogie Nights review: “Mr. Anderson handles the porn-making scenes with restraint; by focusing on the onlookers rather than the actors, he achieves an almost romantic mood. A few other sex scenes are hard to watch, particularly one that ends with a savage beating. Yes, there is some nudity, including a brief, display of Eddie’s claim to fame.” Reporting sex scenes! What is this? Adult Movie Guide? Indecent!

Jane Prednergast, March 25, 2000: “The Fort Thomas suspect used a condom, leaving detectives without semen to identify in the first home-invasion rape Fort Thomas has seen in years. That’s one aspect of the case that makes it different from the serial rapes being studied by investigators in Mason, Mont gomery and Colerain Township.” You don’t talk about semen or condoms in a family newspaper. Indecent!

Mike Boyer, September 29, 2002: “Pedro’s is planning a semen collection facility serving the entire Midwest on its farm, with Wisconsin-based Genex Cooperative Inc.” Indecent!

Tom Loftus, November 8, 2003: “Seelye said his jail’s procedure is to search new inmates ‘down to their undergarments’ in most cases. A thorough strip search was not done in Hawks’ case because such searches are done only when there is some suspicion that an inmate is bringing contraband into the jail, he said.” Groping inmates! Beyond indecent!

The Starr Report on the Enquirer servers: Colorful langauge all over the place.

Indecent, I say! Why stop with Boondocks? Why not shitcan all the writers?

(via Old Hag)

I Love You Too, Irvine (Sort Of)

To his supreme credit, Alexander McCall Smith claims that his remarks about Irvine Welsh have been “misinterpreted.” Welsh’s status has been downgraded to “a partially indecent hooligan whom I’ll never buy a drink for.”

A new Michigan law requires publications that depict “explicit content” to be covered up. Booksellers and reading groups are furious. And they’ve filed a lawsuit. In the meantime, they may want to consider covering up Ann Coulter’s books. Pretty explicit stuff, given that she’s advocated blowing up the New York Times building, as well as suggesting, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (via Sarah)

Catherine Kennan has a very juicy piece on highbrow personals. It doesn’t get any closer to understanding the phenomenon (who can?), but it does feature a very amusing exchange between Kennan and one of the guys behind a personal ad. And it’s impossible to resist this ad: “Find the 10th coefficient in the expansion of the binomial (1+x) to the 20th power. Then love me some more. Mathematical Ms, Cambridge.” (via Chica)

The latest culprit behind declining book sales? USA Today suggests it’s the DVD.

Sarah Waters has turned down a Who’s Who entry because she’s not sure how relevant the directory is to today’s world.

Columbia Journalism Review has a piece on former New Republic editor Gregg Easterbrook. It’s another guy fired because of blog story, but the cause here is far more nefarious (and strangely immediate).

And more on Norr from the Daily Planet. Efforts to track down settlement terms are nice from an outside source, but there are few conditional questions revealed.

Bonfires of the Vanities

Demonstrating to the world that nihilism begins in India, a mob has destroyed 30,000 ancient manuscripts because Oxford University Press spilled the beans about a Hindu king’s parents. Strangely, a similar book in the United States, Bill O’Reilly’s Who’s Lapping Up for You Now?: My Early Days as a Salamander, has not spawned any mobs or burnings. But there have been a few interview walkouts. (via Bookslut)

Martha Freeman’s The Trouble with Babies is a children’s book with a brief passage referencing two gay fathers. Predictably, the yokels are now damning it, citing the book’s “homosexual agenda.” The book’s been removed from library shelves and sales have dropped off because of this misperception. And the proposed Queer Eye for the Straight Dad spinoff series has been cancelled.


And the Whitbread goes to Mark Haddon’s The Very, Very Curious Incident of the Dog Who Was Let Out by the Baja Men in the Morning, Afternoon and Night Shortly After He Was Fed His Meal, which I’ve been meaning to read. Except I can never remember the exact title.

