From Here to Eternity (Modern Library #62)

(This is the thirty-ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Wapshot Chronicle.)

American history has always been a series of tranquil and joyful moments just before some terrible spill of the cosmic wheelbarrow. The ebb and flow of American life, as it has been and as it always will be, can be perceived as a recurring nightmare: of life, love, felicity, and possibility cast asunder in an unsettling uproar claiming some permanent end to innocence. The hanging chads and butterfly ballots ushering in a presidential monster, only to be eclipsed (and even normalized) sixteen years later by an even greater beast, a lusus naturae even more unhinged and more unsettling. The planes hitting the towers. A pandemic wiping out more than one million Americans. And, of course, the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor and stirred America from its slumber, shoving us into the Second World War.

In our rush to wrap our shivering minds in the warm blanket of nostalgia, as we recall epochs that were seemingly safer and stabler, we often forget that living did not stop and progress was not halted by the deafening clamor of sinister cornets warbling from left field. The best artists have always understood that each deep stab of history’s merciless dirk is answered by reflection and repose, of the battered and bruised emerging triumphantly from these setbacks with resilience and rejuvenation.

We were never like that. We were always like that. The push and pull continues unabated by the “winners” snorting with sow-soaked hubris at the top of the media food chain, with scant regard given to the unsettling totality.

Enter James Jones in 1951, whose massive masterpieces From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line are little remembered by anyone under fifty today.

I may very well be the last person under fifty to have signed on for the full James Jones experience. Not even the perspicacious film critic Glenn Kenny finished the Jones doorstopper that he named his thoughtful blog after, but I did.

* * *

From Here to Eternity is a peacetime novel bolstered by a trinity of misfits: a former boxer who grew up poor and who invites trouble named Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (or Prew), a total maniac from Brooklyn who works in the kitchen named Private Angelo Maggio (in other words, a violent and unhinged toxic man who would be immediately canceled, if not arrested on sight, in 2024), and Sergeant Milt Warden, who is having an affair with Karen Holmes, naturally the wife of Captain Dana Holmes, who is the man in charge of G Company. Ther’s also Mess Sergeant Maylon Stark, who, while a minor character in Eternity, I mention here because Jones would take the names and temperaments of these men and reuse them for The Thin Red Line and Whistle, the next two books in his World War II trilogy. So in The Thin Red Line (another Jones masterpiece), Prewitt becomes Witt, Stark changes into Storm, Warden transmutes into Welsh. Then Whistle comes along and Witt is Winch, Prew is Prell, and Stark is Strange. It’s a clever move by Jones to show the interchangeability of certain personality types within the military-industrial complex. Thirty years before Richard Gere famously wailed “I got nowhere else to go!” in An Officer and a Gentleman, Jones understood the painful truth about rudderless men flocking to the military more than anyone.

Mention From Here to Eternity to anyone today and they will probably remember (that is, if they do remember) the famous love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. But as undeniably romantic as this cinematic moment is, I would say that “Re-Enlistment Blues” probably captures the spirit of the book better than the waves sweeping across gorgeous Hollywood actors (and, hey, I’m not going to deny that Lancaster and Kerr are both incredibly sexy in that scene). I’ve taken the liberty of covering the song, if only to remind the world that it was Jones who wrote the lyrics (since fewer people read these days, why not set the record straight on TikTok?):

You see, Jones rightly perceived the military as an all-encompassing instrument designed to turn fuckups into soldiers through often brutal regimentation. (One can see the full unforgiving horrors against the more libertine and free-thinking men on display in the novel’s brutal chapters in the stockade.) In a December 8, 1939 letter to his brother Jeff, Jones wrote, “I, who am better bred than any of these moronic sergeants, am ordered around by them as if I were a robot, constrained to do their bidding. But I can see their point of view. Nine out of every ten men in this army have no more brains than a three year old. The only way they can learn the manual and the drill commands is by constant repetition. It is pounded into their skulls until it is enveloped by the subconscious mind. The tenth man cannot be excepted. He must be treated the same as the others, even if in time he becomes like them.” A little less than four decades later, Jones would hold to this unsettling truth in his compelling memoir, WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering: “Men who had been raised to believe, however erroneously, in a certain modicum of individual free-thinking were being taught by loud, fat, devoted sergeants to live as numbers, by the numbers. Clothes that did not fit, when they could see clothes on the shelves that did fit…Being laughed at, insulted, upbraided, held up to ridicule, and fed like pigs at a trough with absolutely no recourse or rights to uphold their treasured individuality before any parent, lover, teacher or tribune. Harassed to rise at five in the morning, harassed to be in bed by nine-thirty at night.”

When From Here to Eternity dropped in 1951, few novelists — with the possible exception of Richard Aldington’s bracingly sardonic Death of a Hero — had dared to betray this unspoken memorandum of understanding. That the truth arrived in fiction six years after the surrender of Japan suggests that it was meant to be confronted, though not in expedient fashion. Three years before, Norman Mailer had merely presented the loneliness and dehumanization of his soldiers. But Jones was prepared to go much further than this, tackling military life with all of its blunt involutions. And it is testament to Jones’s great talent as a writer that Angelo Maggio — the anarchic id at the center of this massive novel — remains an inexplicably poignant figure, a character who charmed Frank Sinatra and, according to his biographer James Kaplan, caused Ol’ Blue Eyes to brood at night speaking his lines from the book and insisting that only he could play the part. (The role salvaged Sinatra’s then flailing career. Sinatra would go onto win an Academy Award for his performance in the 1953 movie. Indeed, it can be plausibly concluded that Sinatra would never have been Sinatra without James Jones. Without Maggio, Sinatra would have ended up as a forgotten crooner, some footnote in 20th century history.)

* * *

In stitching all these threads together, Jones was hindered by Scribner’s legal team, which demanded a low-salt version of the authentic soldier dialogue. Only a few years before, Norman Mailer had caved to the censors to get The Naked and the Dead published, using “fug” in lieu of a now commonplace word that one hears frequently from the mouths of enthusiastic teenagers (and causing Dorothy Parker to say, upon being introduced to Mailer, “So you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”).

But Jones saw the revision as a creative challenge. In his poignant memoir, James Jones: A Friendship, Willie Morris (who was so tight with Jones that he finished writing the final installment of the World War II trilogy, Whistler, after Jones’s death) got the inside skinny from editor Burroughs Mitchell on how Jones approached this:

It was very hard work; Jim’s ear was so exact that you couldn’t easily remove a word from the dialogue or substitute for it. But he kept doggedly at it, and eventually he began to treat the job as a puzzle, a game, and was delighted with himself when he found solutions. It was characteristic of him, then and afterward, that when an editorial decision was made, a look of anguish would come over his face, he would get up and pace, and finally he’d either accept or say, “I just can’t change that,” looking even more anguished. Finally I reported to Mr. Scribner that we had cut all the fucks we could cut, although not the lawyers’ full quota, and Mr. Scribner cheerfully accepted the situation. That was certainly part of reason why, when Charles Scribner died suddenly, Jim insisted on going to the funeral. He said he knew that Mr. Scribner had been worried about Eternity — but he had gone ahead and published it.

In our present age of sensitivity readers and books being banned or unpublished for spurious reasons, righteous career-destroying ideologues are no less wild-eyed or humorless than their right-wing, anti-art, anti-Critical Race Theory, and casually transphobic counterparts — the kind of regressive dipsticks who wrongly complain about how Russell T. Davies’s new stories for Doctor Who are “too woke” because of pronoun recognition, Davies equipping the TARDIS with a wheelchair ramp (and proudly introducing Ruth Madeley as a disabled UNIT adviser), and the marvelous inclusion of nonbinary characters. But make no mistake: tyranny against expression is not confined to any political affiliation. It is difficult to fathom any modern day corporate publisher who would possess the stones to stick with an author’s artistic vision in the way that Charles Scribner did. (Only four decades after the publication of From Here to Eternity, a gutless vulgarian by the name of Richard E. Snyder, head of Simon & Schuster (which would gobble up the Scribner imprint in 1993), would kibosh the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, before it was picked up by Vintage, where it would become a huge success (and be reinvented by the inventive Mary Harron as an unforgettable film adaptation mocking toxic masculinity, much as Ariel Levy and John Turturro recently adapted Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre for the stage in similar fashion). Thankfully, Snyder had the decency to drop dead of heart failure last June after living a long and spineless life lining the coffers of his corporate overlords by publishing “inoffensive” tomes.)

Jones wandered into the writing world a bit too late to get the full Maxwell Perkins treatment (he famously demanded to see Perkins in person as a young writer; Perkins received him and encouraged him, but passed away before he could devote his editorial energies to the entirety of Eternity), but he did have timing on his side, with the valves of permissible dialogue being slowly loosened in the early 1950s, culminating in the opprobrium that Grace Metalious would receive five years later for Peyton Place.

The uncensored version of From Here to Eternity was published by The Dial Press a few years back and, having read both the original and the uncensored versions, I would say that the latter is far superior. There are small differences, such as Maggio allowing a man to go down on him to land some extra cash:

“Oh, sall right. I admit its nothing like a woman. But its something. Besides, old Hal treats me swell. He’s always good for a touch when I’m broke. Five bucks. Ten bucks. Comes in handy the middle of the month.”

But these restored scenes really tell you about the quiet desperation of soldiers. They wait for payday. They augment their meager pay with card games in the latrine. They spend ridiculous amounts of money on sex workers. And they do this because, well, there is nothing else for them. In her incredibly underrated book Stiffed, Susan Faludi documented this problem in the 1990s from a variety of vantage points and concluded that the repugnant patriarchal cues and the way that American culture is conveniently superficial about anxieties that scar lives is equally applicable to men as well as women. And we cannot even begin to solve the underlying problems unless we are honest about all this. As journalists now lose their jobs and sites like The Messenger close their doors and kill their content without notice, it’s incumbent upon us to find the ballsy artists like Jones and stick up for them even when their honest sentiments are offensive or make us uncomfortable. More than five decades after its publication, From Here to Eternity still makes a valiant case for the need to tell and publish the truth.

Next Up: Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop!

Audio Drama: “Pattern Language: Mirrors of the Soul”

We recently released the fourth part of our four-part Season 2 finale, “Pattern Language.” This is the sixth of six new episodes that we released biweekly this summer, representing “Phase III” of the second season. The second season of The Gray Area is now complete! We also have a live show coming up on October 16, 2021. Live show details here. You can follow the overarching story through this episode guide.

Here are a number of useful links: (The Gray Area website) (the iTunes feed) (the Libsyn RSS feed) (the Podchaser feed)

Here’s the synopsis:

Our intrepid heroes visit the New York Public Library to meet up with visiting literary scholar Merrill Malone, an eccentric and the foremost expert on Virginia Gaskell’s life and work, to get, once and for all, all the answers about the portals. What they don’t realize is that shocking personal revelations and the very ground beneath their feet will alter forever within the library’s seemingly pristine walls. (Running time: 55 minutes, 43 seconds.)

Written, produced, and directed by Edward Champion.


Chelsea: Katrina Clairvoyant
Emily McCorkle: Belgys Felix
Professor Malone: Robert Garson
Jenna: Devony DiMattia
Miss Gaskell: Chris Smith
Maya: Tanja Milojevic
Ed Champion: Edward Champion
The Executive: Rachel Matusewicz
Audrey: Amanda Rios
Romero: David Ault
Joe: David Sinkus
The Guard: Graham Rowat
and Zack Glassman as The Receptionist

Incidental music licensed through Neosounds and MusicFox.
Additional music composed by Edward Champion

Sound design, editing, engineering, and mastering by a bald man in Brooklyn who clearly has some corporate identity issues to work out.

Thank you for listening!

Here are some behind-the-scenes photos and videos pertaining to this episode that we made during the more than two years of production we put into the second season.

Behind the Scenes:

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This morning, I recorded with the incredible @theblondebraveheart, who you may remember as Jenna in "Compassion Fatigue." I'll say nothing about what happens, but, as you can see, we do revisit an incident involving an Elizabeth Hardwick book. Fortunately, I had all of Hardwick's volumes on my bookshelves to help zero in on the motivation. I can't say enough great things about Devony's talent and commitment. It was @tim_torre who sent her my way in the first season and I will be forever indebted to him not only his performance in "Hello" but for this terrific referral, which was a tremendous act of generosity for this production. Devony and I carried on as if two weeks had passed rather than two years. I also cast her as another character because she had expressed interest in playing someone of that type. But as Jenna, Devony came prepared and energetic: someone who I can totally trust to give me just as many ideas as I suggest to her. She was such a joy to work with that I really couldn't settle for a performance that didn't contain a few nuances here and there, even on lines that most other people would be happy with. We conjured up a quick backstory entirely based on Devony's instincts as a performer and where she wanted to take the character. And it all happened far faster than either of us expected. One other fun detail: Devony is the third actor in a row who has showed up wearing power boots. Apparently, the women I conjure up are so punk rock that this sartorial detail, arrived at independently by all three, has become a subconscious style choice. And it is one that I consider a great compliment! Anyway, the turn that Jenna takes in the second season will surprise you, if only because Devony very much surprised me! Thank you so much, Devony! #audiodrama #acting #character #surprise #fun #elizabethhardwick #boots #punkrock

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1:30 am. Nolita. I was restless. I HAD to get this out of me. So I holed up in a bar and whaddya know? I finished a 150 page draft of the season finale. It will definitely need a rewrite, but you're NOT going to see this crazy ending coming! Certainly it surprised the hell out of me. Thus ends the very labor-intensive and time-consuming "creating stories out of nothing" stage of Season 2. I'm a little delirious right now, but quite happy to begin the revisions over the weekend! Once I get this script in shape, we record the rest. And I can finally devote myself full-time to editing and releasing. Many thanks to my incredible cast for their faith and patience! This is going to be fun and weird! #writing #audiodrama #latenight #creative #script #nolita #fun #weird

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This morning, I had a super fun recording session with @devonydimattia, who is always a joy to work with! In this scene, her character (Jenna from "Compassion Fatigue") is dealing with an eccentric professor. Two pages in, Devony had the character down. Five pages in, we were coming up with so many layers that I really felt we had exceeded what was there on the page. Also, the funniest part of today was that I actually got a better performance out of Devony when I read the lines in the voice of Ricardo Montalban from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, proving that impersonating Khan is strangely useful in the production of audio drama. Thank you so much, Devony, for once again being so marvelous! #audiodrama #character #acting #act #recording #startrek #khan #professor #library #character #voiceover #performance

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I had a very fun time this afternoon recording some season finale stuff with @katrinaclairvoyant and @devonydimattia! These two are always a blast to work with! What's great about these dual actor sessions is the way you discover details about characters by the way they bounce off each other. For today, I definitely needed that social energy. Because there are a lot of people in this scene! In this case, both Devony and Katrina found opportunities to inject some unexpected humor into these characters. I also noticed that both characters started mimicking their respective tics, almost sizing each other up, but said little (although I did laugh a lot), letting the two figure it out on their own and planting little seeds for why they might be feeling a certain way. You always want to guide actors gently, giving them just enough to imagine so that they can always surprise you. And these two certainly did! #acting #audiodrama #voiceover #collective #recording #drama #theatre #character #roles #humor #dimension #guide #seeds #imagination

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I had a blast this morning with the incredible @robgarson, who came seemingly out of nowhere and perfectly encapsulated the role of an eccentric professor who has big clues about the Virginia Gaskell mystery. In addition to being a very smart and hilariously energetic man, Rob is also a fine mimic of many UK dialects. He was incredibly easy and very fun to work with and this was one of those sessions where we both fed each other little nuances about the character, who I wanted to be somewhat stylized but nevertheless real. This is actually the other side of the scene clip I put up with @devonydimattia a few weeks ago. And this very goofy scene is truly going to be a lot of fun when I stitch this all together. Thank you so much Rob! #audiodrama #acting #recording #voiceover #character #british #professor #actors #session #fun #mimic #drama #background

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Audio Drama: “Pattern Language: An Iris for Emily”

We recently released the third part of our four-part Season 2 finale, “Pattern Language.” This is the fifth of six new episodes that we are releasing biweekly this summer, representing “Phase III” of the second season. This story is part of the second season of The Gray Area. You can follow the overarching story through this episode guide.

Here are a number of useful links: (The Gray Area website) (the iTunes feed) (the Libsyn RSS feed) (the Podchaser feed)

Here’s the synopsis:

Emily McCorkle has landed the media appearance of a lifetime: a guest spot on the most respected talk show in America. But why is the host so concerned with her private details? And why are so many skeletons from her past making guest appearances? And who is the strange man with the hot dogs? (Running time: 38 minutes, 1 second.)

Written, produced, and directed by Edward Champion.


Emily McCorkle: Belgys Felix
Ophelia Kakanakis: Carol Jacobanis
June: Monica Ammerman
The Fajita Demon: Pete Lutz
The Cunning Demon: Leanne Troutman
Morris Pressman: David Tao
Jimmy Markson: Heath Martin
Johnson: Hilah Hadaway
Emily’s Mom: Melissa Medina
Emily’s Dad: David Sirkus
Chelsea: Katrina Clairvoyant
Maya: Tanja Milojevic
Ed Champion: Edward Champion
Reporter #1: Glenn Bulthius
Reporter #2: Alice Fox
and Zack Glassman as The Receptionist

Creature Voices by Samantha Cooper and Rachel Baird

Incidental music licensed through Neosounds and MusicFox.
Additional music composed by Edward Champion.

Sound design, editing, engineering, and mastering by a bald man in Brooklyn who has become a TikTok junkie seemingly against his will.

Thank you for listening

If you’d like to support this independent audio production and learn more about how we made it, for only $20, you can become a Season 2 Subscriber! You’ll get instant access to all episodes as we finish them — months before release. Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive interviews and more than 400 minutes of behind-the-scenes commentary! Here are some behind-the-scenes photos and videos pertaining to this episode that we made during the more than two years of production we put into the second season.

