The Literary Hipster’s Handbook — 2011 Q4 Edition

It has been five years since we last published a quarterly installment of The Literary Hipster’s Handbook. But the literary hipsters are still chattering.

“Ames it up”: The act of abandoning all literary activity to write for a television series. Also known as selling out or washing up. Literary hipsters who Ames it up are generally in their late 30s and early 40s and have lost much of their desire to write fiction. They beseech HBO and Showtime to give them a deal, attending dull meetings that are often spearheaded by illiterates, and, more often than not, end up writing material that is of noticeably inferior quality to their fiction. Literary hipsters who Ames it up continue to be observed at cocktail parties, where they are pitied by those who value art and passion more than money and vacuity.

“Duncan donuts”: 1. A hastily written essay written by a marginal literary figure (often of snobbish and humorless temperament) that only serves to widen the chasm initially created by said marginal literary figure. 2. An undesirable meal that literary hipsters should avoid. It is believed that the term was coined by two inebriated literary hipsters attempting to sober up in Dunkin Donuts while discussing Glen Duncan’s review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, but has since been used as a way to discourage other literary hipsters from eating anything from Dunkin Donuts.

“Dyer Maker”: A tedious and annoying individual who urges literary hipsters to read the latest essay written by Geoff Dyer. Dyer Makers are considered to be more insufferable than the Bolaño dilettantes, who can be easily forgiven. After all, the Bolaño acolytes are reading actual novels. Dyer Makers, by contrast, are merely reading mean-spirited criticism that has nothing especially original or substantive to say. In response to the Dyer Maker epidemic, several independent bookstores have created 86 lists identifying Dyer Makers in their community. The Dyer Maker is removed from the list once she can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and enthusiasm for D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, rather than some limey asshole’s reductionist take on Lawrence.

“Eugenides Vest”: Inspired in part by the Twitter account, a Eugenides Vest is a garment that a literary hipster wears, but ultimately discards after other literary hipsters have called attention to it. Much as Jeffrey Eugenides has failed to wear a vest at any public appearance after the Times Square billboard, the literary hipster’s Eugenides Vest, which is sometimes identified as a sweater or a scarf, is often considered to be a source of profound shame. It never occurs to the literary hipster that wearing the vest may actually augment the literary hipster’s approval within the community. In DUMBO, the term has also become an alternative term for Dumbo’s Magic Feather.

“to Keith”: To seek publicity and/or media attention by getting arrested at Occupy Wall Street. Literary hipsters who are Keithed generally have little interest in the actual movement and more interest in fulfilling their narcissistic fantasies. Much like those who are woodwinked, literary hipsters opting to Keith seek any excuse to avoid doing work or creating something that is truly ambitious and revolutionary.

“Rowan job”: Inspired by the recent Quentin Rowan plagiarism scandal, some literary hipsters have started to mimic other people’s seduction techniques, attempting to pass these moves off as their own. When the source of these seduction techniques is discovered, the literary hipster is then asked to withdraw from the dating scene due to “legal reasons.” (Note: Not to be confused with rim job.)

“woodwinked”: A feeling of crippling inferiority or needless resentment, sometimes expressed in published form and often mimicking the tone of a drama queen, whereby a literary hipster blames other people for his failure to produce a new novel. When woodwinked, the literary hipster spends much of his spare energies fixating upon some past incident (for example, a review written by James Wood from eight years ago) instead of working on new material. (Ex. Yeah, I’d go bowling with Toby, but he’s been such a drag ever since he got woodwinked.)

The Literary Hipster’s Handbook, 2006 Q4 Edition

“bad beef”: A literary prize ostensibly designed to assist struggling writers that goes instead to writers who don’t need the cash or the praise. Recent examples of bad beef include Haruki Murakami winning the O’Connor Short Story Award and John Updike winning the Rea Award. The phrase “bad beef” has begun to shift to writers who have secured a considerable windfall and who feel the need to remind more impoverished writers of their affluence. (Ex. He got him the Park Slope digs, the nubile wife, and he can write any novel he wants. And he don’t talk of nothing else. He keep up this bad beef and I’ll kick his bitchy little vegetarian ass.)

“Discomfort Zone”: An area in a bar or cafe populated by whiny middle-aged dilletantes to be avoided at all costs. Discomfort Zones are sometimes cordoned off with a red velvet rope, suggesting to the dilletante that he is a VIP. However, the real intent of the rope is to protect a happening establishment from “novelists” too stiff, gushing, and self-absorbed to join the more friendly and fun-loving clientele. (Or.: Jonathan Franzen.)

“Doubting Thomas”: A literary hipster who wishes to cast doubt on a forthcoming autumn title, particularly those with a sizable page count and those written by a white male in good standing. The term was inspired shortly after news broke on Thomas Pynchon’s forthcoming novel, Against the Day, and several literary hipsters began to cast serious doubts amidst the hype, demanding that the hype be shifted to experimental novels that only a handful of people will actually read. Other titles that Doubting Thomases have publicly questioned: Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, and Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land.

“This is/This is not…”: A rather curious conversational form has emerged among literary hipsters that is somewhere between a shit-flinging contest and a Socratic debate. Inspired by the two chicklit anthologies edited by Elizabeth Merrick and Lauren Baratz-Logsted, literary hipsters have begun to contradict each other, particularly in discussions involving misunderstood genres. The following conversation, for example, was overheard at a Greenwich Village pub:

HIPSTER 1: This is a novel.
HIPSTER 2: This is not a novel. It is a piece of shit.
HIPSTER 1: David Markson? This is wrong, cat. And I’ll kick your ass if you sully my man Markson’s name any further.
HIPSTER 2: This is not wrong. You haven’t read Hemingway, have you?
HIPSTER 1: This is a lie. (pause, hits HIPSTER 2 over the head with a beer bottle) How does that feel?
HIPSTER 2: This is not a lie. I am bleeding. Please take me to a hospital.
HIPSTER 1: This is your problem.
HIPSTER 2: This is not my problem. You hit me with the beer bottle. I expect you to pay my doctor’s bill.
HIPSTER 1: This is unreasonable. You’re the one contradicting me.
HIPSTER 2: This is not unreasonable. Will somebody call 911?