David Mamet is insane.

I didn’t realize the Alexander McCall Smith/Irvine Welsh thing had legs, but even in Scotland, they need their “bag of bones”/”entertainment not literature” Vidal/Mailer in-fights.

Andy Hamilton won’t write for BBC1. Hamilton claims that Auntie Beeb has pressured a writer to remove lesbian characters from a script to “incorporate the conservative tastes of focus groups.”

Modern Humorist: “Where are all the R’s? Is it a typographical error? Does the writer simply not like R’s? Or are there mysterious deeds at play, and are the R’s somewhow involved?”

Birnbaum talks with Jonathan Lethem. Birnbaum even gets Lethem to fess that Laura Miller is “making a contribution to literary journalism.” Birnbaum also shoots the goofy gale with Neal Pollack. Among the revelations: “[Eggers] said he didn’t want me along because my stuff was much more confrontational and in your face and aggressive and loud and profane. He wanted to take McSweeney’s in a more respectable direction. And then one day I woke up and my link was off the site. And I wasn’t a McSweeney’s guy anymore. Overnight. My main conduit for communicating over the Internet had been removed, so I had to start my own site.”

And The Chronicle has apparently reached a settlement with Henry Norr.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: It is quite likely that the Henry Norr story will be slipped under the rug. But I think it stands as a remarkable testament as to how a journalist’s outside activities are controlled to a great extent by his employer. As the newspapers continue to cut the coverage and eventually begin to drop, I am wondering if they’ll become even more controlling. Henry Norr, happily, is still writing — largely for online outlets. He can be found contributing reports for Macintouch and is still actively filing no-bullshit Macworld reports from the front lines.]

Memo to Writers: Please Stop Dying!

Writer Roy Clarke has been kicked out of Zambia. The cause? Calling President Levy Mwanawasa a “foolish elephant” and two ministers “baboons.” Apparently, Fleet Street tactics don’t get you far in Africa.

Philip Pullman’s trilogy is now a six-hour play. But its staging hasn’t been without controversy. A few febrile fans have planned to picket the theatres. But if playwright Nicholas Wright “includes the Tom Bombadil scene,” the production should be in the clear.

Pulitzer winner John Toland has died at 91. In addition to writing Hitler: A Bigass Biography to Demolish All Bigass Hitler Biographies, Toland won the 1971 Pulitzer for The Rising Sun, which covered the Japanese Empire during the same time period. A few other people who departed from this earth over the weekend: Barbara Jeffris and L.A. underworld novelist Douglas Anne Munson.

And David Kipen has a nice tribute to the recently late John Gregory Dunne.

I’ll try and scoop up more news later, but, as all of you nursing vacation hangovers should know by now, today involves something of a shift back into gangly routine. And it’s probably more abrasive than casually replacing your bar of soap with Brill-O-Pad. In the meantime, why not try some of the folks on the left, many of whom are returning back to their respective perches?

Heft, Hate, Outlines and Vanity

Looks like Vollman’s got competition. Muhammad Ali’s definitive life story weighs 75 pounds, runs 800 pages, costs £2,000, and includes over 3,000 photographs. The mammoth bio, however, is a team effort, with contributions by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. However, Greatest of All Time does suffer from an unfortunate acronym.

The Bakersfield yokels are hoping to ban Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from classrooms. Because anything dealing with sexual abuse and racism is, you know, “provocative.”

Patrick O’Brian’s unfinished 21st book in the Aubrey-Maturin series is being talked about for possible publication. O’Brian had an outline and a few chapters. But thankfully HarperCollins doesn’t plan on hiring a ghostwriter.

Forget Zoe Trope and the Gen Y spokesperson fracas over at Moby Lives. Factor in vanity presses and there’s plenty of speakers to go around, albeit unreadable ones. Mom and twelve year old are trying the self-publishing racket.

And is this headline the case of an overtaxed copy editor ready to slit his own throat because of all the Xmas hype?