Behind the Scenes:

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Part of my writing process involves performing all the dialogue out loud to make sure that it works. Rhythm, zest, and real emotion are all very important and this is really the only way to get it right! My bedroom is the venue for these strange one man shows (although I have sometimes taken these on the road to friends' houses to get feedback — one of my S2 stories caused a roomful of people who nudged me to read it to mist up, which was a huge surprise). I'm getting closer to finishing the season finale and here's a bit from it — oddly enough, this part was inspired by the idea of a two woman version of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE with a huge moral question at the center! I'm taking quite a few risks with this story and I hope I pull it off! (Incidentally, I watched MY DINNER WITH ANDRE three times before writing this section.) #writing #performing #dialogue #rhythm #zest #passion #art #mydinnerwithandre

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This morning, I recorded with the mighty @monica.ammerman. who is also working on a new web series called @someonenew.theseries. I met Monica in an improv class a few years back, knew that she had comedic chops, and cast her in Seaaon 1 as Henrietta, Queen of the Knights, in "Loopholes " But I also had the sense that she could do drama very well. Comedic actors are often underestimated and frequently untapped on this front and I'm the type of guy who likes to cast actors based on what others DON'T see. But Monica, who is super great to work with, brought a lot of wonderful understatement to this character that had me seeing how quietly courageous she was. Nuance that the two of us tweaked together. Monica inspired me to get us asking questions about this character's religious upbringing. And this turned out to be a fun and marvelous recording session! Thank you so much, Monica, for going along for the ride! This is a very bold and experimental story and I'm grateful to have such keen collaborators unpacking the emotional ambiguities, which are essential to creating something that packs a punch! Here's a clip of us layering a short monologue about forgiving people. The take we ended up using (not this one) is incredible! #audiodrama #acting #character #background #nuance #ambiguity #subtlety #dimension #comedy #drama #improv #forgiveness #monologue

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It's a wrap! Pardon my bad angle. But the Six Week Push is now at an end! Aside from some remote files I'm waiting on and a July weekend session, I have all of Season 2 in the can! Some 550 GB were recorded in the last year and a half. 120 speaking roles. 1,000 pages of script. Now I have to edit this thing. Many thanks to my stupendously talented cast, who brought so many surprising interpretations to these colorful characters and helped me to become a more daring and instinctive director. Pictured here are @belgys_felix and @caroljacobanis, who both did a terrific job recording today. Now I'm going to lie down for a bit! #wrap #production #audiodrama #recording #voiceover #actors #acting

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Carlin Romano Is Racist. And So Is The National Book Critics Circle.

On June 11, 2020, Hope Wabuke — a distinguished Ugandan American poet who was on the National Book Critics Circle board — published screenshots from a disturbing internal conversation that involved how the NBCC would respond to Black Lives Matter. At issue here was how a seemingly august body of professional book critics would answer to recent events. One board member — a man by the name of Carlin Romano, who once opened a review expressing his fantasy of raping a woman author — was determined to “speak up” and claimed that he wasn’t the only board member who felt that racism and police brutality didn’t particularly concern him.

Romano took umbrage with the idea that white gatekeeping “stifles black voices at every level of our industry,” declaring this to be “absolute nonsense.” Never mind that The New York Times recently reported that the esteemed author Jesmyn Ward had to fight for a six-figure advance even after winning a National Book Award. Never mind Malorie Blackman sharing details about how a publisher had rejected a novel because a story featuring two black magical siblings wasn’t “believable.” (Meanwhile, Knopf publishes white author John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas, which features three white siblings engaging in magic, to say nothing of the family-oriented magic contained in white author Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic books.) Never mind that Dorothy Koomson tweeted on June 2, 2020 that her books were rejected because they “weren’t about ‘the black experience'” and how she was asked to make characters racist. No, as far as Romano was concerned, the struggles that African-American writers face to tell their stories was “ridiculous,” despite numerous examples.

Romano got even uglier, claiming that black writers would “never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.” Amber Books? Black Classics Press? Third World Press? Triple Crown Publications? Life Changing Books? Any of the far too few African-American publishers who have stepped up to redress the systemic racism that the largely white-owned publishing industry has failed to remedy? That Romano applies “ecumenical” to his atavistic statement says much about his condescending views of writers of color. Apparently, in his view, any publisher who puts out a worthy novel that happens to be written by an African-American is an act of charity rather than an act of merit. James Baldwin? Toni Morrison? Octavia Butler? Ta-Nehisi Coates? Well, you’re lucky that your ass got through the door because Whitey decided to let one or two of you through the gates. Does Romano’s repugnantly racist sentiment here not reinforce the problems of white gatekeeping and not buttress the need for any and all literary organizations to be more inclusive? As far as Romano was concerned, the fact that countless people of color had to fight to be published — despite the fact that African-American novels have continued to be financially successful (Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren sold one million copies, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple sold five million copies, even Ann Petry’s The Street selling one million copies in 1946, the list goes on) — did not get in the way of his sentiment that black people needed to be fawning and grateful, much in the manner of slaves, to white publishers. Romano doubled down on this racism by writing, “In my 40 years in literary and publishing life, I’ve seen far more of [sic] white people helping black writers than of people black people helping white writers.” In other words, Romano believes that black people should devote their already disadvantaged positions to spending all their time promoting white writers.

In short, Romano articulated in very clear terms just what he wants the system to be. And his deplorable viewpoint here is no different from an antebellum slaveholder. Romano’s despicable vision is this: White editors serving as gatekeepers. Black authors dancing with joy at the honor of having their neutered visions “represented.” Romano’s statement is, in short, a racist screed against literary merit and inclusiveness. That Romano cannot acknowledge any white bias that has prevented great literature from being published, even as he demands that African-American writers jump up and down over concessions that their white counterparts would never have to face, is nothing less than a pompous white xenophobe revealing his true colors.

But Romano didn’t stop at mere racism. It is a common truth that atavistic barnacles like Romano often feel the need to tout their own superiority, irrespective of its shaky foundations. In perhaps the most risible part of his vulgar message, Romano claimed, “I myself have probably written more articles and reviews about Philadelphia’s black literature and traditions in my 25 years at the Inquirer than anyone living, black or white.” Do you hear that, Black Writers Museum? Do you hear that, African American Children’s Fair? Do you hear that, Hakim’s (the oldest Philly black bookstore, since 1959)? Even though all of you have done far more for black Philadelphia than Romano, Romano wants you to bow down at his professed magnanimity! It’s Romano who’s doing the heavy lifting here, not you!

One would think that the NBCC Board of Directors would instantly denounce such atavistic viewpoints. But President Laurie Hertzel, a white woman who would appear to be the NBCC’s answer to Amy Cooper, was nothing less than fulsome about these backwards views. She claimed, “Your objections are all valid, of course.” She also claimed that Romano’s views “shine unlike anyone else’s.”

I emailed Hertzel about her unquestioning support of Romano’s racism. She replied, “Rest assured that I do not and have not endorsed anyone’s racist comments.”

In other words, Hertzel and nearly the entire NBCC board are not so much interested in looking inward as they are gaslighting the narrative entirely. Nor can the NBCC actually name and hold Romano accountable — as was seen in this self-serving and half-hearted announcement posted on Thursday night.

I attempted to contact many of the NBCC Board of Directors — in large part because the only board members to acknowledge the exchange and take something of a stand against this racism were Carolyn Kellogg and Richard Z. Santos.

The remaining twenty NBCC Board Members have said nothing. In fact, shortly after I contacted Michael Schaub about his neglectful duties to stand against racism, this self-serving Texan, who was recently criticized for his insensitivity to trans human rights, blocked me on Twitter.

The NBCC Board has a duty to denounce Romano’s racist remarks. With their silence, one can only conclude that the following National Book Critics Circle board members are more than happy to uphold systemic racism. Systemic racism butters their bread. It ensures that they can continue to get gigs. That these people fail to call out racism and that refuse to do so even as Party City has done a better job firing racists speaks to their willful and open advocacy of white supremacy in the National Book Critics Circle.

Here is a list of the NBCC Board Members who presently advocate racism and white supremacy with their silence:

Laurie Hertzel, NBCC President
Kerri Arsenault, VP Awards
Jane Ciabattari, VP Events
Connie Ogle, VP Communications
Carlin Romano, VP Grants
Michael Schaub, VP Online
David Varno, VP Tech
Marion Winik, VP Treasurer
Jacob Appel
Colette Bancroft, The Tampa Bay Times
Gregg Barrios
Lori Feathers
Charles Finch
Megan Labrise
Jessica Loudis
John McWhorter
Katherine A. Powers
Madeline Schwartz
Elizabeth Taylor

Should any of the above individuals make a public statement against Carlin Romano and the NBCC’s systemic racism, I will remove them from the list. But I doubt that any of them will.

[6/12/2020 10:15 PM UPDATE: The NBCC Board page has dropped the following names: Laurie Hertzel, Connie Ogle, John McWhorter, and Katherine A. Powers. Presumably, these are the other four Board members who have resigned. Hertzel has also deleted her Twitter account.]

[6/15/2020 12:00 PM UPDATE: This morning, Carolyn Kellogg announced on Twitter that she had resigned from the Board. She cited “microaggressions and delays” in advance of drafting the Black Lives Matter statement. She also noted that the Board, instead of focusing on Romano’s racist sentiments, “focused on Hope’s breach of confidentiality in sharing a damning account of a poetry prize discussion.” Additionally, Kellogg noted that Hertzel called for the board to be dissolved following Wabuke’s leak. Following this call to dissolve the board (and efforts on other members’ part to facilitate discussion), Hertzel and two other members resigned in protest — not because of Wabuke’s concerns about racism, but because of the breach in confidentiality. Three more people — including Kellogg — have now resigned, including David Varno.

The instigator for this imbroglio was Romano. Romano has threatened to sue the NBCC and, according to Kellogg, even “shouted down a new board member on a Zoom call.”

Romano remains on the Board because the current NBCC bylaws, which can be found at this link, prevent the board from removing a member. The only way to do so is through a special meeting, which the bylaws declare can be called upon at the request of the president (for which the NBCC does not presently have one), any vice president (who would presently include Kerri Arsenault, Jane Ciabattari, Carlin Romano, Richard Z. Santos, Michael Schaub, and Marion Winik), or any five directors. As of early Monday afternoon, there has been no movement to call a special meeting. (UPDATE: Santos also noted that genera members can also call for a Board Member’s removal.)

As such, until there is a special meeting, Romano will remain on the board until 2022.

Kellogg concluded her message by stating, “I want to go on to point out that as the sole Black woman on the board, Hope should have been given extra support and liberty in leading our effort to craft an anti-racism statement. She was not.”

Further investigations into Romano have revealed a troubled history of abusive behavior. According to Ellen Akins, a friend of Hertzel’s, Romano went out of his way to target Hertzel, who is not a confrontational person. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2000, Romano was fired from his professorship at Bennington due to an “action of sufficient severity” directed at the president, Elizabeth Coleman. An insider at Ursinus College has also reported that there are numerous stories about Romano’s misconduct there.

Should anyone wish to share any stories about further Romano incidents, feel free to email me at and I will offer an update. Unless you specifically give me your consent, any and all communications with me will be kept in confidence.]

[6/15/2020 12:45 UPDATE: Ismail Muhammad, one of the board members who was actively working for diversity within the NBCC, announced his resignation from the board shortly after Kellogg’s announcement. He offered further details about what happened: “We were on the verge of winning a vote to release that statement by a solid majority, when Carlin Romano, at the last minute, derailed the process.”]

[6/15/2020 1:30 PM UPDATE: In an article filed by PW‘s John Maher, some new information has come to light. Anonymous board members noted that of the five members who resigned from the board (Hertzel, Victoria Chang, John McWhorter, Connie Ogle, and Katherine A. Powers), only one did so in support of Wabuke. The remaining four did so because of the breach in confidentiality. We know that this was Hertzel’s reason. So that leaves three inside Chang, McWhorter, Ogle, and Powers who resigned in opposition to Wabuke.

Amazingly, Romano himself is quoted in the article. In relation to the lawsuit threat, Romano said that he “alerted the Board I might sue it if I’m voted off the Board in violation of our bylaws and commitment to free discussion.” He denied shouting down the new board member, merely claiming, “We talked over each other at one point.”

Despite the racist tenor of Romano’s email, Romano claimed, “I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. Quite the contrary. I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims. A few Board members in recent years have sought to turn the Board, for decades committed to fair-minded judging of books from every political stripe, into a ‘No Free Thought’ zone, an ideologically biased tool for their own politics. In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them. I’ll attempt to stay on the Board, despite concerted opposition, in the hope that I can help NBCC return to its earlier, better self.”]

[6/18/2020 UPDATE: Michael Riley, President and Editor-in-Chief of The Chronicle of Higher Education, was good enough to confirm with me that Romano is not involved with his august publication: “Carlin Romano has not written for The Chronicle of Higher Education since 2018, and, while he was a critic-at-large for The Chronicle a long time ago, he has not been in that role for many years. He holds no official title or standing with The Chronicle.”]

The Shameful Lies and Unacceptable Irresponsibility of Bill de Blasio

Bill de Blasio’s hideous curfew experiment has proven to be a spectacular and dangerous failure — an affront to human rights and basic dignity that is uniquely destructive to the City of New York and that has proven dispiriting for its people. The curfew, which started as an 11 PM cutoff on June 1st before shifting to 8PM during the last three nights, was intended to quell looters who had vandalized and pillaged stores in Midtown, SoHo, the Bronx, and other neighborhoods. Police presence in the streets was doubled. But it has become evident in the last week that the New York Police Department isn’t terribly concerned with curbing vandalism, much less serving and protecting the people in a fair and peaceful manner. This corrupt paramilitary police force, which has demonstrated an almost total incapacity to look inward, is more feverishly committed to abusing peaceful protesters and other innocents who merely happen to be in the neighborhood with wanton violence and indiscriminate abuse of power. It is an obvious truth that both Mayor de Blasio and even Governor Andrew Cuomo, who showed strong leadership in the early days of the pandemic, refuse to acknowledge.

As the Gothamist reported, there have been hundreds of people waiting longer than 24 hours to be arraigned in New York jail cells, with Justice James Burke ruling in favor of the police to keep holding them. In a followup report at The Gothamist, it was further revealed that many of the two thousand arrested during the last week were not even protesters. Here, the detainees — some recovering from profligate douses of pepper spray and other injuries — have been crowded in a cell without masks, soap, water, or medical care. Police, who frequently refused to wear masks, have believed they are immune from the coronavirus. But they also seem to feel that they are immune from being held accountable for their criminal conduct. (On May 31st, New York Attorney General Letitia James invited people on Twitter to share the many abuses for a sweeping investigation>)

These are not merely a series of mistakes. De Blasio’s willful malingering makes Mayor Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights affair look like a pardonable misstep. It is now abundantly clear that Bill de Blasio is the most irresponsible Mayor that the City of New York has ever known. His insistence that “the police showed a lot of restraint,” even as he has failed to view or acknowledge the considerable videos of police abuse, represents unquestionable negligence of his duties. His considerable deficiency, taken with Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s complete failure to curb and discipline his officers for their out-of-control attacks, represent a bungling of command that is not merely incompetent, but that stands firmly against the NYPD’s professed credo to work “in partnership with the community to enforce the law, preserve peace, protect the people, reduce fear, and maintain order.” The NYPD has attacked delivery workers, journalists, doctors, and numerous others who stood peacefully in the streets.

What’s especially insulting is the way that de Blasio (and Cuomo) have been attempting to gaslight the public narrative by claiming that clear factual video of police brutality taken from reliable sources is somehow “opinion” or a “partisan attack.” This is not a matter of being Republican or Democrat. This is about whether a major American city should be terrorized by the authoritarian whims of a clearly abusive police force. With the curfew and his failure to hold the police accountable for their deadly behavior, de Blasio created the conditions in which the NYPD were free to indiscriminately attack anyone. It turns out that the police have been the real looters all along, disregarding the law and order that they profess to stand for in order to attack anybody they see. This is not merely a dereliction of the Mayor’s duties. It’s irresponsibility that should never be accepted from any public official in the City of New York.

The time has come for the Mayor and the Police Commissioner to resign. They have enacted policy that is harming the strength and spirit of New York and that is preventing this city from healing. These two men cannot be trusted to keep the city safe. They cannot be trusted to guide us out of a nightmare. They both must be replaced by real leaders who pay close attention, do not deny the facts, and have a limitless capacity to listen.

Agents Provocateurs in Minneapolis? Who Are the Umbrella Man and the Pink Shirt Pizza Guy?

As someone who spends a lot of his time creating realistic illusions for the ear, there was something incredibly off about a white man dressed in black, donning an umbrella, wearing a gas mask with purple-fringed nozzles, and deciding to hammer the windows of an AutoZone store in Minneapolis. By all reports, the protests that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death were relatively peaceful. The mysterious Umbrella Man — as I shall now call him — behaved like an undercover cop or an agent provocateur, with some people online claiming that he was a cop in St. Paul. The St. Paul Police Department denied that the Umbrella Man was working for them. There’s also flimsy and unsourced evidence — the kind of material that would never hold up in court or in journalism — floating around that features alleged text screenshots from the St. Paul police officer’s ex-wife. But this was easily debunked. I did a public records search for the police officer in question Minnesota Official Marriage System and there’s no record that matches up to the information that has been promulgated on social media. It’s possible that the officer and his wife married in another state. But if he was operating as a cop in St. Paul and the ex-wife identified his boots and mask, surely they would have married in Minnesota. I am inclined to believe that the St. Paul cop identified is not the Umbrella Man.