And so on.

As can be observed, this recent conversational trend can often end in horrible violence, leaving literary hipsters to pursue this vernacular as a last resort. Unfortunately, recent friction between the print media and the online media has resulted in more unnecessary head bashing and at least one stabbing, when two literary hipsters attempted to recreate the Lev Grossman/Edward Champion contretemps. (Fortunately, the stabbing hipster followed up by sending a fruit basket.)

It is advised by this lexicographer to avoid any conversations that play out along these lines.

“to Max out”: To use one’s questionable blogging abilities to secure a lucrative book deal, only to write a book so bad that not even a vaguely erudite leper will touch it. This euphemism came from the short-lived turn of phrase “to Cox out.” But since literary hipsters have no desire to remember or reference Ana Marie Cox’s dreadful novel, Dog Days in any way, and since, more importantly, Tucker Max is a douchebag, the term was changed to fit the ever-changing literary climate.

“to Wallace”: To write a generalization-laden essay over and over again, often employing a once fresh but now tired stylistic device such as footnotes. (Or.: “Federer as Religious Experience”)

The Literary Hipster’s Handbook — 2006 Q3 Edition

“ALK”: An unexpected career move by a literary person in a non-literary endeavor. (Ex. I saw Frank cutting the rug in a ballroom last night, man, but it turns out he was teaching a dancing class! Talk about an ALK!) (Apparent Origin of Term: A.L. Kennedy.)

“Booker nod”: A literary event with tiresome results, often producing soporific qualities in the participant. Named after the predictable nature of the 2006 Booker Award longlist, but recently expanded to include bookstore events, boardroom meetings, and drab cocktail parties. A legitimate Booker nod must involve someone falling asleep, thus signaling to other hipsters that the event should be avoided at all costs.

“to Liesl”: To heckle a writer or litblogger without identifying who they are. Literary hipsters have adopted this cowardly behavioral technique instead of resorting to snark. Liesling involves a hipster sneering down at an opponent, but often running away from the room when the target of his insults arrives. Also referred to as Freemaning (rare usage). (Or. Liesl Schillinger.)

“Otto Penzler”: A bitter person with nothing positive or rational to say; often a has-been. Otto Penzlers are frowned upon in current literary society and are secretly ridiculed, often in mixed company, when they cannot overhear the conversation.

“pass the Günter”: To reveal a past sin unexpectedly, often near the end of one’s life. Originated by Günter Grass’s unexpected revelations that he was a member of the SS. (Ex. I always thought Grandma was a kind and generous soul, but when she told the family that she gave head to a Cocker spaniel in her college days, I suspected that she had passed the Günter.”)

“Sittenfeld”: A rancorous outburst that causes unrelated parties to fight in a silly and protracted squabble. The first known Sittenfeld was initiated on June 5, 2005, which spawned a series of online battles pitting literary fiction writers against chick lit writers. The person who initiates the Sittenfeld often absolves herself of responsibility, waiting for karma to kick her in the ass one day.

The Literary Hipster’s Handbook, 2006 Q1 Edition

“Almond”: (n.) Generally, a talentless and paranoid midlist writer who believes in conspiracies and hallucinations. Almonds often have difficulty understanding eccentrics and are fond of convincing editors to pay them to spew embarrassing bile. (They may not be aware that the editors are using an Almond’s bluster to sell more issues and could care less about the Almond’s perspective.) Almonds are not to be confused with Ayelets, who are not aware of their embarassments. Indeed, an Almond revels in exposing his own shortcomings (while strangely concerned with mythical priapisms) and prefers bluster and TMI to craft and nuance.

“deco-op”: (v.) To not acknowledge the Litblog Co-Op in any way with the theory that the lack of attention will drive hardcore litbloggers insane. (Short answer: For hopeless cases, it does happen.) Literary hipsters might decide to deco-op when they learn that the Litblog Co-Op has picked a book considered “too popular.” Inevitably, most deco-opters, faced with the alternative of King Wenclas, generally return to the Litblog Co-Op’s pages for comfort or send hate mail to Mark Sarvas, blaming him for their problems.

“to dog out”: First overheard in a Brooklyn dive in reference to Ana Marie Cox’s move to nonfiction after Dog Days‘ terrible reviews, the term “to dog out” has now officially replaced “to dodge the issue.” Dogging out generally involves an author momentarily disappearing from the cocktail party scene and is particularly applicable to authors who are overhyped by the New York Times. There is very frequently heavy drinking and self-pity involved in “dogging out,” but, despite the term’s origins, sodomy is frowned upon during the healing process.

“frey up, to”: To betray readers in the most vile and self-serving manner. Hipsters should note that for extreme freyups, they should not say, “He really freyed up.” It is more common for hipsters to use “jamesfrey up” for extraordinary betrayals. (Ex. I always knew Caitlin Flanagan was a fuckup, but she jamesfreyed up her career after the Hustler spread. Now, not even the neocon soccer moms can take her seriously.)

“Leroy”: (n.) An unapproachable and socially maladjusted freak who attends author readings, often pretending to be the author. Leroys are mostly harmless. However, if you are a Hollywood actor or a literary figure, you may be pestered by a Leroy for attention, far more than a rabid fan. Literary hipsters are advised to disregard any and all Leroys. It’s really not worth it.

“Wickett, to” (v.) To seemingly occupy every known literary function. Alt. definition: To never rest or take a vacation. The term originated from the ongoing work of Dan Wickett and is generally used in a celebratory context. (Ex. William T. Vollmann Wicketted another 600 page novel while his family opened their Christmas presents.)

“Zadie”: (v.) To avoid interviews after saying something foolish or unfortunate to the press.