Nevertheless, the Umbrella Man’s behavior is quite suspect . There was also another man spotted around Minneapolis wearing a pink shirt and sometimes holding a pizza box (hereinafter referred to as “Pizza Guy”). Additional investigation on Saturday afternoon has revealed the Pizza Guy to be a benign Minneapolis activist belonging to a peerless group known as A Mother’s Hope. The Pizza Guy’s identity, which I am withholding unless he offers his consent, and his impeccable background has been corroborated with four people in Minneapolis. We still do not know what he and the Umbrella Man said to each other as they walked around the AutoZone building. And I have extended an open invite to the Pizza Guy through the organization to clarify any and all details of what transpired.

What follows is a methodical dive into all the videos and resources that I have been able to locate so far. Because if the fiery Minneapolis riots were instigated by these two men, then they are at least partially responsible for the shift from peaceful protest to the destruction of property — a transition that, as of this writing, has now erupted in cities around the United States. The incident at AutoZone changed the tone of the protests. The motivations of the Umbrella Man are unknown. In assembling this piece, I’m simply going to stick with facts that we can corroborate and isolate specific details that point to why the Umbrella Man and the Pizza Guy behaved as they did. If you are reading this and you have additional videos or details on either of these two men, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or get in touch with me so that we can carry on this investigation until we discover just who these two men are and what agency they were working for. Again, I am interested in facts, not conspiracies. And I will be as methodical as I can in this investigation.

1. The AutoZone Glass Smashing

The original video featuring both the Umbrella Man and the Pizza Guy was shot not far from the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct, near the AutoZone that was vandalized by the Umbrella Man. I have also provided an accompanying map. The line on the map follows the camera movement during the one minute and 40 second clip. At Position 1, the Umbrella Man hammers the windows of Autozone. At Position 2, there is an altercation between Umbrella Man and the woman shooting the video with her phone. Here is a summary of the events:

0:00-0:04: The cameraman helpfully identifies the police station of the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct.

0:09: The cameraman is disrupted by sounds of tinkling glass emerging from the Autozone behind him. We see the Umbrella Man, donning an umbrella on a perfectly sunny day (and thus presumably using the umbrella for cover), systematically taking out the windows.

0:15: The Pizza Guy approaches the Umbrella Man. Notice that the Pizza Guy is holding the pizza box like a regular person here.

Various activists approach the Umbrella Man and the Pizza Guy, shouting, “Hey!” Even the cameraman remarks, “Those cops will come from you if you’re pulling that crap.”

The Pizza Guy follows the Umbrella Man. At 0:35, there is a break in the source video. And I believe this to be a second video shot by a woman. The Umbrella Man is now seen alone, with the Pizza Guy following behind him. There is an unknown scream behind the wall at 0:40, along with cries of “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” It remains unknown why the Pizza Guy is following the Umbrella Man. The Pizza Guy is then seen smoking some form of blunt (or claiming to). The second cameraman observes, “This guy just came with a hammer and smashed the windows.”

At 0:54 (Position 2 on the map), the Umbrella Man turns around and confronts the Pizza Guy.

UMBRELLA MAN: If you find me, I’m going to fight you right now.
PIZZA GUY: You, you want to go? What’s up?

The Pizza Guy then takes a hit on his blunt in a fairly theatrical manner, looking directly at the camera in the manner of a self-conscious performer.

PIZZA GUY: Someone hold my blunt.

The Umbrella Man then attacks the second camera person.

PIZZA GUY: Hey, hey, hey!

Someone then screams at the 1:08 mark, “Are you a fucking cop?”

The Pizza Guy then follows the Umbrella Man to the far end of the AutoZone building. What’s particularly interesting about this exchange is that both men raise their voices knowingly, almost as if this is a staged dispute for the camera.

2. Umbrella Man and Pizza Guy — Thick as Thieves

In a video posted by James Nurden on Twitter (source unknown), the Umbrella Man and the Pizza Guy return, starting at the 0:07 mark. Using Google Street View, I was able to identify the same bus stop and building in this video. The two men are moving along Minnehaha Avenue, just north of the AutoZone building. This video appears to have been shot just after Video #1. I have also attached a Google Maps screenshot, tracking their movement.

There are a number of things to observe here: (1) The Pizza Guy is now holding the pizza box under his arm rather than in front of him. Additional research and interviews on this story have revealed that the Pizza Guy was carrying around the box after offering it for lunch to his group. (2) We see the Pizza Guy being incredibly friendly with the Umbrella Man. The two are talking with each other as if they know each other. Minutes earlier, they were about to put on a fight. The exact reasons for this are presently unclear. We also see the Pizza Guy smiling, almost in the manner of an actor who had some fun putting on a performance.

3. Staged Intervention from the Pizza Guy?

In a moment that appears to have occurred sometime after the AutoZone incident, our friend the Pizza Guy — putting his palms up into the air — returns as protesters are throwing rocks at the 3rd Police Precinct station. He emerges at the 0:17 mark, saying, “Hold up! I’m trying to calm them down.” The three officers firing at the protesters never turn their weapons on the Pizza Guy. Then the Pizza Guy disappears with a jarring finality, walking off with a head shrug.

4. Interview with the Pizza Guy

In one of the more promising leads on the Pizza Guy, Stephania Dube Dwilson of tracked down an interview that was conducted by journalist Emma Leigh Fiaja. The video date is identified as May 27th. Dwilson has also kindly served up a transcript. One of the particularly key moments in this video is this:

This does not matter if we just shut up after a month. This does not matter if we be quiet and we don’t respond if something doesn’t happen. We have to continue. So all of this is great, but where are all these people gonna be in two weeks, in three weeks, in four weeks, in two months? Where are these people gonna be at? Y’all fighting, y’all moving in anger, that’s fine. We need something to mobilize.

The Pizza Guy is not violent (and refrains from using profanity, using “eff” instead of “fuck”). Additional investigation has revealed that this was a good faith attempt to intervene with the police.

5. The Umbrella Man Returns!

In a tweet posted by WCCO photojournalist Dymanh Chhoun that is just outside AutoZone (specifically, the door with the graffiti that reads “FREE SHIT FOR EVERYONE ZONE”), the brave Chhoun reports that he has been hit with tear gas. But the Umbrella Man, who initiated the broken windows in Video #1, can be seen at the 0:22 mark.

We are left with a number of questions. Assuming that the tear gas was fired at Chhoun and others after the AutoZone smashing and the police precinct building vandalism, why would the Umbrella Man return to the scene of the crime? And why would he commit the vandalism so close to the 3rd Police Precinct building?

We’ve seen that both the Pizza Guy and the Umbrella Man didn’t wander that far from the corner of East Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue. But they did both spend a lot of time close to the Minneapolis Police Department’s precinct building. Was the Minneapolis Police Department the entity that had the Umbrella Man on its payroll? And if there was another covert entity involved, did the Minneapolis Police Department work closely with it? (I tried making phone calls to the Minneapolis Police Department to hear its answer. I was told that there wasn’t a designated representative who could confirm or deny this question.) Organizers who attended the scene informed me that they were unaware of who the Umbrella Man was.

6. The Pizza Guy and the Umbrella Man Hanging Around the Police Precinct Building

In the last video I have been able to find, we see our pink-shirted friend, The Pizza Guy, calmly walking up to the 3rd Police Precinct building. He appears to be surveiling the scene. Note that, unlike Video #3, in which we see the Pizza Guy actively begging the police to back down, he does not intervene in the destruction — except for one moment at the 0:27 mark, in which he grabs a barricade held by a protester and throws it down. He wanders around the building near the front and he appears to be taking in details. It seems likely that the Pizza Guy was acting quite confused in the struggle.

Oh, and our friend The Umbrella Man, is also there.


Both the Umbrella Man and the Pizza Guy were spotted numerous times near the corner of East Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue. Umbrella Man, in particular, was clearly videotaped inciting the urge to turn a peaceful protest into one that involved the destruction of property. While details about the Pizza Guy’s conversation with the Umbrella Man remain nebulous, we now know from people in Minneapolis that the Pizza Guy was acting in good faith. Perhaps the two men bonded in some way, with Pizza Guy unaware that he may have been talking with an agent provocateur. Umbrella Man’s deliberate vandalism of the AutoZone store is almost certainly the actions of an agent provocateur of some sort. We have learned over the course of this investigation that the group that the Pizza Guy was with was acting in good faith.

Serious questions must now be put forth to and answered by the Minneapolis Police Department, the Minnesota State Police, and any other law enforcement agency in the region about what connection, if any, they have had with the Umbrella Man.

[11:45 AM UPDATE: New information has come to light suggesting that there is some evidence that Pizza Guy may not be an agent provocateur. Pizza Guy’s pink T-shirt is associated with a group called “A Mother’s Love,” which has been profiled by FOX 9 and North News. I have amended this post to reflect this new information and am presently trying to get in touch with the organization to get more answers.]

[12:20 PM UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct a small error concerning the St. Paul police officer’s name.]

[1:15 PM UPDATE: After several interviews, I have identified the Pizza Guy, but I will not name him here unless he gives me his consent. Needless to say, he is a devoted member of A Mother’s Hope and he is not an agent provocateur. This article has been edited to reflect this new information.]

[5/31/2020 6:15 PM UPDATE: A reader named Eric points to this useful thread, which posits some information about the Umbrella Guy and a Maserati he may or may not have used to drive into Minneapolis.]

6/3/2020 8:00 AM UPDATE: Elijah Easley has released a video outing himself as the Pizza Guy:

[6/4/2020 11:15 AM UPDATE: In the comments thread for this post, a wonderful user by the name of doikster has offered an incredibly helpful time-stamp breakdown of the Umbrella Man’s activities. For those interested in a deep dive, I highly recommend doikster’s links and observations. I did, however, want to dispel one speculation that doikster brought up concerning a construction van. I spoke this morning with Tara, formerly of LeBlanc Construction. LeBlank has been out of business for two to three years. The owner has retired. And it’s pretty much Tara left. When the business dissolved, LeBlanc sold its van. And this is the van that is in the video. Presumably, the current owner of this van moved to the Minneapolis area, but never bothered to remove the “LeBlanc Construction” decals. So it was not a mysterious out-of-state van driving into Minneapolis, as has been suggested.]

On the Problems with Selective Empathy and the Promise of Reintegration

There are people who have seriously wronged me and I have said nothing. I don’t give them a whit of my thoughts and I do everything in my power to avoid running into them, even as I leave the door open for reconciliation if they want to approach me and seek amends. That is the least we can do as human beings. It is a focus that took me five years to figure out. And I’m a lot happier and more creative as a result.

But every now and then, you find out about someone who is still unhealthily fixated on you. There is someone online who has been obsessed with me now for a good nine years. Nine years. It’s almost as if she thinks we were married or something, but I’ve never met her and I’ve had a grand total of two interactions with her.

Even so, I would rather be honest about my inadequacies rather than bask in the sham panacea of feeling better about myself. The truth of the matter is that, while I have made great strides in finding more compassion for people, I am clearly not extending enough unconditional empathy in my life. Rather than holding grudges, I simply erase people who have hurt me from my existence. I do this because to dwell on them further is to invite more anger I don’t need into my life. I view this as a great moral failure and I am hoping to make greater strides in being more understanding towards other perspectives. Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with avoiding toxic people and there is certainly some truth to this. You don’t want to surround yourself with people who belittle you. On the other hand, the definition of “toxic” has become highly malleable in recent years. We are more content to write someone off over a minor disagreement in opinion rather than an assiduous assessment of what our actual relationship is and could be with another person.

The person who is obsessed with me doesn’t seem to be happy. I keep waiting for her to stop being obsessed with me. For goodness sake, when do you let something go? It’s clear from an objective analysis that she hasn’t done much with her life and that she has creative aspirations that she hasn’t tried to pursue (or, if she has, it didn’t go as planned; Ed, you’ve been there; so what’s with the paralysis?). So I suspect that’s one of the reasons she’s projecting her wanton fury onto me. She keeps publicly comparing me to the likes of Bill Cosby, Alan Dershowitz, and other terrible people with whom I clearly share no qualities. My response has been to stay resolutely silent and keep her blocked on all social media. I suppose she’s the Annie Wilkes to my Paul Sheldon. I suppose that I should count myself fortunate that I haven’t been in a car accident in her neighborhood.

I really don’t comprehend this kind of obsessive jealousy. But if you’re actively busting your hump on the creative front and being transparent about your process to provide help and inspiration to others, it is an inevitable and unfortunate reality. Hate and jealousy tends to bubble up from people who aren’t doing anything with their lives. We rarely talk of thwarted ambitions and the way in which people project their own failures onto others rather than taking the time to see how they can make their lives happen. The jealous grudgeholder looks at some figure who is actively seizing the reins with originality, good will, and a solid work ethic and perceives weird opportunities to resent the target and tear him down. This is to be distinguished from reasonable criticism, which allows an audience to thoughtfully comprehend another person’s work and is often quite useful, but should never be taken personally.

I suppose I’m thinking about this person because there is a part of me who wants to empathize with her crazed zeal and redress this weird grievance she has with me, even as I simultaneously recognize that doing so may not be good for my wellbeing and will probably not result in anything more than further grief on my end and renewed obsession from her. There’s also the question of whether I have the emotional energy to fully empathize with her position and provide the appropriate closure for both of us. Dylan Morran has a podcast called Conversations with People Who Hate Me in which he talks with people who have made him the object of their anger. Even though I greatly commend his efforts to reach out to his enemies, I still think that Morran isn’t being entirely transparent about the selective manner in which he practices his professed empathy. Because that’s the thing. Empathy isn’t just about listening to your enemy. It’s about finding the visceral space inside you to truly feel and understand your enemy’s perspective. You can’t extend an olive branch through a pro forma gesture. You really have to demonstrate that you genuinely care.

The excellent British TV series, Back to Life, written by Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon, is one of the few recent offerings that deals with the double-edged sword of trying to empathize with someone who has committed a monstrous act. Miri Matteson (played by Haggard) has served an eighteen year prison sentence for murdering one of her best friends and returns to her small town in Kent to rebuild her life and find a second chance. The show is brilliant in the way that it doesn’t dwell specifically on Miri’s crime, but rather Miri’s life as it is now. The town vandalizes her parents’ home, where she is staying. She manages to land a job at a fish and chips place gentrifying the neighborhood (a beautifully subtle metaphor for the need to accept change), but a brick is thrown through the window during one of her shifts.

All this leaves the audience contending with a vital moral question. Does anyone deserve such treatment? If a transgressor has done her time and is peacefully trying to forge a stable life, shouldn’t we grant the transgressor that opportunity? The show counterbalances Miri’s struggles to readjust with benevolent gestures from a neighbor who is unfamiliar with Miri’s past, but who accepts Miri on her own terms, even going to the trouble of fixing her childhood swing in the dead of night and extending decency. The show suggests, through humor and a nimble attentiveness to behavior, that there is a certain human strength that emerges from simply accepting someone on their own present terms. Moreover, as the truth of Miri’s past becomes more dominantly recognized in the present, we are forced to consider the question of how prohibiting a transgressor from having a second chance may cause the transgressor to repeat the old patterns. Sure, nobody owes anyone a second chance. But what great possibilities and connections are we denying by insisting that someone’s transgressive nature is permanent? The idea of not giving a transgressor a second chance used to be a conservative staple, but now it has become increasingly practiced by ostensible liberals.

The criminologist John Braithwaite has written a number of very useful volumes on restorative justice — particularly, Crime, Shame, and Reintegration, in which he points to many statistics where disintegrative shaming — meaning the permanent stigmatization of someone who has transgressed — often leads to recidivism. Whereas reintegrative shaming, meaning a period of shaming followed by forgiveness and a slow acceptance of the transgressor back into a community (rather than making him an outcast), usually results in greater peace. Among Braithwaite’s many examples is the fact that American offenders are more than twenty times as likely to be incarcerated as Japanese offenders. The difference is that Japan takes on the shame as a collective community rather than passing the shame onto the individual.

So if reintegration works better than shaming, why then can I not find it within me to settle the dispute with the person who is obsessed with me? Obviously, Braithwaite, writing in 1989, could not anticipate the rise of social media weaponized to destroy lives and careers. He could not anticipate how instant spurts of 280 character tweets result in people forming cartoonish impressions about people, such as Sady Doyle falsely accusing opinion writer Liz Bruenig last week of threats without producing a shred of evidence. What rational person can blame Bruenig for her response? Most people, faced with the mania of impressions and accusations, just want to be left alone. (The above screenshot is from a tweet that Bruenig deleted. To offer full disclosure, Doyle has also lied about and libeled me, as well as some of my friends. But I also understand from people who know her that she is suffering from mental health problems. My hope for her, despite the hurt she caused me and the translucent relish she took in meting it out, is that people close to her can get her the help and the treatment she clearly needs so that she doesn’t have to behave like this again.)

Even when we talk about the need for more empathy, you can’t escape the fact that it will always be selectively and individually applied. I’m willing to own up to my own flaws on this front. But the people who have advanced careers through this philosophical position don’t seem to have the same ability. After all, they have books to sell rather than hearts to extend. Five years ago, Jon Ronson wrote a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?. While Ronson’s volume was certainly progressive in the way that it asked us to consider the lives of people who had been hounded by the hordes, the problem with Ronson is that he can only perceive disproportionate punishment with “people who did virtually nothing wrong.” I’ve read and listened to a lot of Ronson interviews and I’ve yet to find a case where he has shown willingness to extend true empathy to people who have done something wrong and who want to make their lives better. The whole point of justice is to allow for rehabilitation and reintegration. While Ronson demonstrated how perceived transgressors suffered undue hardship, you can’t even begin to have a conversation like this until you consider how people who have been “canceled” live out their lives. Nobody’s life ends just because you decided to wipe him away from your windshield.

Perhaps we do have some collective obligation to reach out when it’s difficult. I recently settled a dispute with someone who had falsely and belligerently accused me of behavior that I never committed in a support group. Instead of getting angry with him, I took a deep breath and wrote a very careful message with him pointing out that I understood his feelings and that I had been carefully listening to him the entire time while also declaring that I genuinely cared for him and refused to feel angry towards him. He then sent a message to me apologizing for his previous message and declaring me a “good guy.” We were able to patch it up, but that’s only because we had actually met face to face and had taken a little bit of time to know each other.

Social media, despite its professed “social” qualities, doesn’t allow us that pivotal face-to-face contact. It doesn’t allow us to better understand another person’s motivations and perspective and find common points of empathy. It is a common truth that most disputes can be settled easily in person. But we have increasingly shifted to an age in which people pine for the easier method of erasing someone from existence. It is far easier to stigmatize someone if we have never gone to the trouble to know them. But it also reduces complex human beings into little more than one-dimensional transactional vessels. One can look no further than the rise of ghosting and people writing others off on flimsy pretext if you have the misfortune of being single in the metropolitan New York area.

The question we now face is whether reintegration as a virtue for a better and happier world that allows more people opportunities to live positive lives overshadowing their worst mistakes is something that we can implement in an age driven by castigatory social media. It’s certainly a tough sell. But I also recognize that, as more data about individuals becomes increasingly public and more past episodes are dredged into the bright xenon lights of public opinion, we’re going to need to find more ways of embracing this necessary difficulty. It isn’t feasible to ask anyone to live up to an impossible virtue. But there is always something very beautiful in learning how to empathize with someone once we have come to understand why they committed their worst mistakes and once we see that they, like us, are willing to change.

Tips and Tricks for Audio Drama Editing

For the past eight months, I have been editing the second season of my audio drama, The Gray Area. It’s quite a daunting endeavor: a slate of episodes that will encapsulate the length of two average seasons of audio drama. Alas, there was no other way to tell the story. I anticipate a release date of the spring of this year, although there is still much work I need to do.

During this latest postproduction round, I have learned a great deal about sound, rhythm, mixing, leveling, inventiveness, plugins, and some basic pragmatic moves that have allowed me to improve as an editor. However, like everyone, I am still learning. Since there isn’t a lot of online material out there on how to edit audio drama, I have been gradually assembling a series of quick Instagram videos to help out producers who may be new to making audio drama. I’m sure that, had such a resource existed before I figured much of this out on my own, it would have saved me an incredible amount of time. It seems only right to pay it forward. So without further ado, here are some tips and tricks that may help you out as you tell your sonic stories! Unless otherwise noted, the software I am using for these videos is Reaper, an inexpensive DAW that never crashes and contains incredible power and that I swear undying allegiance to, and iZotope RX, a costly but essential tool I use for cleaning up dialogue and removing unanticipated noise. (This article serves as a production-centered companion piece to my essay “How to Write Audio Drama.”)

1. How to Make a Homegrown Sound Effect:

For those who cannot afford expensive sound effects libraries or who cannot find the right sound within the vast depository of Free Sound, consider the enormous sonic riches you may find in the world around you. A sound in a high frequency might produce something new and unanticipated in a lower register, and vice versa. Some of the most original sounds that I have discovered and used in The Gray Area are surprisingly commonplace. Much of my homegrown sound design comes from being inspired by wildly creative people who have approached the process of searching for the new in a similar manner. My feeling is that, if something very weird sounds vaguely familiar, an exotic sound will likely land better with an audience. It’s worth remembering that the TARDIS dematerialization effect in Doctor Who, still used after more than fifty years, is essentially a slowed down version of scraping the insides of a piano and that the Smoke Monster in Lost is, in part, composed of the credit card machines that were ubiquitous in Manhattan taxis around 2010 (and that, on a separate note, proved very tricky to track down for an upcoming story set in 2011; alas, we do what we can for historical authenticity!). The above video shows how I used a percussive instrument given to me on my birthday for an ethereal effect that I layered in a scene set inside a cosmic realm. (I also recommend Jonathan Mitchell’s excellent article on sound design, in which he breaks down how he put together sounds for a particular scene. Mitchell’s audio drama, The Truth, continues to remain a great inspiration point for me. He’s really one of the best sound design practitioners out there.)

For my audio drama adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper, I took a commonplace sound of a tray being dropped in front of a Shure KSM32 — a large diaphragm mic used by Ira Glass that offers a warm and bright sound similar to a Neumann U87, but that is not $3,000 — and double tracked it. For the second track, I adjusted the speed. And the result was an ethereal clang that represented The Woman’s psychological schism. Don’t be afraid to mess around with different microphones and double tracking. Some audio drama producers swear by flat sounds that they can manipulate through postproduction tools. But I’m more fond of using the best microphone I have in my arsenal to get a particular tone (cold, warm, high, low) that I can accentuate in postproduction.

2. You Can Deviate from Your Script a Bit

If you want to get an audience to buy into your stories, it’s essential that you have your characters speaking in the most natural rhythm possible — even when you have stylized characters. Some of the time — even when you record the stories — the rhythm won’t always announce itself. But you will find it in the editing. In the above video, I demonstrate how lightly rearranging a line in the middle of a big dialogue chunk not only improved the flow of the scene, but allowed the reactions of the characters to be more natural.

3. Take Advantage of Free Plugins

One thing that people may not realize about iZotope, the remarkable company that puts out RX, is that the company also offers two free VST plugins that you can use for your DAW. (A VST plugin, if you don’t know what this is, is an add-on that Reaper can use for an effect. Here is a simple guide on how to add them in Reaper.) The two plugins in question — both of which I have experimented with — are Vinyl, which allows you to add a scratchy effect so that you can create the sonic aesthetic of an old recording, and Vocal Doubler, which allows a very subtle double tracking effect that proved useful for a scene in which I needed to have a character calling from an ethereal space.

Another free VST plugin that I discovered was Proximity by Tokyo Dawn Labs. There were some instances during editing in which simply leveling down and EQing a character so that the voice came across as quite distant did not sound right to my ears. In some cases, Proximity did a better and quicker job to shift a sound so that it matched what I wanted to hear inside my head.

You can also use Reaper’s built-in plugin ReaEQ to add distance, as demonstrated in the above video.

4. Using EQ to Match Dialogue

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Tutorial: How to use EQ to match dialogue. Mastering is very important. This was a case where one actor was a little too trebly and didn't quite match the other actor. I needed the character to sound warm and bright and friendly. The character is a quiet healer. So it was vital to get this tone right. But the mic I used went a little above and beyond! (Hey, it happens. Sometimes mics are TOO good! Ha!) So on her track I bumped up the low frequencies, raised the mids, and stepped down the highs so that the two actors would match in this very important scene. When I do another pass on this, I will do more EQ tweaking on both actors and add more custom room tone to mask this so that it sounds very real. #mastering #eq #dialogue #matching #editing #postproduction #atmosphere #environment #engineering #audiodrama #tone

A post shared by Edward Champion (@grayareapod) on

Even in the early stages of assembly, you do need to be mindful about matching tracks that were recorded in different sessions so that it sounds as if the characters are in the same room. Getting the dialogue rhythm right is one method of doing this. But to fully sell the illusion, mastering is key. It is one part of postproduction that is often not discussed, if it is even practiced at all, among audio drama producers. In the above video, I had an actor who sounded a little too trebly. So I adjusted the EQ settings by bumping down the high frequencies, stepping up the lows, and raising the mids. I still have more fine tuning to do for this scene as of this writing, but at least I have a solid baseline to build from when I return to the story on the next pass. One resource that proved incredibly useful in learning how to master was Ian Shepherd’s excellent podcast The Mastering Show. Shepherd has spent many years fighting against the Loudness Wars, a regrettable trend in music whereby producers in the early 21st century attempted to mix the loudest possible tracks. The result was muddled compression. Because all sound contains a maximum threshold. Audio drama is a uniquely intimate form. EQ and proper mastering will help you tremendously so that you don’t make the same mistake as these music producers.

5. How to Use RX to Repair Clipping

Clipping often happens when an actor delivers a fantastic performance, but is slightly blown out in the final recording. Sometimes, you have a situation in which the actor’s best performance is the one that is slightly clipped. Enter RX 7, which comes with a De-Clip module that will automatically adjust a slightly hot take. The above video shows RX’s power. With more audio drama being produced now than ever before, you want to make sure that your final product sounds as professional as possible. There is also a method of repairing clipping in Audacity, which I have also used. But while somewhat effective, I find that Audacity doesn’t hold a candle to RX. Even so, your job is to use the tools that you can find or that are within your budget. And there are many tools out there! For audio drama producers who are just starting out, Audacity — which still comes in very handy for me in certain editing situations — remains a solid place to start from.

6. Splitting Dialogue in Reaper

I recorded more than 300 hours of audio over a period of eighteen months for the second season. Before I could even begin to put together my rough cuts, I needed to split and organize all this dialogue so that I could manage these complicated logistics. It took four months of seven day workweeks for me to get to this place. But it would have taken me much longer if I didn’t have Reaper.

Now there is a way to split audio in Adobe Audition — one that I have documented here — by adding markers to long files, merging the two points, and then exporting these files into a directory. However, I found that Reaper was a lot faster in splitting files, as I show in the above video. By splitting your long files into smaller items and then selecting them, you can use Reaper’s “Batch/File Item Converter” (found in the File dropdown menu) to add your selected files and then export them to the directory you want. Reaper allows numerous wildcards that allow you to title these newly split files in whatever manner is best for you.

I wish I would have known about this Reaper feature when I put together the first season. Because postproduction would have shuttled along much faster. But at least I discovered this hack in the second season. This has greatly sped up my workflow.

7. How to Remove Light Reverb with RX

Reverb is one of the most difficult qualities to remove from audio. Even if you aggressively filter it, you’re still going to be left with a flat, artifact-laden sound. I record with my actors in a large room in my apartment. I do this because I want to give my actors the freedom to move and gesticulate. Because this, to my mind, is essential to performance. Recording in a closet or a sound booth often hinders their ability to make interesting choices. And I am also performing with my actors when I direct them so that they have something real to react to. My own personal preference is to prioritize performance over technical restrition. However, the tradeoff of my production decision means that I sometimes have a few takes where there is light reverb. The extra space results in bouncing sound waves. And this, of course, is something that may not match across tracks.

Enter RX’s very useful Dialogue De-Reverb module, which has saved my bacon on more than one occasion. RX also comes with a very useful Dialogue Isolate feature, which is incredibly helpful in removing modest background noise. (Your goal in postproduction is to “rebuild” an audio environment. I do this by cleaning the sounds and then recording various location tones throughout New York City for a sound bed. And then I act out the characters’ physical actions as I listen to the actors perform through my headphones and use this as the starting point for my sound design.) But Dialogue Isolate doesn’t always cut it for light reverb situations. Dialogue De-Reverb does, however, and the above video demonstrates how you can do it.

My Father

He was a monster who swore like a sailor, refused to wear seat belts, nearly poisoned me with a macrobiotic formula in my infancy, burned me with cigarette butts, bit me like a coward (bite marks disguised by long-sleeved shirts I wore to elementary school), and nearly asphyxiated me with a pillow. He was bad even before an auto accident in Fremont propelled him through the windshield of a VW bus, permanently scrambled his brain, and made him worse: more moody and abusive. He smoked Pall Malls. He sang and played guitar. He drank beer prodigiously. He sometimes gardened. He read books by Rod McKuen and had many other regrettable reading tastes that I thankfully didn’t mimic. He despised his job at the ZEP chemical facility. I’m pretty sure he loathed being a father. He was far lazier than I ever was, far lazier than I have ever been, and I suspect that one of the reasons I cultivated my crazy work ethic was because I remember his sloth and his entitlement, which shamed me and seemed permanently associated with the considerable physical and emotional abuse he meted towards me. I suspect his entitlement also made me angry towards anyone who felt entitled. Like him, I took up heavy drinking and heavy smoking at various times in my life. I am also quite liberal about my usage of the word “fuck” in everyday conversation, although I am decidedly cheerier about it than my dad was. His “fucks” were bitter missives hoping to decimate any and all joy around him.

I know that he’s in Oregon. Or was. The property associated with his name sold in 2016. So I have no idea where he lives now. He really liked to escape from people. He had paranoid tendencies. He had mental health issues, although, like my mother, he was never diagnosed. Perhaps a stubborn temperament was the cement that kept the unhappy marriage going so long. It’s one of the reasons why I am determined to leave the house and say hello to people every day, even though I simultaneously sustain the mystique of being the enigmatic bald creative dude in my Brooklyn neighborhood who says very few words about what he actually does. He aspired to be a writer. But, unlike me, he gave up. And I suspect this made him more bitter. I found a message thread a few years back in which he expressed how he had given up and how he made intricate toys pieced together from German kits and gave them to people. But it seemed to me that nobody returned these gestures and that he was very lonely and who the hell knows what else. Around the same time, I found a social media profile associated with his name and location in which a scantily clad woman was photographed in murky detail. Did he pay for someone? Why was this the only image? I do know that he cross-dressed. So who knows what the real sexual struggle was? Was my father angry because he could not be who he was? I do know that I get very angry when people demean and belittle me, especially when they make up stories and gaslight the narrative, although I am better these days about ignoring the haters and living a positive life.

The phone number I have for him is disconnected. I tried it about three years ago. I have not seen him in three decades. I spoke with him once on the phone when I lived in San Francisco. The call merely lasted for five minutes. I was in my early twenties. And I don’t recall saying anything of substance. I wish I had been wiser and stronger and bolder and more explicit about my need to reconcile this demon and the trauma his behavior inflicted on me. I wish I had tried to seek closure, to confront him with the pain that he caused me. But I wasn’t ready yet. I’m ready now, but I don’t have a working number.

Ten years ago, I wrote about him. My memories now are different, even though the reservoir of tearful thoughts I have to work from remains largely the same. I somehow don’t hate him. I just want to understand why he was such a monster and why he picked on a scrawny troubled kid and why he hated me. Because this screws a man up in ways that words can’t possibly convey, but that are best unpacked over a bottle of vodka with a trusted friend who will understand that I am trying my damnedest not to be selfish and that I am trying to be real and true and find new points of common empathy. I am still unmarried. I still do not have any children. I’ve reached the point in life where I wonder if it’s too late for me. For years, I’ve had this crazy idea that, if I can somehow start a family, I can erase the terrible one that I was cursed with and that caused me so much trouble in my adult years and that instilled my psyche with so many nightmares. But, of course, we all know that this is a stupid fantasy. You have to be honest about the hand you were dealt. But these are the melancholy thoughts you have a few weeks before your birthday. These are the thoughts you have when all you really have is yourself and you wonder if loving yourself can ever be enough.

Scoop (Modern Library #75)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.

Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.

So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.

Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”

This is pitch-perfect Waugh. Sadly, the wanton laziness of journalists and willful opportunism of newspaper publishers remain very applicable eighty-one years after Scoop‘s publication. In 2015, a Hardin County newspaper misreported that the local sheriff had said that “those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.” And this was before The New York Times became an apologist outlet for Nazis (the original title of that linked article was “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door”) and didn’t even bother to fact-check an infamous climate change denial article from Bret Stephens published on April 28, 2017.

So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.

The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.

In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.

Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”

Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.

We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.

But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.

Next Up: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms!

The Rightful End of Roseanne

Roseanne Barr is finished. And it’s about goddam time.

I watched the first few episodes of the Roseanne reboot with an open mind, but the show’s racism and intolerance, well on display within the show and bluntly expressed in Roseanne’s off-air demeanor, demonstrated very conclusively that this was not a contemporary answer to All in the Family, but something more akin to a sitcom version of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. An early scene showing the Conners swapping an insufficient supply of medication due to inadequate American healthcare created the illusion that this was a show like its previous iteration, one aligned with the working class roots that had made the original such a success. But then we saw the Conners casually belittling “all the shows about black and Asian families” and it became very clear that this was a program committed to white supremacy. As The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum pointed out, the show relied on coded language, unrealistic dialogue, and sideways jabs to disguise its bigotry-drenched narrative.

I was not the only viewer to flee. It took only weeks for the reboot to drop from 18.44 million viewers to a mere 10.42 million. This was the show that Trump had said “was about us,” but that “us” shed 44% of its purported unity within months. The cast and crew quickly became unsettled by the Faustian bargain they had bought into. Co-showrunner Whitney Cummings left. Then writer Wanda Sykes left. And as actress Emma Kenney was about to bolt, she was informed by her manager that the show was cancelled. The linchpin was a startlingly racist tweet in which Roseanne declared that former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was the product of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes [sic]” having a baby.

For anybody who had been watching this hatred from the sidelines, Roseanne’s vulgar and vituperative racism was there in the unfettered manner in which she tweeted easily debunked alt-right conspiracy theories as if these hurtful falsehoods represented true gospel. She falsely claimed in March that David Hogg, one of the brave kids who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and who went on to become a formidable activist, had offered a Nazi salute, despite the fact that Roseanne herself had dressed up as Hitler for Heeb Magazine.

Barring a pickup from an online streaming giant — an unlikely event, given Amazon’s recent woes with Transparent and the Roy Price scandal, Netflix cutting ties with Louis CK, and Hulu likely not wanting to risk its progressive-minded programming slate given the success of The Handmaid’s Tale — there is little chance that Roseanne will return, unless she decides to produce it on her own dime. And even then, she would probably not have enough clout to convince all the cast members and crew to return. Such a hypothetical reboot, untethered from the manacles of network Standards and Practices, would only amp up the atavism further in the interest of “truth-telling,” perhaps inspiring the Southern Poverty Law Center to include Roseanne Barr amidst its distressingly voluminous list of offenders.