Wholphin, Eggers and Why I Can’t Believe

I picked up the January 2005 issue of The Believer, partly with the intention of seeing if the magazine was showing any signs of shedding its feel-good trappings (short answer: not really but not entirely worthless either) and partly because it included the first issue of Wholphin, a new quarterly “DVD Magazine of Unseen Things.” I like the idea behind Wholphin, which involves collecting a good deal of film shorts and assorted narratives that don’t really have a place outside of their initial small venues. But unfortunately, like almost anything that comes from the McSweeney’s Empire, the DVD carries the uncomfortable stamp of films that are just too safe to be innovative. In watching the material, I got the sense of holding an interesting object, but with the edges and the unique texture sanded down for non-offensive mass consumption. And in transposing the McSweeney’s watered down Barthelme voice to the film world, Wholphin offers a number of revelations which recall what Curtis White has identified as the Middle Mind. It is my sad duty to report that Wholphin is wholly disingenuous about its intent. It is neither explicitly intellectual nor explicitly for the masses. Sure, it’s a beautiful looking dinghy sailing with a directionless rudder. But unless it shakes off the Eggers yoke, it will be just another indistinct echo in the wind. A good idea that didn’t have to die.

Perhaps the problem with Wholphin (as with many McSweeney’s products) is its distressing inability to trust its readership. Indeed, the separation between the art offered and the marketing copy which accompanies it is entirely incongruous. It takes a hell of a conceit to tell an audience precisely how it should feel about something. And yet within Wholphin‘s accompanying booklet, this is exactly what goes down. “The House in the Middle” is described, “Your horror, shock, and rage at the country’s inability to help tax-paying citizens prepare for natural or man-made disaster will not be calmed by this film. But it is funny.” Note that it automatically assumes that its audience is composed entirely of good liberal thinkers who will automatically recontextualize the film within the framework of the Katrina fuckup. Note also the sanction to laugh, but whether the humor is directed at the film’s horrible depiction of how people should maintain their homes or presumably the now patented tone of the 1950s government-sponsored film, who can say? (And more anon on this tone when I get to the Spike Jonze film.)

Indeed, the interviews in the accompanying booklet make the reasons for spawning the art suspect. Scott Prendergast reveals that he made “The Delicious” because he wanted to “dress up in crazy costumes and act like a weirdo.” And indeed his film is nothing more than that: a paper-thin premise unfolding at a snail’s pace in which Prendergast, whose bemused expressions and wiry physicality aren’t entirely unlaudable, quickly wears out his welcome.

When you put the DVD into your player, you get a menu of the choices. One of three different films (two apparently by Jeroen Offerman) plays. And if, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes getting the DVD set up for viewing (due in large part to those irritating trailers you can’t skip through anymore that are put on most DVDs) while you go into the other room and grab a glass of wine (or two), you’re probably going to be as irritated as I was that a film starts playing if you’re not exactly trigger-happy with the remote. Meaning that instead of getting to experience a short film in its entirety, you walk in to your surprise and find that you’re midway through a guy singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. This forces you to hit the stop button and try to access the aforementioned film (“Stairway at Saint Paul”), only to find that there’s no option to go directly to the film (whose bright idea was that?) and that if you’re interested in the film, you will be subject to one of the three random films, who knows which one, playing from the beginning. If the idea here is that Wholphin is meant to be experienced without interruption, I have news for editor Brent Hoff. Understand that some of us out here don’ t need to be barraged by data at every minute and, in fact, we want to experience the art in toto.

The first offering is Miguel Arteta’s “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?,” a collaboration with filmmaker/Believer contributor Miranda July. (This is one of many suspicious Eggers connections that accompany the disc. It’s not so much celebrating innovation, but also keeping promoting the efforts of those “in the family.”) A man who looks suspiciously like Friend of Eggers Stephen Elliott can be seen in three quarters profile, until he turns around and we realize that it’s actually John C. Reilly. Whether this was intentional (and it’s certainly a thesis for an Auctorial Doppelganger that will likely never happen) or not remains a mystery. But the material itself, despite the presence of the always good Reilly, comes across as a tossed off and entirely insubstantial home movie. The titular question could have been used as a way to expose how shallow the process of introspection can be (apposite rhetoric for the 826 Valencia crowd, I think), but it becomes instead the basis for a vanity project that isn’t particularly penetrating. Heads talking insubstantially about insubstantial topics. The gimmick of Reilly with a clipboard. Ha ha. Perhaps the question was intended to be presented to the viewer with unintentional irony. Why else would it have been placed first on the menu? We’re all friends here, right? You’ll enjoy us without question, yes? Because we here are your favorite people in the world!

Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Sigel’s “The Big Empty” shows more promise, both as an interesting way of producing filmed versions of McSweeney’s stories (it comes from Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” which originally appeared in McSweeney’s #11) and as a way of profiling unusual material. Sadly, this too comes across as a vanity project, despite the fact that Selma Blair is utterly right for the part of a woman who has an arctic wasteland inside her that can only be accessed through her vagina. And if that premise sounds edgy or dangerous, let me assure you that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t come across that way when it should. The film in general is seriously undermined by its Wes Anderson-style obsession with ostentatious perfection (books lined up meticulously in square piles with the camera dollying across as if the atmosphere is more important than the human moment), along with the distracting presence of Haskell Wexler as a bookstore customer and the uncomfortably carnal quid-pro-quo credit of “Executive Producers: George Clooney Steven Soderbergh.” This is clearly a film that values style over substance, a catastrophic emphasis given its high-concept premise. It has all the tricks that money will buy, but it is soulless even in its one modest moment of earnestness (a dorky guy asking Blair how she feels).

Another case of style killing pith is Brian Dewan‘s “The Death of the Hen,” which contextualizes a tale in the form of a filmstrip (complete with the beeps preceding the switch of the slide). Again, the stylistic idea here, presumably intended for those who remain mired by elementary school nostalgia from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, is an interesting one. But the tale’s details are so digressive that it once again becomes difficult to get attuned to the story. At one point, a fox asks to hop into a carriage pulled by six mice. Agreement is made. And then without warning or explanation, the carriage is filled up with all manner of animals. Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that such a digressive detail is thrown into the mix? Yes, it fits into some of the inexplicable narratives featured in filmstrips. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting, indeed more audacious, if Dewan actually accepted the medium of the filmstrip on its own terms? What of a filmstrip that used the cheery tone and the formality to tell a bleak tale inside a crackhouse, an ironic metaphor on the failed drug wars of the time? Now that would be innovative!