This was the first television show cancelled by a single tweet. And I don’t think it will be the last. What Roseanne’s self-immolation demonstrates, quite rightfully and righteously I think, is that America does have limits to what it will tolerate. There will undoubtedly be Daily Caller-reading banshees writing thinkpieces proclaiming this cancellation as a calumny upon the First Amendment. But the decision to write and produce a show, much less watch one, has not been quelled and the audience hungry for this casual xenophobia has regrettably not been deracinated. There are still ten million loyal Roseanne viewers. And I can easily imagine Roseanne being propped up as an underground comic, recast as an alt-right faux Lenny Bruce or perhaps the American answer to Dieudonné, and making a fortune through a monthly Patreon account.

In an age in which a self-help transphobic huckster like Jordan Peterson is framed by the “Paper of Record” as a “dark web intellectual,” Roseanne will probably not be the last repugnant show airing on American television. I fear that we are only at the beginning of hatred and intolerance marketed as “wholesome entertainment.” And while mainstream media rejects Roseanne, one must now be on the lookout for independently produced offerings cut from the same Klan cloth that are snatched up by television executives in the interest of corporate profit. This is, after all, how Roseanne was rebooted in the first place. The question now is who has the chutzpah to push the envelope further into a fetid swamp of ugliness and whether some network desperate for a hit is willing to pick up such a bilious offering, counting upon the American public to forget how these same gatekeepers helped make Roseanne happen in the first place.

Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (NaNoWriMo #4)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: We’ll Always Have Brunch (Chapter 3)

Grace never told me where she worked or what she did or whether she liked her English muffin lightly toasted or extra crispy, but no one ever chased these harmless subjects anymore. “What do you do?” — once the darling question of small talk that tied the room together — had lost its meaning not long after the Virginia Massacre and the subsequent race riots and the purges and the Congressional assassinations had forced the government to roll into every city with humvees, assigning us our new vocational roles at gunpoint, the social contract extending into free-form fucking (even though most of us managed this quite well on our own before the Great Turnover). Grace and I agreed to meet again. She even reconsidered learning backgammon.

We exchanged numbers just before she clipped on her cubic zirconia earrings, smiling her finest Duchenne before the inspection camera to verify her singlehood, and we rated and reviewed each other for the quality assurance elite (“Five stars. Expert at reverse cowgirl. Attentive to cock. I’d do her again,” read my vulgar and now far too common lie). I left the singles housing unit wearing the previous day’s threads, wondering if my martinet manager would notice that my beige jacket was the same as yesterday’s. There was a good chance he wouldn’t. His paperwork never stopped.

I had taken a slight risk wearing beige to work. Beige wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it was mildly rebellious given that we had been asked to adorn our starved bodies with loud and bright hues to promote universal pleasure. Beige was my answer to the final movement in Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, not that any New Amagacan knew about classical music. Under the Ruler, you were lucky if you heard someone deliver an especially famous Shakespeare quote. The great secret of his autocratic success was to tire us out, insinuating that any work of art which stimulated the mind was akin to eating one’s cultural vegetables, so that, in our collective fatigue, we would never remember any significant artistic achievement from the time before. Culture had not been banned. The First Privilege had guaranteed us some remaining rights. But if you hoped to stop the population from caring or thinking about anything substantive, you had to create a climate in which the beauty of a baroque quatrain was as unappetizing during one’s spare time as a gratuitous backbreaking task.

I ambled along the sidewalk, which was being hosed down with exacting fury by two moribund men with hardscrabble cigarettes sticking from their lips like toxic lollipops. My phone revealed that they were both single and both twos and that neither had hooked up in quite some time (it was never easy for twos), which accounted for why they had been assigned to sweep the streets. One had to be careful with twos. They were more prone to crime, which could not be entirely eliminated by the Ruler even with his zero tolerance policy. But very often, a two’s infractions were never severe enough to warrant public execution. The expense of trucking away a two to a reeducation camp was too risky in a fragile economy. I suppose, if we had unlimited resources, the Ruler would have pushed harder. But it was also important to give every able mind a chance at redemption. Sometimes when you went out to brunch — and everyone went out to brunch, especially after the Ruler had reminded us — you would see a four obliging a two. (Giving spare credits to an under three was punishable by death under Protocol 47.) Then you would go to church and see the same four standing on the dais, without the two in sight, being extolled for being a good Amagacan. The next weekend, you would see the four with another two and the ritual would repeat and, very soon, the four would become a five, getting an item placed in the news feed and an assignment in charge of some vital municipal task. Meanwhile, the twos would disappear, sometimes becoming ones and leaving themselves vulnerable to a swifter daily seven selection. I knew that life as a two was difficult, but this was one of those problems that we never talked about. Status warfare was the cost of a greater New Amagaca, much as we had been blind about class warfare in the days before the Ruler. The last journalist who dared to write about this topic had been shot by the producer on the nightly news, with the bonanza ratings from the live stream rapidly superseding anything he had to say.

The two twos toodle-ooed me as I stared down at my malfunctioning GPS, hoping that the network would clear up so that I could find the swiftest subway to work. The street sweepers probably knew the city better than I did, but, when it came to consorting with citizens who were two stars beneath you, you really had to give rather than take. That was the way it worked. Ask only of others in your rank. If you dared to ask a favor of a two, you would have to hookup more frequently to sustain your four rating. Because talking with someone beneath you was considered an act of weakness, even when the propaganda dictated that everybody was worthy of a good pleasurable life under the Ruler.

Grace’s neighborhood was devoid of street signs and my GPS still didn’t work — even though I could make out the mile-high Burj Amagacana glistening in the distance. Which meant that I was very far away from work, unless I could find a subway that could take me there fast. I had thirty minutes to report to my auditor job or get downranked to a three. There had once been a time in which you could hail a shared vehicle, but such conveniences were now a month’s salary and largely belonged to the fives. Two years before, I had gone to a specialist to repair my status rating. And it had taken me a good year to climb to a four.

There was the option to use a sick day, but calling in sick would mean doctors taking me to a sybarite facility, where medical professionals would force me to hookup with six sick strangers a day until I got well. I would actually have to fuck these people — for there was no privacy for the infirm. The Ruler has bought into the anti-vaccination argument that had proven popular before the Great Turnover and believed only in hookups as the secret to good health. So you would have cancer patients locking lips with old citizens suffering from dementia. I often wondered if this had been a callous and crafty way of letting the sick die. This was the only healthcare we had. Bona-fide doctors were reserved for the fives. Still, a few popular pornographic stars had emerged from the sybarites. As the New Amagacan regime carried on, you learned that there was a kinky niche for everything.

There was also the matter of my caseload, which I really didn’t want to fall in the hands of Greta Zioto, an adjuster who was far more ruthless with my cases than I could ever be. Despite her very high deportation approval rate, she still found the time to plan fiestas for the office. It was almost as if the parties inspired Greta to be more heartless. The people who asked for our help always seemed to get in Greta’s way and she much preferred spending her afternoons going to the Consumer Center, justifying lavish budget allotments, and spending far too many government-issued credits on party supplies. Until Greta came along, our barebones office was a place where we all hung down our heads and did the best we could to save lives. But Greta, who was well connected with the fives, made parties happen twice a week. The abrogation unit, which had repealed many ones and twos and gave them a second chance, soon spent more of its time putting on a blindfold, growing cheerier as they swatted around at a swinging piñata, leaving Greta to reassign dozens of cases to the death camps. But some of us still took our duties quite seriously.

So I had to get to work. There was more on the line here than an unwanted fuckfest. If I got to work at a timely hour, there was a good chance that I could repeal a few cases and stop at least some of them from being selected for the daily seven. This was what I did twelve hours each day and why I couldn’t sleep. I ended my day at the cafe across from the daily seven because I needed to be reminded why I slept only four hours a night and how increasingly rare it was for anyone to weep.

“Mister Schuld?”

“That’s me.”

The voice came from a smiling man wearing a peaked cap.

“Did you go straying from your sector again?”

The man elbowed me on the side and winked.

“Yeah, you might say that.”

“Well, we don’t want you to be late for work! Do we?”

“Uh, I can’t pay for this.”

“It’s all taken care of, Mister Schuld. Don’t you worry!”

“By whom?”

“Me,” said a very familiar voice that I had not heard since the rough and tumble days rebuilding my status history. “Hello, Alex.”

Next: The Betrayal (Chapter 5)

6874 / 50000 words. 14% done!

4.5. The Waiting Room (The Gray Area)

Virginia Gaskell finds herself on the other side of the portal that lured her in, greeted by an extremely exuberant (and strangely familiar) receptionist, some squawking avians that aren’t quite okay with her love of chicken fajitas, and further mysteries about how the universes rupture into each other. (Running time: 7 minutes)

Written and directed by Edward Champion


Virginia Gaskell: Chris Smith
Receptionist: Zachary Michael
Demon: Pete Lutz
Ed Champion: Edward Champion
Bird People: Fiona Thraille, Benjamin Macon Fort
Sound Design and Editing by Edward Champion

Foley Sources: Edward Champion

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Matthew Boudreau, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Jen Elyse Feldman, Claudia Berenice Garza, Pam Getchell, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, John Osborne, Tom Parsons, Michael Saldate, Marc Anthony Stein, Georgette Thompson, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode.

Thanks for listening!

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

A Conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh

I stepped off the plane at LAX. As I waited for my suitcase to roll up from the airport’s deepest bowels, observing a faintly funereal mist smelling vaguely sulphuric and subsuming all emerging valises, a cadaverous man with thin eyes, a sinister frown, and frightening olive livery — one who later identified himself as “Ottessa Moshfegh’s senior aide-de-camp” but never divulged his first name — grabbed me by the throat and tackled me onto the floor. I wondered if he believed me to be a benevolent and objective reporter covering a Trump rally.

“Are you the interviewer?” he rasped.

He had a peppermint breath that was somewhere between Altoids and ForeverMints and I could hear the crack of his jaw biting upon a pesky capsule that had stubbornly refused to dissolve in his mouth. The aide-de-camp drooled fine rivulets of spittle onto the 2005 Coachella T-shirt that I was wearing, one that I hadn’t remembered purchasing because someone had suggested at the time that I ingest mildly illicit narcotics.

“Uh, yes?”

The aide-de-camp then demanded that I produce my credit history, my blood type, my social security card, and my genetic lineage dating back six generations. Then he rolled me over and shoved a retina scanner into my eye.

“I’m sure you understand,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh only talks with high-class people.”

“But I’ve done more than 550 interviews,” I replied.

High-class only.”

It was apparently easier for me to get a job with law enforcement than to go through with an interview that had been scheduled three months before.

I told the jostling gentleman that I had attended a state school because I didn’t have any money in my younger years. He snickered at me and then gave me a beef stick. Even though I hadn’t eaten anything on the plane and was feeling a bit peckish, I knew that this was a test and resisted biting into the tantalizing Slim Jim that might have fueled me for another fifteen minutes.

I had heard rumblings about Moshfegh’s eccentric vetting process for interviews, which she’d initiated ever since being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the previous week, Moshfegh had humiliated a Guardian reporter named Paul Laity, demanding that he conduct his conversation shirtless while being flogged by a a bell hooks volume. As part of the deal, Laity had been asked by Moshfegh’s entourage to name his next child “Ottessa” in deference to the World’s Greatest Living Author. I have been unable to corroborate this detail, though a shellshocked Laity did croak “Run while you still can” near the close of our tense ten minute telephone conversation.

There had been no such bargains tendered towards me, perhaps because the prospect of me reproducing seemed less likely than Laity passing out cigars sometime in the next few years outside a hospital room, but the publicist informed me that under no circumstances should I ever paint Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, in a negative light.

“Well, no novel is perfect,” I said.

“No,” said the publicist. “This one is.”

“Come on. Even the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter has a few dull spots. And I love Ulysses.”

“I don’t think you understand how lucky you are to be here.”

Lucky? I had only accepted the gig because some editor had at long last taken pity on me. I was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity.

“This way,” said the aide-de-camp.

He proceeded to blindfold me and affixed my head with leather foam earphones that played the most terrifying glitch-pop I have ever heard. I felt my body being buffeted into the inside of a car. I felt someone taking my hand and fingerprinting me. Nearly an hour passed. All the Skrillex that had decimated my brain had nearly wiped me out. Then the earphones were removed.

“Good news,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh has agreed to speak with you for fifteen minutes. She doesn’t mind being inconvenienced by the Booker or any press that will ensure her God-given talent is finally approved by the Literary Forces of the Universe. But only after you have written a note of loyalty to her undisputed genius in your own blood.”

Since I had a little spare blood kicking around in my veins, I figured no sweat. In hindsight, it may have been a tad foolish of me to agree to this after refusing the Slim Jim, which stared mockingly back in the stretch limo’s armrest, which was composed of rich Corinthian leather.

Finally, I was asked to recite passages from Eileen to prove my fidelity to Moshfegh.

“Cite the third sentence in the second paragraph on Page 26,” ordered the aide-de-camp.

“Uh…They were forbidden to do most things children ought to do – dance, sing, gesture, talk loud, listen to music, lie down unless they were given permission to?”

“Good. You’re remembering the right sentences. Does that resonate with you?”

“Can I plead the Fifth?”

“Mr. Champion, this is not a court of law.”

“Okay. Maybe we should call my therapist then?”

“No, Mr. Champion, that won’t be necessary. You have passed the test, despite your shaky pedigree, your deplorable education, your three-days stubble, and the undisputable fact that you are a very terrible person indeed.”

“Didn’t you read the character reference letters I submitted?”

But this question went unanswered as the spotless Tesla Model S arrived at the Moshfegh compound.

“Get out of the car, you journalistic cur!”

“Alright, already. Can I get my microphones at least?”

“No. If you can commit Miss Moshfegh’s prose to memory, you will remember every quote accurately and be sued if even a stray comma is discovered to be out of place.”

I was led into a sprawling two-floor home with a four bay garage just off the edge of Little Arabia, overwhelmed by the smell of overly groomed grape vines and a meticulously landscaped front garden with a large sign reading YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT IF YOU STEAL A BERRY. SEE CASTLE DOCTRINE.

Ms. Moshfegh, 35, was seated at a large refectory table in a spacious living room, cutting bits of sentences from old Dorothy Sayers paperbacks for her next project.

“I’ll tame you, you shoddy pulpy sentence! I deserve riches beyond the dreams of avarice! Instant success! No less!”

This was a typical creative act for Moshfegh, although it was a curious form of self-affirmation. But I have to hand it to her. Moshfegh had indeed pulled a fast one on a number of Booker Prize judges who were not, in fact, in the habit of familiarizing themselves with genre.

The aide-de-camp gently explained to me that the Moshfegh philosophy involved pretending that mysteries confronting troubling ideas about women had never been written, even as she ripped off entire sentences from novels that had, in fact, done just that decades before. And I am only reporting this tidbit here because it was one of the few details that had somehow not been earmarked by Moshfegh’s otherwise fastidious quote approval team.

“Miss Moshfegh?”

“Is my process making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but I wouldn’t mind an apple if you had one.”

“I’ve had eating issues since adolescence,” replied Miss Moshfegh. “There’s nothing in my work that I haven’t researched privately.”

“Even homicidal desire?”

“Man up and deal.”

I was feeling a bit faint, but it was hard to argue with someone who had been shortlisted for the Booker.

Moshfegh described herself to me as a person who has a long history as an unreported thief. If she isn’t absconding passages from Sayers novels, then she’s probably sneaking a package of pork loin roast underneath her overcoat.

“My family’s values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in,” said Moshfegh. “They never acquiesced to my genius, but I’m heartened to see a bald loser like you see the light.”

At this point, Moshfegh asked me to kneel on the floor and pray to her. I told her I was an atheist. She said she was a novelist-god. I asked for a mat. When the interview was over, I had terrible scrapes on my knees.

Moshfegh described the humiliation of once having to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a cab when she lived in New York.

“It was a living hell. Didn’t they see my raised arm? There was a brief period in my thirties when every cab stopped for me in less than ten minutes. My hell is my life. My hell is my work. Now you see why I have a stretch limo always on call.”

She tracks the beginning of her writing career to checking out random books from the library while a student at Brown University, scanning the frontispiece, and then replacing this with a Photoshopped copy of the page listing her as author.

“The books were all so mediocre. I was better than all these authors even before I had written my first short story. If I could do this for every book, I would.”

Moshfegh says that she sustains a deep connection to her character, who she claims lives in a basement located just underneath her refectory table. When I asked if I could meet Eileen, she demurred.

“When I first discovered that the character I had created lived in my basement, I sent an email to my agent reading ‘Holy shit.'”

“Isn’t that a bit ineloquent for a writer of your apparent literary talent?”

“How dare you speak that way to a hip young writer’s writer!”

“Terry Southern called Henry Green a writer’s writer’s writer. Beat that!”

The aide-de-camp then tied a rope around me and threw me into the stretch limo. I passed out due to hunger and my shortage of blood. I woke up in some shady alley somewhere in East Hollywood. But the aide-de-camp had been nice enough to leave me the Slim Jim at my side, which I wolfed down with the force of a deprived animal. It gave me the fifteen minutes of energy to run to the nearest convenient store and sob to a clerk who didn’t understand what had just happened to me. But I did make it back to New York. Yes, I had lost blood, been manhandled, and had my privacy invaded. But I had also been in the presence of the World’s Greatest Living Author. I smiled on the plane ride home, knowing that the aide-de-camp was at least dimly aware of the Geneva Conventions.

Why Nick Denton’s Carelessness with Hulk Hogan Threatens the Future of Journalism

On Friday, six ordinary people in Florida, none terribly acquainted with the tabloid sausage factory when they were selected to serve as jurors for an invasion of privacy trial, deliberated for six hours on a case involving a former wrestler. They decided that Gawker, in posting a two minute excerpt of a Hulk Hogan sex tape, had crossed the line. The stunning $115 million verdict leveled against Gawker, with punitive damages set to be determined next week, is likely to deracinate what remains of the Gawker Empire. As of Saturday morning, Gawker had not published any new posts.