One of the most problematic inclusions here is an episode of Talti Hayat, billed here as “the Turkish Jeffersons,” which is a specious comparison at best. For one thing, the couple of this series is not radically different in ethnicity, but are essentially an upper-class couple living “the sweet life,” surrounded by amicable maids and the goofy guy in a red sweater next door. In other words, what we’re dealing with here is a very banal and pretty run-of-the-mill sitcom, not terribly interesting, unless of course you’re one of those base humans who believes that all Asian women are bad rivers and thinks that listening to a Turkish sentence that you don’t understand is the most hilarious thing you’ve heard since the dead parrot sketch (or, failing that, a Jerky Boys routine).

What makes this exercise tasteless is the fact that the McSweeney’s people have hired various writers to provide alternative subtitle tracks. This might have been a good idea, but none of the translations hold a candle to MST3K and they are all designed to mock material which is simply too insubstantial to skewer. And even though the liner notes say, “No offense whatsoever is intended by the writers towards the actors, the Turkish people, Germans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, fans of Gilmore Girls, or any other group,” the statement is suspect when the alternative subtitle tracks contain such racist lines as “Menskshe! Where did you hide my water pipe? I left it there on the dresser” (as penned by A.G. Pasquella), essentially implying that all Turks are bonged out scatterbrains. I suspect that this represents the dark underbelly of the so-called McSweeney’s feel-good beat. On one hand, don’t offer anything with edge. But when immersed within the exercise of groping for free associative humor, you can hide behind that comfy mask of irony, claiming that a particularly uncreative and racist line isn’t really racist. and that it was all in good fun.

The two strongest segments on Wholphin are, interestingly enough, the ones by major filmmakers. David O. Russell (a Friend of Spike, who is a Friend of Eggers) offers excerpts from his documentary Soldier’s Pay. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the film in its entirety and can recommend it. While the excerpts here to some degree reflects the “good thoughtful liberal” audience impression frequently assumed by the McSweeney’s editorship, it’s still a welcome inclusion.

But Spike Jonze’s documentary on Al Gore demonstrates not only Wholphin‘s potential but its failings. The story was this: In 2000, Spike Jonze, hot off the success of Being John Malkovich, was commissioned by the Gore for President campaign to make a documentary to be shown at the National Democratic Convention, presumably because this would help Gore’s “stiff” image problem and get him down with the kids. Jonze, relatively stunned by all this (one gets the sense that he was a bit clueless actually), decided to simply drive up to the Gore family house with his tiny video camera and shoot whatever struck his fancy.

The result is a fascinating little film. One sees Gore remaining guarded even during private family moments. The film can be viewed as a stunning revelation (in hindsight, at least) about how a politician, constantly concerned with his image even while letting his guard down bodysurfing and selecting a VHS tape for family movie night, could never really loosen up. But it’s clear from the tape that he wants to loosen up. But he can’t. It’s impossible in the age of soundbytes. And because there are invisible antennae protruding from just behind Gore’s head, always cognizant of a camera or journalist in the room or from sixty miles away, Jonez’s film, perhaps unintentionally, is the study of what life must be like to have absolutely no privacy, to kiss your wife when you know there is somebody watching. I suppose in this sense, Gore’s stiffness actually made him more real than the competition. For how can any of us really remain true and spontaneous if there will be constant cameras and stenographers recording our every move?

Wholphin, however, catastrophically ignores this salient revelation (and perhaps this revelation is what kept the film from speculation; nobody wants a candidate that appears even remotely nervous) in favor of the following text in its booklet:

This film might have wiped away, in twenty-two minutes*, Gore’s reputation as a robot. If nothing else, it might have at least calmed a few jumpy liberals into reconsidering their protest vote. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the film was shelved. (Dramatic pause.) Until now. It may seem like a sweet, simple study of a loving American family, but in our opinion, Jonze’s short film could have changed the world.

* — Nevermind that the film clocked in at sixteen minutes on my DVD player.

We’re now five years away from the damn Supreme Court decision and we’re still basking in this baffling, back-slapping “what the would could have been” liberal bullshit, in the same flag-wrapping manner that conservatives evoke September 11 to justify their latest fascist legislation. It is embarassing that such a jejune conclusion would accompany so fascinating a film. It is adolescent that such revolutionary claptrap would be uttered instead of sucking it up and facing the cold hard honesty: Al Gore wasn’t the one. So who might be the candidate for 2008? And what can we do to make the current situation better? (Not so subtle hint to those liberals clutching their blankets like Linus right now: Midterm elections are happening this year.)

Understand that for all of my criticisms of Eggers, McSweeney’s, The Believer and now Wholphin (and, for that matter, the n + 1 crowd), in my heart of hearts, I really want them to succeed. But if one wishes to remain truly independent, truly underground, and truly shake the foundations of intellectual thought, making assumptions about your audience, telling them exactly how they should think and exactly how they should feel and insisting that revolutionary zeal might have been in the air when the circumstances really can’t be proved is the kind of mentality I expect from a starry-eyed undergrad student clinging to his idealism, not the finest writers and editors of our time. It involves saying no to such bullshit as Snarkwatch, which places such restrictions on how one can think and how one should kvetch without considering that a little rant here and there isn’t entirely unhealthy. It involves actually listening to the “crazed maniacs” who denounce you and who disagree with you rather than keeping a Nixon-style Enemies List (various rumors have reported that Eggers keeps a list along these lines, but there is apparently nothing to corroborate this). And it involves considering dangerous topics, even pissing off a friend who disagrees with you on something. It involves considering all sides of the perspective, however difficult and painful. Nobody said thinking was easy.

Ask yourself this: wouldn’t the Believer, McSweeney’s and Wholphin be fantastic if they weren’t so afraid to walk on the wild side? If they took the 0bvious enthusiasm that’s there within its staffers and combined it with even the tinge of outrage?

So I publicly ask Heidi Julavits, Ed Park, Vendela Vida, Dave Eggers and Brent Hoff (and, for that matter, Ben Marcus) the following question: Why do you continue to commit hari-kari? Why can’t you be honest? Why must you steer the whims of your audience? Are you that insecure about the work in question? Why are you so terrified to express a few negative emotions from time to time? Were you all walked over as kids or something? Come on, you and I know that you’re better than these shaky presumptions and insular claptrap!

In short, why can’t I believe? Because I’d really like to.

In Defense of Bret Easton Ellis

Just when we thought we had heard the last about Lunar Park, Dan Green has offered this thoughtful post on the book, approaching Ellis’ work from the standpoint of Lunar Park (Dan’s sole exposure to Ellis, but this does not stop Dan from criticizing books that, by his own admission, he has not even read) and not finding him agreeable.

It is interesting to me that Ellis, even with this latest offering (which is, I must confess, lacks the ardor of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, or American Psycho, but is not as middling either), continues to divide people. And I would suggest that the divide occurs more between people who enjoy entertainment and people who enjoy literature and, to a greater extent, style vs. narrative.

Ellis’ work is largely episodic in nature. If you’re coming to Bret Easton Ellis for a coherent plot, then you’re best advised to look elsewhere. It unapologetically drapes itself in brand name description. And it often goes down extraordinarily atavistic routes that involve graphic mutilations of women (the source of most of Ellis’ controversy). Does this preclude us from enjoying Ellis? I don’t think so. The key to appreciating Ellis, I think, is that you’re not intended to relate or identify with his characters. (Certainly, one cannot imagine a level-headed person relating to American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, who is clearly a homicidal maniac.) Rather, you are supposed to remove yourself and see these characters from the outside, determining whether or not you can accept the fact that terrible behavior is happening around you. Are you truly acquainted with this world? Is this a world that you’re deliberately ignoring? Ellis’ pugilistic tone does often test a reader’s limits. It might be argued that the prose itself contains a blueprint for a certain culture that Americans often overlook, framed within what seems a throwaway read.

Consider the opening of Less Than Zero:

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk.

If we take this at face value, then we see writing composed of repetitive details, formed through run-on sentences, composed of simple language that feels disjointed, and details that are extraordinarily general. However, if we filter this passage through perspective (and this, I would argue, is the key to appreciating Bret Easton Ellis’ work), then we see a dead-accurate portrayal of Southern California life in the 1980s: obsessed with mundanities, groping to remember things and struggling with details. Perhaps this represents a mind set that Dan Green may not find palatable. (He calls the fictional Bret Easton Ellis of Lunar Park “an extremely annoying character” and his umbrage seems to be targeted towards the character’s behavior. Because he then complains that this BEE is “unpleasant” and “utterly contemptible.”) But is it truthful? Should it be explored? I say, you bet.

And I would argue that forcing the reader to examine the rudimentary underbelly is precisely Ellis’ point.

In the passage cited above, we see Clay (the narrator) trying to take in some half-assed remark, perhaps some primitive homily to hang onto, and we immediately establish the mental timbre at which this world operates. It is not always absurd. It is often quite brutal. But it is certainly one that involves a wholesale reversal of conventions (McDonald’s seen not as a family-friendly restaurant, but as a place to eat alone in Less Than Zero; tacky and commercial records favored over the artistic in the Huey Lewis, Genesis and Whitney Houston in American Psycho; and trick-or-treating in which youngsters don’t walk from house-to-house, but hop into their parents’ SUVs to travel such a short distance in Lunar Park). In this way, we can style Ellis a cultural observer and, at least to my eyes, an entertainer. This is funny stuff.

I would agree with Dan that the book’s horror elements, hung upon mere homage, fall notoriously flat and cause the book to peter out just as it has dared to bare its soul. But where Lunar Park is ambitious in the way it adds another level to Ellis’ stylistic cultural riffing. Now, in addition to wondering whether the world and mentalities as presented within the prose can be believed, we’re also wondering how much of the extant details reflect the real Bret Easton Ellis. The metafiction, it turns out, has been there all along. No, it’s not Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow. The writing itself is often ingenuous. But I believe Ellis’ purpose in planting a version of himself into his novel is to suggest that, all along, his novels have been operating as a fey anthropological filter.

The “supremacy in imagination” doesn’t come from the characters or the patchwork plots (Glamorama is, perhaps, the most ridiculously plotted of all of Ellis’ novels). The imagination in question has everything to do with how much the reader is willing to expand his own world consciousness. And what Ellis is telling us, I think, is that this world is an ugly place, hombre, and we better start paying attention.

Hiatus (Sorta)

We’ve been working our keisters off here. Two Segundo shows in the works (one we hope to get up tonight with a very special guest), with a third one on the way. So literary news and the like are going to be slow for the time being. Bear with us.

In the meantime, please enjoy:

  • Mark Sarvas talking with John Banville, Part I.
  • Bud Parr’s response to A.O. Scott’s NYT article comparing The Believer and n + 1.
  • Laura Miller’s humorless response to T.C. Boyle’s excellent new short story collection, Tooth and Claw. (Yes, Scott, I know, I told you it was “a mixed bag,” but that was on the basis of reading the first three stories, only one of which was so-so. Since then, the collection has picked up remarkably and I recommend it to all RotR readers looking to restore their faith in the short story, if not for the deliciously caustic finale of “Jubilation” and the near perfect “The Swift Passage of the Animals” alone, the latter being a witty depiction of dating loaded with nuance and quiet metaphors that are apparently quite invisible to Ms. Miller.)
  • Laila Lalami reviews Desertion in The Nation.