This verdict’s implications are significant for anyone interested in the First Amendment. It could mean that journalists will begin to pull their punches on stories that are far more important than a famous figure’s pelvic thrusting. And in an age in which unconventional reporting has emerged with squirming innovation from the rocky shadow of traditional media’s crumbling calcite hold, this may very well hinder the often necessary work needed to expose divisive yet pivotal duplicities. In a post-Hogan media landscape, would Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 video about the “47 percent” constitute “invasion of privacy”? Will Donald Trump’s literal war on the press, barring and attacking and intimidating reporters he “disagrees” with, be reinforced by a wave of perceived invasion buttressed by court decisions in the near future?

More lawsuits are sure to follow in Hulk Hogan’s wake. (Indeed, Gawker is set to battle another $10 million lawsuit from Ashley Terrill, who alleges that Gawker published “a false and highly defamatory hit-piece” that harmed her reputation. This additional suit was filed by Hulk Hogan’s attorney.) But if more juries conclude that journalists who indiscriminately post private information about public figures are committing serious breaches of their public duties, breaches that cannot be justified as “journalism,” then this will seriously impair the Fourth Estate’s vital role in our culture, which is to serve as a legitimate watchdog against corruption, hypocrisy, and wrongdoing through a commitment to fairness and airtight facts.

If press freedom erodes in the next few years, Gawker founder Nick Denton must be blamed for this. He operated with a level of irresponsibility and carelessness, willfully hiring a spate of reckless editors who ran his website as if they were grand tyrants of limitless hubris — whether it be former editor John Cook defiantly refusing to remove the Hulk Hogan post, former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio stating vulgarly and foolishly in a deposition that a sex tape would not be newsworthy if it included a child under the age of four, or the Jordan Belfort-like shenanigans of former Gawker editors Tommy Craggs and Max Read running up a $546 bill at a fancy restaurant before resigning in protest over a story that went out of its way to ruin a man’s life over sexual allegations that were never substantiated.

Denton, in perpetuating an office culture that was willfully adolescent and that opted for tawdriness in lieu of truth and decency, has not only set back his admirable ambitions to make Internet publishing something fresh and original, as smartly observed by USA Today‘s Michael Wolff, but he has destroyed the integrity of journalism: the impression promulgated not so long ago by the rightly celebrated film Spotlight that engrossing detail and rigorous pursuit of a scandal leads to essential conversations. Six regular people, representing a not insignificant perspective that many New York media mavens ignore at their peril, could not be persuaded that what Denton and Gawker was doing was right. And it is now up to journalists to win back the trust of America, to undo Denton’s considerable damage to an essential American freedom by refusing to skate on thin ice without grace, even as they perform jumps and spirals that we’ve never seen before.

In Defense of Chrissie Hynde: Why NPR Needs to Change and Why David Greene is a Sexist Fool

Twitter isn’t always the best yardstick when it comes to pinpointing the vox populi’s whims and anxieties, but given the way that the digital horde reacted to Chrissie Hynde’s interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, you’d think that it had just survived the Battle of Stalingrad or an unscheduled viewing of The Human Centipede 3:

“Not for the faint of heart,” “still recovering,” “gamely soldiering.” These are not the phrases one typically associates with a junket interview. But the Pretenders founder adroitly decided that she didn’t enjoy being subjected to David Greene’s insipid questions. Greene, a man apparently terrified of a woman with an independent mind and a fuddy fuss who muttered “bleeping’ instead of “fucking” when quoting a passage from Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, made several mistakes. Instead of asking Hynde for the story behind her 1979 rock anthem “Brass in Pocket,” Greene wrongly assumed that Hynde would subscribe to his reductionist thesis that this was “a song that empowers women”:

Hynde: You know, it’s just a three minute rock song. It’s…I don’t think it’s as loaded as that.

As someone who has interviewed close to a thousand authors, filmmakers, and other celebrated minds and who fully cops to an exuberance involving overly analytical takes on an artist’s work, I’ve seen plenty of moments like this unfold before me. What you do in a situation like this is backtrack from your prerigged thesis and let the subject talk. The whole purpose of a conversation is to listen very carefully to what someone else is saying and ask questions that specifically follow up on the other person’s remarks. There was an opportunity here to get Hynde talking about how her music had been appropriated by ideological groups or whether a three minute rock song could ever have any real cultural stakes. But Greene, with an almost total lack of social awareness, could not read Hynde’s clear cues and sustained his foppish interlocutory thrust to the bitter end:

Greene: People certainly thought in its day [sic] as being very different and really emboldening women.
Hynde: Okay, well I’m not here to embolden anyone.

From here, the NPR producer cuts away in aloof and hilarious fashion to a lengthy clip of “Brass in Pocket” to pad out time, leaving the listener wondering what embarrassing (and possibly more interesting) bits were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps there were many minutes in which David Greene, a man who seems incapable of improvisation, was left with his tongue capsized in a Gordian knot. Greene tells us that “Chrissie Hynde is a really tough interview,” even though Hynde sounded perfectly relaxed with Marc Maron last December and, most recently, with Tig Notaro.

Nice try, David. The fault here is clearly with the stiff interviewer and NPR’s despicably antiseptic culture, which is all about soothing the listener with pat platitudes easily forgotten in a morning commute haze. It’s telling that Greene speaks of Hynde “sharing her story,” as if the rock and roller’s rough life was akin to a child showing off a hastily composed watercolor painting at nursery school. Greene condescends to Hynde by calling this 64-year-old music veteran “a Midwestern girl” and trying to use her Ohio roots to presumably appeal to NPR’s easily shocked demographic. If Greene had truly been interested in Hynde, he might have described her in less innocuous and truer terms. Moreover, Greene can’t even deign to praise the Pretenders. Instead, he gushes over the Rolling Stones rather than the band that Hynde has been a member of:

Greene: And the Rolling Stones. They came — I mean, I, I loved reading about how you sort of took some of the staging off to take it with you, almost as a souvenir.
Hynde: Yeah. Do you want me to repeat the story?
Greene: I’d love you to.
Hynde: Is that the question?
Greene: No. I’d love you to.
Hynde: Can I just not repeat the stories that I’ve already said in the book? Can we talk about things outside of that? Is that possible? I don’t want to do a book reading, as it were.

Let’s unpack why this is terribly insulting to Hynde and why Hynde, much as any woman should, might react as hostilely as she did. Here is someone who has been creating music for many decades. She’s not a neophyte. She’s an accomplished rock performer. Instead of talking to her about The Pretenders, Greene has opted to paint Hynde as some Rolling Stones groupie plucking staging as souvenirs. Hynde has given Greene a big clue, pointing out that she’s not some automatic doll who performs book readings.

Compare this with Greene’s fawning treatment of Stones guitarist Keith Richards back in September. Not only was Richards permitted the courtesy to smoke inside the studio, but Greene gushed about Richards’s considerable accomplishments (children’s book author, raconteur, solo artist) in a manner so obsequious that you’d think he was the Pope. It would never occur to a sycophantic sexist like Greene to ask Richards what he thought of the Pretenders, much less paint him as some febrile fanboy.

Instead of recognizing his clear mistake, Greene digs in the dirk further, demanding that Hynde, presumably because she is a woman, express her “emotions” about an experience that is nowhere nearly as germane as her rugged life:

Greene: No, I would just like to hear some of the emotions of why you love the Rolling Stones so much. I mean, you were — you were taking some of the notes that people had written for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and taking them home with you. I mean, what was driving you?
Hynde: Well, well, I just loved the bands. That’s what drove me all my life is that I just loved the bands. Back in those days, nobody thought I wanted to grow up and be a rock star. Nobody thought about fame. Nobody thought about making a lot of money. I just liked music and I really liked rock guitar. I didn’t think I was going to be a rock guitar player because I was a girl. I would have been too shy to play with, you know, guys.

It’s bad enough that we have to suffer though NPR’s crass abridgements of complex emotion into superficial seven minute segments, but it’s hard for any progressive-minded listener to hear a talented and interesting woman, one who emerged from an uncertain blue-collar existence to a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, reduced to something akin to a toy.

If Hynde were a man, this interview wouldn’t be a controversy. One would think that the Twitter crowd, so eager to denounce such demoralizing portraits of women, would have glommed onto an autonomous voice being diminished by an incurious and inattentive fool. But instead the shock is with an interview departing from mealy-mouthed form. The time has come for more women to stop letting “nice guys” like Greene diminish their accomplishments and for all radio producers to be committed to organic conversations. If NPR insists on being a forum for gutless toadies and the celebrities who tolerate them, then perhaps the cure involves opening up the floodgates to every voice on the spectrum with thought and compassion. Of course, podcasting has been doing all this quite wonderfully for years. So if Greene cannot adjust his timid mien to the 21st century, then perhaps his stature should perish.

In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate

Ruth Graham, the oafish opiner who unsuccessfully tried to nuke the YA genre from orbit last year with splashes of sophism and dollops of dilletantism, has returned to Slate‘s realm of callow clickbait with an equally preposterous proposition that “there is no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015” and that, as such, Banned Books Week is a well-intended wash. Aside from ignoring the obvious fallout of the “likable character” debate from 2013 or the way in which Scarlett Thomas’s ambitious and risk-taking novel The Seed Collectors has been summarily repressed by nervous publishers that lack the stones to put it out on this side of the Atlantic, Graham’s remarkable failure to consider the recent Charlie Hedbo/PEN controversy, much less the way in which seemingly liberal minds continue to “ban” viewpoints that they despise belies her woeful ignorance of current reactionary developments in United States culture.

Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.

Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.

Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”

The public square, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the venal clamor of a marketplace selling comforting reads and the rising din of outrage culture publicly shaming an author like Erica Jong for ignorant remarks. And while some critics have smartly observed that one can critique an author without excluding her from the conversation, perhaps working to change her mind through a dialogue, others valiantly celebrate an author’s shortcomings as “far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.”

In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.

Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.

Josh Ostrovsky, Plagiarist: His Lies to Katie Couric and His Serial Instagram Thefts

“You gotta understand. The Internet is like a giant, weird orgy where like everything gets shared. A lot of people are using stuff that I make. And every time that I make a photo and I put it out there, it gets reblogged on a million sites, and I would never put my name on it. ‘Cause we’re like all in this giant — it’s kind of like we’re all on ecstasy at a giant rave.” — Josh Ostrovsky, after being asked by Katie Couric about his plagiarism

Josh Ostrovsky is an unremarkable man who has built up a remarkable fan base of 5.7 million Instagram users by stealing photos from other sources without attribution under the handle The Fat Jew, claiming the witticisms as his own, and turning these casual and often quite indolent thefts into a lucrative comedy career. His serial plagiarism, which makes Carlos Mencia look like an easily ignored bumbling purse snatcher, has understandably attracted the ire of many comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Ian Black. The ample-gutted Ostrovsky transformed his gutless thieving into a deal with Comedy Central (since cancelled by the comedy network), CAA representation, and even a book deal. Ostrovsky is an unimaginative and talentless man who believed he could get away with this. And why not? The unquestioning press fawned over the Fat Jew at every opportunity, propping this false god up based on his numbers rather than his content. While the tide has turned against Ostrovsky in recent days, the real question that any self-respecting comedy fan needs to ask is whether they can stomach supporting a big fat thief who won’t cut down on his rapacious stealing anytime soon.

Ostrovosky’s lifting has already received several helpful examinations, including this collection from Kevin Kelly on Storify and an assemblage from Death and Taxes‘s Maura Quint. But in understanding how a figure like Ostrovsky infiltrates the entertainment world, it’s important to understand that, much like serial plagiarists Jonah Lehrer and Q.R. Markham, Ostrovsky could not refrain from his pathological need for attention.

After a two day investigation, Reluctant Habits has learned that every single Instagram post that Ostrovosky has ever put up appears to have been stolen from other people. His work, his lies, and his claims were not checked out by ostensible journalists, much less corporations like Burger King hiring this man to participate in commercials and product placement that he was compensated for by as much as $2,500 a pop.

In an interview with Katie Couric earlier this year, Ostrovsky offered some outright whoppers. Ostrovsky, who claimed to be “such a giver,” presented himself as a benign funnyman who said that “it’s just my gift” to find photos and apply captions to them. Tellingly, Ostrovsky declared, “It’s the only thing I can do in this world.”

“A lot of stuff I actually make myself,” said Ostrovsky. “Like sometimes if you see a tweet from like DMX, you know, or some kind of hardcore rapper being like, ‘About to go antiquing upstate,’ like ‘I’m refinishing Dutch furniture,’ like he probably didn’t write that. I Photoshopped that.”

Actually, the sentiment that Ostrovsky ascribed to DMX (assuming he didn’t pluck the image from another source) on April 14, 2015 (“YEAH SEX IS COOL BUT HAVE YOU EVER HAD GARLIC BREAD”) had actually been circulating on the Internet years before this. It started making the rounds on Twitter in November 2013 and appears to have been plucked from a now deleted Tumblr called whoredidthepartygo. This tagline theft is indicative of Ostrovsky’s style: take a sentence that many others have widely tweeted, reapply it in a new context, and hope that nobody notices.

The Couric interview also contained this astonishing prevarication:

Couric: I like Hillbilly too. You took half-Hillary, half-Bill Clinton.

Ostrovsky: Yup. A friend of mine actually made that and like just really exploded my brain into like a thousand pieces.

If this is really true, then why did Ostrovsky wait four years to share his “friend”‘s labor? Especially since it had “exploded his brain into like a thousand pieces.” After all, doesn’t a giver like Ostrovsky want to act swiftly upon his “generosity”? The Hillbilly pic was posted to Ostrovsky’s Instagram account on January 7, 2015.


But this image was cropped from another image that was circulating around 2011 — nearly four years before. If Ostrovsky’s “friend” gave the Hillbilly photo to him, then why was it cropped, with the telltale link to (a now defunct link) elided?


* * *

Reluctant Habits has examined Ostrovsky’s ten most recent Instagram posts. Not only are all of his images stolen from other people, but Ostrovsky often did not bother to change the original image he grabbed. In some cases, it appears that Ostrovsky simply took a screenshot from Twitter, often cropping out the identifying details.

For the purposes of this search, I have confined my analysis to any photo that Ostrovsky uploaded with a tagline. As the evidence will soon demonstrate, not only is Ostrovsky incapable of writing an original tag, but he appears to have never written a single original sentence in any of his Instagram captions.

I have included links to Ostrovsky’s Instagrams and the original tweets. But I have also taken screenshots in the event that either Ostrovsky or his originators remove their tweets.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 1: August 16, 2015.



As if to exonerate himself from the theft, Ostrovsky’s Instagram post included a callback to Instagram user @pistolschurman, who posted it onto Instagram that same day. One begins to see Ostovsky’s pattern of behavior: bottom-feed from a bottom-feeder.

But the image had already been widely distributed on Twitter with the tagline, “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’,” “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this douchebag doing?,” and “The international symbol for what the fuck is this nigga doing?'” But have traced its first use on Twitter to Betto Biscaia on August 10, 2014:


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 2: August 16, 2015.



On August 16, 2015, the user @tank.sinatra posted this to Instagram, failing to acknowledge the original source. Ostrovsky linked to @tank.sinatra.

This was first tweeted by user @GetTheFuzzOut on August 14, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 3: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: While it appears that Ostrovsky or one of his minions may have typed the sentiment upon a new image, a Google Image Search shows that this sentence has been widely attached to photo memes. The first use of the joke on Twitter appears to originate from @TinyCodeEye on March 11, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 4: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This has been a long-running tagline/photo combo, but Ostrovsky didn’t even bother to swap the font for this photo. The tagline appears to have been added to the photo for the first time by user @ViralStation on July 17, 2015:


In other words, Ostrovsky was so slothful in his theft that he couldn’t even be bothered to generate a new image.

As for the tagline context itself, I have traced its first use on Twitter to hip-hop artist EM3 on July 14, 2015:


I have reached out to EM3 on Twitter, asking if he was the first person to take this photo. He responded that he did not take the photo, but that he plucked it from eBay. (The latter response may have been facetious.) What EM3 may not know is that his quip was stolen by Ostrovsky and monetized for Ostrovsky’s gain.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 5: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The joke was first tweeted by Andrew Grant on July 24, 2015.


But Grant, in turn, stole the joke from a Reddit thread initiated by user youstinkbitch on July 10, 2015.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 6: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The photo/tag combo appears to originate with user @FUCKJERRY, who tweeted this on July 2, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 7: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This was among the oldest tags I discovered and quite indicative of the desperate thieving that Ostrovsky practices. It appears to originate from Alex Moran, who tweeted it on July 17, 2014.


I have reached out to Mr. Moran to ask him if he was the person who snapped the photo. He has not responded.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 8: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This was first tweeted by user @natrosity on November 5, 2014.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 9: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This joke has become so widely circulated that only the world’s worst hack would use it. Ostrovsky thinks so little of his audience that he’s circulating a joke that’s been around since at least August 2012, when it first started appearing Tumblr. The first Twitter link to this is from August 2, 2012:


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 10: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: The source of this appears to come from a now-defunct Tumblr called Luxury-andFashion. The earliest mention on Twitter appears to be on November 12, 2014 — a link to its Tumblr distribution.

RIP David Carr

It is sad and apt that David Carr, arguably the snappiest turtle inside the New York Times newsroom, died on the job at the age of 58. Only hours before, he’d been moderating a panel with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. He had ascended to the nation’s foremost newspaper after a rocky battle with crack cocaine and alcohol that he chronicled in his journalistic memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Perhaps it was this personal odyssey, revealing the way that Carr weaved empathy and accuracy into a bright and highly readable bow, that helped mint David Carr as the journalist you could trust. He was a vivacious reporter who could be counted on to follow through with an opinion and cross-examine it, whether it meant contacting Jayson Blair to remark upon Mike Daisey’s theatrical deceit or gently implicating Julian Assange’s dramatists long after the Wikileaks founder had become a punchline.