Giving Head to a Hot Young Writer: A Special Column by Jay McInerney

We were drinking Stoli and snorting lines off an expensive hooker’s back, discussing a certain young stallion who’d the paper of record had puffed up before and who we had hoped to blow ourselves right when this Bolivian marching powder went straight to our heads. “Who cares, Jayster,” said my friend, who may or may not have been married. “Writers in their 20’s are good for one thing and one thing only: dependable fellatio.” I don’t know — I guess that’s possible, as many hipsters and not a few seedy men with glittering threads have claimed, that I’m a sad case for an author gone horribly awry after a stunning debut, but I remain, long after passing any literary relevance, strangely interested in wine and any book review opportunity where I can make a desperate stab at reclaiming any credibility I once had. I devour first novels, weeping profusely at the world that I shall never know again. I’ve tried to use second voice in some of my later fiction work, hoping for a comeback, but people have thought my efforts a pathetic gimmick. They’re right, of course. I have very little much to say any more. It doesn’t help that the weasley Michael J. Fox starred in the film adaptation of my book and that I have to explain constantly to people that I am not, in fact, married to Tracy Pollan.

But that’s where Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision” comes in. Ben (and I assure you that I have good reason to use his first name here) has penned a novel that I would gladly bob my head for. I would unzip Ben’s pants without a second thought. So should we all. When I read Ben’s book, I felt a certain inexplicable faith that I couldn’t put into words. The kind of ineffable sensation that one experiences when one undergoes an erection while flipping through a family album and fingering a hot cousin (not the cousin, silly, but the photo, of course!). It’s a bit taboo to think about this, but now that we’re all out here in the open, I’d like to see a show of hands. How many of you drop your pants when you get sexually excited by a novel? Furthermore, how many of you are compelled to call up the author, see if the author’s available for a hot weekend, and then perform as much fellatio (or cunnilingus; let’s consider both genders here) as this author demands over a 48 hour period?

Anyone who’s followed my work knows that I don’t hold back. I tell it like it is. And when I say to you that Benjamin Kunkel is an author who deserves as much fellatio as America can give him, well then you know that’s no bullshit coming from Uncle Jay! Ben is cute and cuddly and his book is the cat’s pajamas. And while I can’t quite figure out what it is that makes Ben’s book work, let me just say that I think he’s “deeply aware” of what a novel is all about — meaning that he has probably read at least fifty books in his lifetime and has picked up the basics.

Ben is ready to be fawned and groomed over like a hot coal in a blacksmith’s callused hands. Let him have groupies, masseuses, admirers, sycophants and, of course, we trusty fellators. You see, Ben Kunkel has exploded onto the literary scene like a ripe pinata. He’s the kind of man who I’d happily mix my metaphors for, if not Ben’s drinks.

Of course, once the ballyhoo dies down, you may just find Ben here on these review pages writing about some other hot young stallion ready to be spanked. Let us all hope that Mr. Kunkel’s grace and gratitude is as great as his talent. For so many others, like me, have been rash and wrong before.

Chuck Klosterman: A Manboy Who Must Be Stopped

Back when Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs came out, Mark Ames penned a remarkably vicious review for the New York Press. At the time, I was only familiar with Klosterman’s work for Spin and Esquire. He seemed, like many of the “ironic” and solipsistic hipsters banging out vapid articles for music magazines, relatively harmless and someone I could easily ignore. I just never understand why he was lionized by some as “an incredibly talented yarn-spinner.”

But now that I’ve had the misfortune of reading one of Klosterman’s books, I can identify greatly with Mark Ames’ sentiments. Klosterman’s new book is Killing Yourself to Live. (And, interestingly enough, Mark Ames has reviewed this one as well.) I assure you that any reasonable and thinking person reading this contretemps of lazy writing and outright stupidity may just harbor suicidal thoughts. This book is one of the dumbest and most vile things I’ve read in several years. One imagines a new noun, “Klosterfuck,” being used to describe the nightmarish and earth-shattering moment that occurs any time Klosterman bangs something into his laptop with all the grace and subtlety of a hulking John Tesh staggering over a keyboard.

The book purports to be a road trip across America, the result of a lengthy Spin assignment that had Klosterman shuttling from town-to-town to ferret out the legacies of dead rock stars, arming himself with a rental car (which he calls his “Tauntan”) and loads of CDs to play along the way. It’s an interesting premise, but the hell of it is that Klosterman is too dumb and too indolent a writer to actually do the legwork. He doesn’t bother to call up the Hotel Chelsea in advance to find out what happened to Room 100 (the room where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen), let alone track down any of the surviving employees who might have had some insight into how the infamous couple lived. Instead, he berates Chelsea manager Stanley Bard for politely telling Klosterman that the Cheslea didn’t want to be involved with Klosterman’s story (perhaps because Klosterman is utterly dumb, ignorant and tactless in his approach, asking the desk clerk point blank if anyone has stayed in Room 100, a room that was long ago turned into an apartment). So what does Klosterman do? Like a small child denied his second scoop of rocky road, he badmouths both Bard and the Chelsea.

This ADD approach to journalism continues as Klosterman heads to West Warwick, Rhode Island to find out about the kind of people who attended the Station, the infamous nightclub that where the Great White tragedy went down. Klosterman talks with a few people, but instead of allowing their statements to tell the story, Klosterman, being the egomaniacal writer that he is, plants remarkably vapid conclusions such as, “To me, that’s what makes the Great White tragedy even sadder than it logically was: One can safely assume that none of the 100 people who died at the Station that night were trying to be cool by watching Great White play 20-year-old songs.” Right, Chuck. It’s not about pursuing the more nuanced notion of how the Station was a nexus point for the West Warwick community and how it will forever be associated with killing 100 people because of Jack Russell’s stage antics. It’s about how “cool” or “not cool” everyone was. Even more remarkable, Klosterman spends more time dwelling upon the cheap cocaine he snorts in a West Warick resident’s pickup.

I suppose by this remarkably myopic perspective, if Klosterman were covering the Iraq conflict, it would be about how genuine a mother looked just after the moment a bomb wiped out her extended family.