Carr never had to exaggerate or embellish a detail, whether it was about himself or a subject. He was committed to finding the idiosyncratic absurdities in the real world and he had the stamina and the fortitude to hunt his stories down honestly, no matter how long it took. Where other critics opted for the nuclear takedown or the overly fawning profile, Carr carried out his columns with a fine finesse that rarely tilted to either extreme. He had a nail-hard knack for pounding rivets into people he liked and advocated, such as in this 1999 assessment of Washington Post writer Henry Allen:

Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.

And he turned this highly scrutinizing eye to himself in his remarkable book, The Night of the Gun, posting documents and video interviews on a website to hold himself accountable.

Carr’s sudden and surprising death not only serves as a vital reminder for journalists to do their best work today, but reveals how much the Times relied on Carr’s maverick energy. What other rocket can travel so fluidly between the Times‘s dowdy atmosphere and the crackling human universe? What reporter can possibly replace him?

The answer, of course, is nobody.

Alissa Quart (The Bat Segundo Show #514)

Alissa Quart is most recently the author of Republic of Outsiders. This show is the second of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can listen to the first part: Show #513 with Kiese Laymon.)

Author: Alissa Quart

Subjects Discussed: George Lucas as “independent filmmaker,” how the presumed amateur mediums of YouTube and Kickstarter have become dominated by established figures, Amanda Palmer’s exploitation of musicians, Marina Abramović’s exploitation of dancers, Tilda Swinton marketing herself as an outsider, problems with the term “maverick,” the problems with Dave Eggers’s “selling out” rant, why resisting “selling out” has declined in the last ten years, Branded, OK Soda, how alternative cartoonists defied corporations, the decline in ad parodies, Yahoo cracking down on Tumblrs with sexual content, the flat self, how the lack of privacy destroys existential possibilities, the online exhibitionist impulse, Marie Calloway and easily deciphered pseudonyms, the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the rise of Etsy, T.J. Jackson Lear’s notion of antimodern dissent, people who strive to be featured sellers, false feminist fantasies, stealth capitalistic wish fulfillment, how physical space of hobbyists is appropriated by digital companies, handmade status, parallels between Etsy and freemium video games, addiction to Candy Crush Saga, Team Fortress 2, Netflix as an elaborate scheme to mine entertainment data, the narcotic state of false entertainment empowerment, vegans and fake meat, sanctimonious parallels between an animal rights activist telling you to watching a stream of slaughterhouse videos and a supermarket chain which claims that it slaughters animals humanely, crying over a field mouse dying, animal rights futurists, how prescriptive dichotomies develop into mainstream tropes, morally ostentatious ideological positions, The Icarus Project, the fine line between being eccentric and in need of help, bipolar writers, Mad Pride, a thought experiment concerning healthcare, whether or not it is the outsider’s to constantly resist, nontraditional settings for psychiatric care, Wikipedia’s transphobia against Chelsea Manning, transfeminists pointing to the assumption that the decision to have children is an assumption for all women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, blind spots of mainstream feminists, gender distinctions at Barnard, young people and privacy*, Snapchat, how outsider ideas become mainstream, a Comics Alliance review of Heroes of Cosplay, cosplay as the professionalization of fans, the Tron Guy, how body image is becoming more Hollywood with professional cosplay, Vimeo auteurs, viral videos about broken subway steps, corporations that use images of people against their will, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Star Wars Uncut, contemporary collective filmmaking of today vs. truly independent filmmaking of the past (John Cassevetes, et al.), how tastemakers saved Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the entitled fan critic vs. the designated gatekeeper, the decline of auteurism, mumblecore, documentary collectives in the 1960s, designated advocates vs. fan advocates, Kickstarter and behavioral economics, what a true outsider is, Sublime Frequencies’s Alan Bishop, the discipline of only being influenced by the sensibilities you cultivate, Pitchfork, taste as the last recourse in a world with too much information, how the word “curator” has been inverted, Maria Popova, the obligation to be outsider in some way, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Lev Manovich’s idea of data streams, and the limited cultural scope of hyperniche groups on Twitter.


Correspondent: When George Lucas made Star Wars Episodes I through III, he declared himself an “independent filmmaker.” Even though he was self-financing these movies for many millions of dollars. I also remember in 2011 when Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gorden Levitt were singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and they released this to YouTube. They faced a great deal of criticism. YouTube is the amateur medium. Well, now we’re in a totally different ball game these days. Now we have crowdfunding. We have Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Veronica Mars on Kicktarter. And these people say, “Hey, it’s okay.” And what’s even more astonishing is that people are more accepting of this. And maybe, just to start off on what we’re dealing with here in terms of insiders and outsiders, why do you think that independent filmmaking has changed so that we now accept these people moving into the turf previously occupied by outsiders and people who were scrabbling together various resources to make different, eclectic art?

Quart: Well, I think right now we’re seeing coalitions of insiders and outsiders in a single person. So you have someone like Spike Lee, who is doing a Kickstarter campaign. He may have raised it by now. He was trying to raise $1.4 million. And then you have Amanda Palmer raising something similar on Kickstarter. Even more. And then you have actual true outsiders, or people who would have defined themselves as outsiders for many years, also using these same media. And it becomes, as I write in my book, a “republic of outsiders” — some which are arguably relying on their fans too much.

Correspondent: To the point of exploiting them, as Amanda Palmer is. “Hey, we’re going to have professional musicians play for free.” Which she’s received a lot of understandable flack for.

Quart: And I just saw recently Marina Abramović — the performance artist who had a big show at MOMA, quite famous. A dancer was complaining about being exploited for her labor in a crowdsourcing. Now there’s highbrow artists who are getting in on this kind of fan/star collapse and also monetizing the labor of people who are non-stars.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I saw recently that Tilda Swinton went to Russia and is presenting herself as a total outsider. Of course, there’s her famous exhibit where she’s basically sleeping there. We’re now seeing a situation where mainstream people, or people who have dabbled between mainstream and outsider type of art, now feel this overwhelming need to define themselves as a rebel in some way. And yet they’re still reliant in many ways upon corporate cash or mainstream sources.

Quart: Or ordinary people’s cash.

Correspondent: Yes!

Quart: Or a friend’s cash.

Correspondent: And with crowdfunding. Yes.

Quart: Or a friend’s labor. And in a sense, the traditional selling out, where you’re relying on a corporation, can start to seem somewhat more innocent.

Correspondent: Well, why do you think that identifying yourself as an outsider is now a fundamental part of being? We can all sort of see through it. Especially when one tracks the general tenor or some artist’s voice. So why is this such a big thing these days?

Quart: Originally I was going to call this book either The Maverick Principle or Mavericks. And then there was the 2008 election. Sarah Palin and John McCain calling themselves “mavericks.”

Correspondent: “A real maverick.” Yes.

Quart: And then at some point Obama was even called “renegade.” So I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of use of language of the rebel/renegade. But part of what I did in this book was that I tried to include as many people who I considered — and I use this word advisedly — authentic outsiders, as well as people who are in this inside/outside thing like Amanda Palmer.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, one piece of writing you don’t actually include in the book, that I feel is actually germane to this argument, is Dave Eggers’s famous “selling out” speech, which he gave to The Harvard Advocate. And I still see it crop up all the time on Tumblr, where people constantly post it. And he basically says, okay, so the Flaming Lips appeared on 90210 and they performed their popular songs. But who cares? And he says, “Hey, I take money. Considerable thousands of dollars from Fortune Magazine. But I’m giving that away.” But what’s interesting about this, and what no one actually seems to think about in considering the Eggers rant, is that he’s not willing to hold himself accountable for how being indoctrinated in that kind of mainstream situation is going to affect his outsider nature or is actually going to compromise it in some way. And I’m wondering why this is such a compelling piece of text even almost fifteen years later, after it was originally disseminated. Why do you think people are still clinging to this notion of being an outsider or wanting to justify the fact that we’re all ensnared in this trap of having to…

Quart: As I said, the term “selling out,” which I considered an honorific when I was growing up. Or the opposite. Not selling out was honorific. Selling out was a terrible thing to do. I think the paradoxes of the term “selling out” have collapsed. And so you see people not even recognizing what that means. Now I’m going to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. But it’s not really a term that people really use or judge themselves by. It’s seen as a compliment. “Oh, I got Doritos to use my content that I created. Even though I’m just a fanboy.” Or “I got the latest hip-hop artist to use my remix in an advertisement. I’m so great.” So I think one of the reasons this document may hold appeal is that it’s a smart, well-heeled person kind of explaining what a lot of people are experiencing and addressing, if there is any, their lingering doubt. Is this a problem that I don’t even have this lodestone of selling out/not selling out anymore?

Correspondent: Why do you think that the notion of “selling out” became — when do you think the stigma was deflated? I mean, is this probably the last ten years, would you say?

Quart: I could feel it. I wrote a book. It came out in 2003.

Correspondent: You did.

Quart: Branded. And that to me was like — I didn’t even know it then, but I was seeing all these adolescents — I called it self-branding — who were defining themselves by the products they were consuming. Like “I am Coke. I am Pepsi. I am Abercrombie.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is just a teen thing.” But then the more I looked into it, these kids were growing up. And they were going to similarly retain that kind of identification. So I think a lot of it happened in the ’90s. It happened during the consolidation of corporations. It happened with the faltering economy. So people didn’t feel that they had the courage necessarily, even if they wanted to. To not define themselves by status markers. So I think there’s a multitude of factors that went into it.

Correspondent: You think people wanted to belong? And not really finding an absolute group, they turned to what corporations had to offer?

Quart: Yeah. I think it was just a surround sound culture. I mean, it is right now. We live in a screen culture where there’s endless pop-up ads, where our data is being mined. Where if I check out a jacket on a site, I’ll be seeing that jacket reappearing endlessly on my browser with every site I visit. In the early 2000s, when I wrote Branded, the line between advertorial and editorial in teen publications was collapsing. And that itself was a cause for dismay in media critic circles. And I wrote about it. “Oh no. They’re getting these advertising giveaways that are masquerading as magazines for teenagers.” Now everything they read carries promotional content. Magazines themselves are promotional entities. Again, the paradoxes of what selling out means have collapsed. And given the difficulties of the magazine and newspaper businesses right now, people don’t even focus on this that much. What content carries a commercial valence and which doesn’t.

Correspondent: But there was a time — like I think, for example, of OK Soda, where Coca-Cola hired Dan Clowes and Charles Burns to make this hip kind of design. I love this story. And they basically took the money and ran. I mean, there used to be a more honorable way of taking corporate money and pissing in their face.

Quart: Well, I think what you’re talking about is subversion, or subvertising. Remember all those terms that people used to use, and I loved? They don’t seem to be around so much anymore. Remember there was that moment. Well, it starts with MAD Magazine. Ad parodies? I mean, I don’t even see ad parodies anymore. It’s kind of weird.

Correspondent: Yeah! There used to be a rich culture in the ’90s and even in the early noughts. They were still, I think, flourishing even after September 11th. But I think something happened. And I guess I’m trying to ask you, Alissa…

Quart: What happened?

Correspondent: What was it? It probably, as you say, was post-2008 economic problems.

Quart: Some of them. 9/11 is a pertinent moment. Because you saw our President telling us to go shopping. It wasn’t “Have courage! Batten down the hatches!” It was “Go to the mall!” This is the way to be American. That was just one of many data points on that journey towards becoming an American shopper, not an American citizen.

Correspondent: One thing you didn’t really write about in this book that I think is possibly germane to this conversation is Tumblr. I mean, here is a situation where people think they’re being alternative on Tumblr. And very often, I see that they’re actually tailoring their posts so they can be liked or favorited and reposted elsewhere. And then on top of that, we had Yahoo recently purchase Tumblr. And they’ve started to quash down on certain blogs that actually have sexual content. And — I call them the Tumblrettes — the people who work at Tumblr, they scurry away when anybody has a more outsider or traditionally pugnacious reply in response to a cultural ill. Do you think that sometimes mediums such as Tumblr enable our worst impulses?

Quart: I mean, if we’re talking about companies buying other companies, we see that all the time. We see Goodreads being bought by Amazon. I guess in the ’90s, they would have called it mini-majors. Remember when independent studios were being bought? Miramax or Sony would purchase an independent company. Well, you see that happening a lot with companies that would be offering alternative platforms, that would be bought by companies that don’t offer those platforms. What happens, I guess, is that eventually there’s a neutralization of content. That’s another way in which outsiderdom is controlled.

Correspondent: But I think people have a choice to limit themselves or put themselves into some position where some moderating force is going to discourage them from truly expressing what’s on their mind. Clearly, there is something to be said about people’s choice of expression. I mean, they’re consenting to this. It’s not just evil corporate forces. And I’m wondering why that is.

Quart: I think, in the past, you used to see science fiction movies where people’s souls would be sucked out of their bodies by alien beings. And now we give away our information for the price of a five dollar badge online. For a sale item. There’s just such a level in a certain way. I call it the flat self. I mean, this isn’t in my book. But it’s something that I see a lot. And I guess it’s one of the incentives for writing a book like this, for people who are less flat. But for people who are willing to give away their information, their data — even the reaction to the fact that our information is being obtained against our will by all these companies and by our government. People are like, “Eh? Sure! I’ll give that away for 10% off!”

Correspondent: Well, what would be the typical flat self? Or I suppose a pernicious flat self? Since we’re on this particular metaphor. It seems to me it’s kind of an evolution of the dyed hair craze of people. As I grew up in San Francisco and Berkeley, you’d see people with dyed hair and punk T-shirts and they’d all look alike. Possibly more alike than a sea of corporate navy blue suits.

Quart: Well, there’s lots of ways to be a flat self. I guess what we’re talking about here is people who have, in some ways, are afraid and have succumbed to just a commercialized self that doesn’t have an interior life. So if you don’t think you have much of an interior life, the only thing you’re afraid of is if you’ve done anything wrong that people will see. You don’t really care about protecting the nature of your subjectivity. That’s not something that you’re concerned about.

Correspondent: A lack of an interior life is possibly part of this problem?

Quart: Perhaps. Or a lack of an interior life that you care about preserving.

* — Our Correspondent misstated the exact statistic. We regret the error and hope that the above link will set the matter straight.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, ferryterry, and Boogieman0307.)

The Bat Segundo Show #514: Alissa Quart (Download MP3)

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A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 22, 2013, I set out on an eighteen mile “trial walk” from the top tip of Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. It will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!]

Other Trial Walks:
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

The Broadway Bridge rumbled hard with tardy cars hoping to beat that dreaded moment when the lift raised for a big boat hauling cargo across the Harlem River, tying up traffic into a time-consuming knot that no sailor could unravel at gunpoint. On the whole, this was a reasonable bridge, agreeable and unassuming, not unlike a workmanlike band following an act that bombed spectacularly on stage. You couldn’t help but like the Broadway Bridge after all the barbed wire coils and the industrial grit that came before. But I think I may have loved the bridge simply because I crossed it on foot.

I was walking across to meet Lisa Peet, a good soul with a wily mane and a knowing glint who had kindly agreed to be my first interview subject. We met in the Gold Mine Cafe, a former donut shop recently renovated to serve breakfast at all hours of the day. This establishment inveigled the locals with its new kitschy interior, which included a Greco ideal, his knee raised, ensnared in a vessel with a periwinkle lid. This marvelously extravagant illustration, seen only if you look to your left when you leave the joint, rightly reflected the neighborhood inconsistencies that Lisa told me about. There was also a painting of an elderly woman tempting fate with a reddish orange mass, which hung just behind the table where Lisa and I chatted:


[haiku url=”″ title=”Conversation with Lisa Peet” ]

“No restaurants,” said Lisa of her neighborhood. “No coffee shops. No galleries. No bookstores. No nothing. There’s the Bronx Ale House, which opened up a few years ago. That’s a nice place. No takeout really. There’s Riverdale. You can get delivery from there. You have to leave if you want to do anything fun.”

I pointed to the Gold Mine Cafe’s charms, which suggested new fun in the making.

“There’s fun, but you really have to make it.”

* * *


I saw the geese after I saw the coyote statue atop a rock and the slowly thawing ice rink that needed to be deliquesced out of its misery. I saw the geese after shuffling around a memorial lawn with its grave markers parked low to the grass and American flags shooting out of the soil. I saw the geese wandering near the Van Cortlandt Park baseball diamond, not far from the big track that still attracted stubborn joggers in the morning chill, and I attempted an interview.

I spent more minutes than I care to admit slowly advancing on the icy lawn, hoping that the geese might view me as more peaceful and more inquisitive than the average human. But the geese had seen humans pull this parlor trick many times before. They squawked and they sprinted in that gangly manner that only geese can and they fluttered into the air when I pursued them beyond the specified maximum distance established by the Human-Geese Accord of 1872.

The geese did not wish to answer my inquiries concerning income inequality or human-animal relations or Katy Perry’s sartorial style. Still, I was having a good deal of fun coaxing the geese to talk with me. I opted to leave them alone and file an interview request with their publicists. I did not know that there was a bigger interview ahead in Yonkers.

* * *

The idea came when I walked into Yonkers and saw Mayor Mike Spano’s name on the city limits sign. I had never been in Yonkers before. Perhaps Mayor Spano would talk with me. I had not known that Mayor Spano had just delivered the State of the City address. In fact, I knew nothing about Yonkers politics at all.

I decided to hit City Hall.


I didn’t anticipate that Yonkers City Hall would be a fairly imposing Italianate edifice built in 1908 and situated on a rather high hill.

This did not stop me.