If being dumb and having no sense of context weren’t bad enough, Klosterman is also adamantly anti-intellectual, continuously solipsistic and downright irresponsible. Here’s a small sample of highlights:

I have never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about. (21)

Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a specific version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one. (26)

When I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation in 1995, I remember being impressed that she intended to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” if she ultimately slit her wrists in the bathtub, opting for the Beatles instead of her own personal Jesus, Bruce Springsteen. (50)

Americans seem to know what’s funny, but they don’t know why. (59)

Physically, I almost never enjoy the process of exercise, but I feel naturally tougher when I finish. Most important, running lets me eat anything I want, and it allows me to drink every day (if I need to). (64)

I don’t want to die, but I certainly adore the idea of being dead. I know it’s pathetic to enjoy the notion of your friends calling each other to discuss your untimely demise, but I love it. Maybe Spin would dedicate an issue to me. (66)

The events of 9/11 are often compared to the events of a nightmare. This is a surprisingly avvy analogy, because hearing someone’s memories from the morning of 9/11 is not unlike having someone preface a conversation with the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night.” When someone wants to talk about a dream, you can never say, “I don’t care.” You have to care. (84)

You know what’s the best part about driving by yourself? Talk radio. Talk radio offers no genuine insight about anything, but I always feel like I am learning something; I always feel like I suddenly understand all the people I normally can’t relate to at all. (103)

So here is the big question: Is dying good for your career? Cynics always assume that it is, but I’m not so sure anymore. (121)

This last passage will really floor you. Interestingly enough, this skimpy book has an index, but I found it interesting that there was nothing listed for “Bryant, Kobe.”

The single hottest topic on today’s omnipresent AM chatter was the identity of Kobe’s accuser, and whether her name should be withheld by the media; the staple argument, of course, is that her identity must remain hiden because there’s so much social baggage associated with being a rape vitim. This strikes me as a peculiar line of reasoning. Certainly, there is a social stigma that comes with being raped; however, there’s obviously a far greater stigma with being perceived as a rapist. Bryant’s reputation is destroyed forever, regardless of his guilt or innocence in this case. I also can’t fathom why rape shield laws don’t allow the defense to question the alleged victim’s mental condtion. I mean, what if this women is insane? What if she regularly accuses people of rape? How can that not matter in a court of law?

Yes, you read those sentences right. In the Klosterman universe, it’s the bitch’s fault of course. A rape charge is some byproduct of hysteria and a court of law relies upon hearsay and speculation rather than facts to try a case.

If you’ve read any of these statements, and you were as baffled as I was by the half-formed observations (if they can even be styled observations) and the outright inane generalizations here, you’re probably thinking that they came from a high school student or some hapless LiveJournaler.

But the man who penned these puerile sentiments is 33. Not sixteen, not even in his early twenties. We’re talking about a man already well initiated into adulthood.

If this tone here is intended as a sort of detached irony, I don’t buy it. Because irony relies upon an underlying subtext (such as “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”). Here, we have extremely crude observations that are quite explicit about their crude meaning. Thus, Klosterman’s innate stupidity must be taken at face value.

Further, one must marvel over Klosterman’s astonishing superficiality, which seems dictated by crude reactions to the pop culture around him. This is not to suggest that pop culture can’t be written about. I’m only arguing that it be written about at some basic level of intelligence, putting an album, for example, into a broader cultural perspective. With Klosterman, we have none of this, save for cheap dichotomies such as “Pot/Creedence” and “Coke/Interpol.”

I’ve kvetched several other places about the McSweeney’s reliance upon pop culture (and specifically, Dave Eggers’) as a crutch. But at least Eggers’ writing is an earnest effort to ape Saul Bellow — for better or worse. And on ocassion (specifically, his story, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” his homage to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the first Chabon-edited McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales compilation), his work has been about something more than references to 1980s sitcoms and Donald Barthleme homages.

But Klosterman’s work is about nothing.

In fact, it’s safe to say that Klosterman’s anti-intellectual, uninformed and just plain unthinking approach to writing extends well beyond the page. Consider his response to Ames’ initial review:

That was just weird. I had never read the NY Press before, I had never met (or even heard of) the dude who wrote that piece, and the whole thing was just sort of befuddling. I’m sure most people who saw that piece undoubtedly had no idea who I even was! All in all, I guess I didn’t think about it very much. It wasn’t all that different than being criticized on some cokehead’s blog. I mean, if the guy who wrote that article was smart OR talented, he obviously wouldn’t be working for the NY Press.

In other words, although Klosterman has not read the New York Press, he is willing to cast an uninformed opinion that anyone who writes for them is neither smart nor talented. Further, there’s the strange inference that any vitriolic blogger is a cokehead.

Since we’re talking low culture here, if Klosterman can be likened to a cultural icon, I’d compare him with Joel Goodsen, the Tom Cruise character from Risky Business. We all associate that movie with the indelible image of Tom Cruise sliding across a hardwood floor in his underwear: the ultimate symbol of rebellion. But this is not pure rebellion along the lines of James Dean. Let’s face the facts: Joel was an irresponsible asshole. He thinks nothing of resorting to adolescent activity when his mother’s Steuben egg and his father’s Porsche are damaged and tries to cover this up by turning the home into a brothel. (This supports another theory of mine which will have to be discussed at length: Tom Cruise only works when he plays a dickhead. But that will have to wait for another cultural musing.)

But Joel Goodsen (and Tom Cruise) is cool. And so is Klosterman. But the hollow shell that is Joel Goodsen (and Klosterman) remains largely unexamined. In fact, it is embraced.

Of course, Joel Goodsen’s behavior was framed within a satirical context. And he was, after all, both a teenager and a fictional character.

But Klosterman is a grown man and, much to humanity’s great regret, all too real. In a just world, he would be pumping gas somewhere instead of being allowed to write. He is, in short, a moronic manboy who must be stopped.

[RELATED: Dana starts up a valuable service: Serial killer or rock critic?]

“Real Life” Fiction

Maud points to “literature from the underground” from the ULA, everybody’s favorite group of Knut Hamsun/Henry Miller flunkies. One suspects that the ULA’s problem is their aversion to editing. So as a service to the ULA’s genius writers, I’ve decided to help them out with the first two paragraphs of Emerson Dameron’s “Uptown Valhalla”:

Thursday evening, 8:34 PM. I jerked awake on my brother?s couch in Uptown. [How does one jerk awake on something as uncomfortable as a couch? A couch will deaden your back muscles and hinder the waking process.] ?At least I don?t have a hangover; that?s a goddamn miracle,? I thought [Why express this as a thought? Shouldn’t he be feeling this or the omniscient voice expressing this?], right before the railroad spike went in one ear and out the other. [Who the hell are you? Pheinas Gage? This makes no sense whatsoever.] I glanced at the coffee table. I shoveled my hands in my pockets. Wallet and keys were not forthcoming. [To shovel is to dig and unearth some sediment. One cannot shovel and produce nothing. It is like applying a shovel to air.]

Fortunately, my sibling [Your brother? Your sibling? Does he have a name? Is this even relevant?] had a few twenties stashed in a Pokemon Stadium cartridge [Aren’t these unnecessary pop cultural references what you’re damning Dave Eggers about?] on the bookshelf. I left the apartment and plodded toward a local jazz club, rubbing the fresh, acne-like bumps on my scalp. [Did you recently shave your head or is this supposed to be metaphorical? This sounds more like eczema rather than “acne-like” description that fails to tell it like it is. Clarify.] It felt like a TB test was coming up wrong. [Yeah, and I feel like a simile tossed out in desperation.] A nest?s worth of defiant hornets buzzed ?round my circulatory system. [Make up your damn mind. Does his head hurt? Is he suffering from a condition? This is incoherent rubbish.] These weren?t coke bugs. I know what those feel like. [Too bad that we don’t, becaue you’re incapable of clarity.] They look for escape routes, whereas these li?l fellas seemed to be on some sort of reconnaissance mission. [Ho ho ho!]

Now if I were a literary editor, the above bracketed statements would be racing through my mind. I’d toss this story out in an instant. This isn’t “real” writing. It’s junk. I’m sorry to be rough on Mr. Dameron. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But the ULA has yet to offer a compelling reason why we should subsidize people who put together this kind of drivel in one draft while others spend years starving in rat-infested garrets actually developing their craft. Like it or not, there are some people who can write, and there are others who can’t.

You want real life, Wenclas? I’ll show you rooms of starving writers (and patient spouses) turning out novel after novel, receiving rejection slip after rejection slip, and continuing despite the fact that 90% of everything is crap and that bleary-eyed editors are beleagured by “aspiring writers.”

The simple truth is that when a story has so many foolish inconsistencies embedded within its first two paragraphs, even the most experimental editor won’t have the patience when the piece is competing against a vertiginous slush pile of manuscripts. And I say this is a good thing. As readers, we only have so much time in our lives to devote to the neverending amateurs and incompetent moonlighters who pester like self-entitled whiners. And even then, we have to choose from what’s published.

The ULA wants to “overthrow” the literary establishment. Well, that’s silly. Because, for the most part, these people know what they’re doing. They read perhaps more than any of us. Granted, money plays a sizable role in their decisions. But then money plays a sizable role in everyone’s decisions. Even the wannabe Bohemian writer who spends hours of his time railing against the machine rather than writing a novel.

I’d have more respect for the ULA if they were actually promoting something of value. But they are a first-class literary sham. They’re the assholes you encountered in high school who wanted divisiveness for the sake of divisiveness, fools who would spend a whole lifetime making enemies, rather than truly “fucking up the shit from the inside” like the best of subversive novelists. And as such, they deserve no respect: not from you, not from me, and certainly not from anyone who seriously cares about literature.

The Literary Hipster’s Handbook — 2004 Q2 Edition

“con-fuse”: When an author uses his reputation to offer an overlong and unedited book, thus conning his audience into buying or reading it, and eventually lighting the reader’s fuse. (Or: Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle.)

“Dale Pecker”: An unpleasant asshole at a literary cocktail party who claims erudition, but who will never shut up. The distinction between a Dale Pecker and a socially maladjusted person is that the latter still has a love of literature, while the former does not. Term expected to fade into obscurity before summer. Use sparingly. (Ex. I was shooting the shit with Bill over China Mi鶩lle’s upcoming New Crobuzon book, when this Dale Pecker came up and wouldn’t shut up about Ted Chiang.)

“get Doctorowed”: To be booed at a literary gathering, often when one blusters about politics. (Or. E. L. Doctorow) (Ex. He had the audience in the palm of his hands, until he got Doctorowed after referring to some obscure and apparently evil legislative acts against potatoes.)

“Laura crown”: Generally used when a person has repeated the same point in 35 different ways over the course of an hour. A term sometimes punctuated with a pantomine gesture that causes the person to which the phrase is being directed to bow down and become donned with an imaginary crown of laurels. Reported inspiration: Laura Miller.

“niggerati”: Out of style. A failed effort to sound politically incorrect in the comic style of Richard Pryor, but a term that ultimately sounds silly and serves no purpose save through contextual mocking of the term’s originator. Source: Alice Randall, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, discovered by Old Hag

“to Rushdie”: To read a literary book that is too long and not very good and slip into a despondent state. Also, used in the context of flashy marriages and writing — the latter, more specifically applied to anything Salman Rushdie has scribed from The Moor’s Last Sigh onwards.

“swink away”: To become thoroughly rapt with a hip literary magazine like Swink or Pindelyboz, only to be found in a semiconscious state under the docks days later, magazine clutched tightly in hand.

“wonketting off”: Disparaging. Used when angry bloggers express jealousy over the possibility of other bloggers getting book deals, even if the book deals in question are not forgeone conclusions. Often used by paranoid types who have too much spare time and believe the blogosphere is out to get them. Sources of grief: Ana Marie Cox and Daniel Radosh “Talk of the Town” piece.

Those Nanny Diaries Gals Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Plum Sykes

Sykes, a 34-year-old contributing editor at Vogue and the more dramatic sister of a nineties ?It?-girl twin set??Lucy and I were Paris and Nicky without the sex tape??received a $625,000 advance for her novel from Miramax Books in 2002. Bergdorf Blondes turns out to be a Devil Wears Prada where everyone is an angel. ?I say, if you are lucky enough to go on gorgeous trips abroad, take your girlfriends something fashionable back,? reads one line. Early reviews are lukewarm (?Tacky? Absolutely,? said Publishers Weekly).

(via Emma)