I walked to the side entrance and told the amicable guard that I was going to the Mayor’s Office. He seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing and directed me to the second floor. I went to the Mayor’s Office and talked with a friendly woman named Francesca. The Mayor was in Albany. I asked if there was anybody else who would talk with me, but apparently all communications people were locked in an implacable meeting. It was so quiet behind Francesca that I began to wonder if city officials were playing a long game of Spin the Bottle, perhaps over coffee and cake. I asked Francesca if she would talk with me and she said that she wasn’t authorized to do so. But she was very nice about it.

It then occurred to me that Yonkers City Hall had other floors and, quite possibly, more movers and shakers who might talk with me. Since I had gone to the trouble of walking up the rather high hill, it seemed eminently reasonable to bag the Munro.

There were a few fun-filled conversations inside the Public Works Department and the Department of Engineering, although I quickly learned that Yonkers City Hall acoustics share certain qualities with an invisibility cloak. The doors throughout the building are sturdy and loud when opened. Every lawmaker and aide knows the precise moment someone enters an office. I entered one room in search of a Yonkers booster and was alarmed to hear a man reply from his office just after I chatted with several good-natured people craning their heads out of cubicles. He had heard the whole exchange. I wondered if the man was preparing for some inevitable moment when he would overhear some vital gossip that would pull him from his chamber and into some position where he would spend the rest of his days laughing as hard as Emil Jannings.

Nearly everyone in Yonkers City Hall was kind and courteous. Maybe I was stunned because, living in New York City, I’m accustomed to city employees who give you the look of someone who wants to rip out your heart with gelid hands and watch you die. It’s also possible that city employees don’t often receive visitors or interview requests quite like this.


Whatever the reason, all this bonhomie led me to believe that I could talk with someone on the City Council. My journey started at one wing of the fourth floor, where administrative types were answering telephones and sealing envelopes and trying to hold the majority leader — a man named Wilson A. Terrero — to his hectic schedule. Nerissa Peña, Chief of Staff of the Yonkers City Council, was very helpful in seeking five minutes with Terrero, who was at the tail end of a vivacious meeting with two businessmen. I thanked Nerissa and told her that I would return, once I had investigated the opposite wing.

I walked to the other side of City Hall. Several people told me that there was a man named Chuck who liked to talk. Chuck was the Council President. All spoke fondly of his gregariousness. The three women working in his office. The communications guy, who name-checked Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed when I told him about the walk. And I’m fairly certain that if I had loitered around City Hall after business hours, some wraith kicking around for decades would tell me that Chuck Lesnick is the man you need to spread the Yonkers gospel.

But Chuck wasn’t there.

It was suggested that I schedule an appointment, even though the four lovely people I talked with in Chuck’s office understood that these interviews were spontaneous.

I returned to the other wing to see if I could catch Mr. Terrero just before he was splitting for Albany. As I chatted more with Nerissa about this drop-in prospect, a calm man in a near navy sweater and a fluted gray scarf draped around his neck in a tidy coil passed along some papers for her and, eyeing the recording unit dangling across my chest with its concomitant microphone, said hello. This was Terrero himself! We came up with a plan to wait for Terrero to finish up with the two businessmen. Then I’d talk with him for five minutes before he made the two hour drive upstate.

I settled into a chair and watched the world of Yonkers politics whirl around me. The walls were white and mostly unadorned: the vagaries of city politics ensured that nobody stuck around long enough to hang a Matisse print. But Terrero had tacked his diplomas and his certificates on the wall so that any curious soul sifting through the door knew who she was dealing with. There was a Dominican flag perched behind a manilla folder and neatly arranged photos of the majority leader on a dark brown credenza: the thickest gold frame featuring Terrero in uniform, but all photos showing Terrero sharp and smooth and poised and prepared. I began to understand why he was the majority leader.

I asked Nerissa if Terrero relied almost entirely on her to keep the schedule running on time. “Yesssssssssss!!!!!” she said, the stage whisper of someone who appreciated a sharp observation.

The clock above the door pushed closer to noon.

This was now getting tight for me, especially since I still had fourteen miles to hike that day to Sleepy Hollow. So I asked Nerissa if she could chat with a few minutes.


[haiku url=”″ title=”Conversation with Nerissa Peña” ]

Nerissa came to City Hall four years ago on the day Terrero was elected. She told me that there’s never a dull moment in City Hall. I asked Nerissa if she had any political aspirations. “Not at the moment,” she replied, which I noted was a very political answer.

Nerissa was a big fan of Tinker Bell. There was a small statuette of the famed fairy on her desk. Two interns had made a sign just before their stint was up, calling Nerissa “the best supervisor an intern could ever come across” in rainbow lettering, with Tinker Bell waving her wand in the top right corner. These days, Nerissa was sprinkling vital pixie dust for the Yonkers constituents. She said the job could get very busy, but she enjoyed the opportunity to help other people.

[haiku url=”″ title=”Conversation with Wilson Terrero” ]

Shortly before the stroke of twelve, Terrero emerged from his office and, upon saying goodbye to the two businessmen, turned to me without missing a beat. As we sauntered slowly down the stairs, Terrero told me that while his job was technically part-time, he worked full-time to serve the community.

“There is a community out there that is in need of representation. And when I say ‘needs,’ it’s basically the Latino community, which has been underrepresented for so long.”

Despite the fact that 35% of the Yonkers population is Latino, the city had been slow in electing Latinos to the City Council. This was one of the reasons why Terrero had decided to run.

“The Party was looking for someone who had been involved in the community, who was likable and electable also. And they found me. And I said, ‘Okay.’ I went to my family. I went to the community to ask them for questions. Whether you see me as a politician now. Do you think I can do a good job?”

Last year, Terrero became the first Latino City Council Majority Leader in Yonkers. It was an unanimous vote and it’s easy to see why. Despite all the meetings (four that day) and the community events that take up Terrero’s busy calendar, he has a calm and easygoing manner. And when we hit the ground floor, many city workers clapped his shoulder with affection on their way out to lunch.

Terrero has developed this quiet patience that allows him to speak with all types of people, regardless of education and background. When I asked Terrero about the greatest nightmare he’s ever faced in his political career, he told me that he loves the job so much that the excitement of a tough vote overshadows the difficulty. He’s more interested in making things happen.

“Yesterday, we called this special meeting to vote for a project I believe is very important for the city. It’s going to create jobs. Temporary jobs, permanent jobs. And the people of the city are the ones who are going to benefit. The Teamsters are going to build that housing complex. And only five of us voted for the project. And there was a discussion about it. And at the end, some people just crossed lines and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to vote for it.’ And they did.”

His day begins at eight in the morning, when Terrero exercises and showers and prepares himself for the long day. He is a former baseball player. So he’s had some practice at this. City Council meetings can stretch into the dead of Tuesday night and often across the rest of the week. And when your time is devoured by talks and votes, you need every bit of energy you can to keep the flame alive.

* * *


I had spent more time in Yonkers than planned and there was still the matter of lunch. I walked north on Warburton Avenue, which ran along the river and the rails. I passed schools and churches and houses increasingly labeled “private.” I passed riverside dog runs and attracted barks from playful canines.


The plan was to stop at Hastings-on-Hudson and grab something to eat there. But I became so caught up in my walking rhythm, taking in the beautiful quietude of creeks burbling into the Hudson and the wind lapping at the surviving vegetation, that I overshot Hastings entirely and ended up in a village called Dobbs Ferry.

I settled into a booth at Doubleday’s, the kind of place where a man in late middle age sits at a bar and orders a lemonade and vodka at 2:00 in the afternoon. There were many TVs blaring sports, with a slight echolalia among sets televising the same feed. None of this stopped the talk from flowing like a loose tap.

“We did fall in love with each other, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Forty years later…”

This expansive establishment was arranged like a triptych: a restaurant to the south, the bar forming the central hub, and an open room to the north for overflow on busy nights. There was talk of football pools and objects flying up from the road and scratching the insides of eyes. This was a place where you could melt away hours of your life and not even know it. I would have stayed if I did not have an appointment with Washington Irving.

* * *


I had only a few hours left of daylight and six miles left before Sleepy Hollow. One of the big surprises was running into Villa Lewaro, the home of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American millionaire. Madam Walker had made her mark with a sulfur-enhanced shampoo and donated considerable money to the YMCA and the NAACP. She even saved Anacostia, the home of Frederick Douglass. She lived in the house in 1917 and taught many other women to run their own businesses.

I knew Andrew Carnegie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was where I was heading. Given my Indiegogo campaign, it was odd how my trial walk had me running into very charitable people. Maybe Carnegie could use a dramatic audio reading about steel. I considered hitting these two up for donations. But then I remembered that Walker and Carnegie were dead, which probably prohibited them from helping me.


Not long after Villa Lewaro, I hit the Washington Irving Memorial on the edge of Tarrytown. There were increasing indicators that I was close to Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving School. A housing project named after Washington Irving. Washington Irving appeared to have more places named after him in Tarrytown than Walt Whitman did in Brooklyn. I wondered if culture would be this kind to its literary figures fifty years from now. Would we see Joyce Carol Oates School or William Gass School? Or would tomorrow’s educational institutions be named after the likes of Brett Ratner or Sergey Brin?


“Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.” — Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

After eighteen miles of walking, I arrived in Sleepy Hollow at around 5:00 PM, where I was overjoyed to discover the Headless Horseman Bridge or, rather, the place where it had once stood. But given how Irving had described it in the original story as “formerly thrown,” I wondered if had ever truly existed. I didn’t have a horse, but I dropped my head beneath my shirt and walked across the bridge headless. A car horn beeped back with approval. Then I turned my attention to the cemetery, the final destination of my journey, only to find this:


The gates were locked. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery had closed only a half hour before I arrived.

This was surely the most crushing setback I have ever experienced as a walker. I had walked so long and hard to get here. I had two choices: I could turn around and frown my sorrows into a beer or I could find a way in.

You can probably guess the option I chose. I rationalized my decision by pointing out that I was no common trespasser. These were extenuating circumstances! Nobody in American history has ever walked eighteen miles to check out a great cemetery. I found an open area and walked in.


I was surrounded by numerous tombstones: glorious gray slabs with carefully carved names that had been eaten away by the elements over the centuries. There were families now long forgotten and many of the plots were quite strange.


Then there was the Irving family:


With the sun falling fast, I flailed around the graveyard, seeking Andrew Carnegie’s marker, but I couldn’t find it. I should note that I became so exuberant about this magnificent cemetery that I was live tweeting my finds, openly using the terms “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” I am almost certain that these announcements of modest interloping led to what happened next.

In an effort to track down Carnegie’s grave, I tried searching online for a cemetery map with my phone. I was unsuccessful, but I did learn that physical maps existed close to the gates. I grabbed a map from the entrance, long after I had informed The Man on Twitter of my activities. Then I saw a white minivan roll up to the cemetery gates, with the driver making a move to unlock them. I decided to hightail it back to the way in. With the gate open, I saw the minivan roll slowly my way. On my way back, I heard two loud siren blurts near the Headless Horseman Bridge.

I knew that if I continued that way, I’d probably be grabbed by the cops. So I found a fence and I hopped over, landing into an unmaintained sidewalk. I heard another blurt from the police just south of me. So I walked across North Broadway and made my escape.

My eighteen mile walk had ended in a modest chase. I had gone from the noble heights of Yonkers City Hall to the unanticipated lows of being on the lam.

It was time to grab a beer.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to see more adventures and investigation into our nation like this and regularly offered over the course of six months, please donate to the Indiegogo campaign.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Maggie Anderson

Maggie Anderson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #445. She is most recently the author of Our Black Year: Our Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.

[PROGRAM NOTE: The universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Ms. Anderson from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet Ms. Anderson in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute. Nevertheless, I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Ms. Anderson over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe conspired with similar health interventions against Ms. Anderson’s family. I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Ms. Anderson and the listeners for any lapse in quality.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Becoming more conscious about his volatile spending habits.

Author: Maggie Anderson

Su0bjects Discussed: The Empowerment Experiment, the decline in African-American owned grocery stores over the past few decades, how far the dollar goes by ethnicity, median wealth and income disparity by race, the decline of black labor in Milwaukee, African-Americans targeted by advertising in the 1970s, WEB Du Bois’s The Talented Tenth, the increasing popularity of Polo Ralph Lauren among blacks, Quiznos’s exploitation of franchise owners, the burden of attempting to persuade blacks to support black business, the Venn diagram between supporting black businesses and independent stores, buying local, Oak Park affluence, trying to rehabilitate the Chicago West Side, attempts to keep Karriem Beyha in business, the fading of black entrepreneurs, class divisions within the black community, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson, class and race, the disintegration of black solidarity over the last few decades, hypocritical pride, factors that help create a racially divided economy, Magic Johnson’s business savvy, the problems in spending $48,943.89 to buy black over the course of the year (as Anderson did in her experiment) which cuts out working-class blacks, the privilege of shopping where you want, subscribing to The Chicago Defender, gentrification, Hyde Park and Bronzeville gentrified, attempts to find unity between working-class blacks and middle-class lifestyles as prices go up during gentrification, efforts to start a progressive chamber of commerce in Bronzeville with Mell Monroe, trying to balance progressive idealism with realism, securing affordable services in the black community, the original name of the Empowerment Experiment (Ebony Experiment) and legal threats from Ebony Magazine, interactions with Linda Johnson Rice, Bill Cosby, and hateration.


Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?

Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…

Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!

Anderson: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.

Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.

Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.

Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.

Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)

Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.

Correspondent: Sure.

Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.

Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?

Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]’s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.

* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.

** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:

The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.

The Bat Segundo Show #445: Maggie Anderson (Download MP3)

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Edward Docx: A Slug Defending His Gated Community

On December 12, 2010, The Guardian published a pretentious essay by an amental snob named Edward Docx. Docx foolishly suggested that “genre writers cannot claim to have anything.” He accused Lee Child of “ersatz machismo bullshit” even as Docx himself could not see the fecal specks sprouting throughout his own ineptly argued assault on genre. He wasted his first two paragraphs blabbing on about the plebs on the train and, like a petulant infant longing to grow into a long-winded David Cameron, bitched about not having space to provide “a series of extracts…to illustrate the happy, rich and textured difference.”

Yes, it’s class warfare, my friends. But here’s the thing. Docx isn’t on the working man’s side. His essay reads like some corpulent slug defending his gated community with a Magpul PDR and then slithering away because he doesn’t know how to release the safety. It’s the kind of unfit approach that invites ridicule rather than confidence, alienation rather than mobilization. For if you’re going to claim yourself a champion of the people (or, to use Docx’s inept populist metaphor, a half-hearted burger eater), shouldn’t you be paying attention to what they’re reading? If you wish to demonstrate why Stieg Larsson is such a shitty writer, shouldn’t you have the guts to quote him at length? After all, your argument is airtight, isn’t it? The writer is dead and he can’t respond, right? Win win!

Alas, Docx can’t be bothered. He identifies “the most tedious acronym-packed exchange” that he has ever read, but he fails to comprehend that what Docx considers “tedious” might be the kind of wonky info banter that is going to get a journalist like Blomkvist rock hard. He quotes from a very early part of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (page 24 in my copy) and gives us no full indication that he has read the whole book. This makes Docx not only an illiterate, but an inept bully foolish enough to support his claim through deductive induction — a logical fallacy that hasn’t worked ever since newspapers had the good sense of opening up their articles to public comment. Because Docx says that genre is lesser, and Docx fancies himself an authority, then it must be true! No need to provide airtight examples of Swedish silliness. Docx also tries to quote a few passages from Dan Brown to make his case. But wait a minute, that’s a logical fallacy! What about Larsson? That guy you just shit talked in your previous paragraphs? Shouldn’t you be taking him down? Oh dear, secundum quid! If only Docx had the space, he’d demolish your genre! He’d *gasp* have an argument!

Well, not really. It becomes abundantly clear that Docx doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when he attempts to quote others. In a feeble attempt at wit, Docx deliberately misquotes Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (the full quote: “Whatever is felicitously expressed risks being worse expressed: it is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us”). But D’Israeli was writing rather sensibly about how well-read writers are those comprehending the wit of other men. Does Docx comprehend D’Israeli? To employ a populist reference that Docx might frown upon, you make the call. For Docx misses the vital sentence that came before the business about being “gratified with mediocrity”:

It seems, however, agreed, that no one would quote if he could think; and it is not imagined that the well-read may quote from the delicacy of their taste, and the fulness of their knowledge.

And here’s what came after:

We quote, to save proving what has been demonstrated, referring to where the proofs may be found. We quote to screen ourselves from the odium of doubtful opinion, which the world would not willingly accept from ourselves; and we may quote from the curiosity which only a quotation itself can give, when in our own words it would be divested of that tint of ancient phrase, that detail of narrative, and that naivete which we have for ever lost, and which we like to recollect once had an existence.

So if Docx wishes to uphold worthy literature, why is he unable to provide a corresponding set of virtues other than a measly list of literary names? According to my word count feature on OpenOffice, this doddering dunce had 1,770 words to stake his claim. All that space and he couldn’t be bothered to provide a single passage? Talk about long-winded. It’s safe to say that Docx is no D’israeli. I think it’s also safe to say that Docx has utterly mangled D’isreali’s great sentiment.

So why bring the argument up in the first place? Why make such a spectacle of yourself? Why do this when you tacitly admit that “there is also much theatricality to the debate?” Sarah Weinman has a few answers. Certainly I can understand the Guardian‘s need for attention in this vanquished media economy. But I’d like to think that some editor over there was having a good laugh at Docx’s expense.

You see, Docx is the kind of humorless elitist who observes people reading books on a train and actually sees this as a bad thing. Rather alarming that ordinary Joes don’t seem to share Docx’s refined instinct for spending their increasingly valuable leisure time reading a 900 page Russian epic. How dare the rabble sully literature by having a good time! In this essay, Docx vomits so many half-digested meals out of his mouth that one detects an uptight gourmand who showed up to an orgy wearing a chastity belt. The man is incapable of understanding that when people flock to Stieg Larsson, they may very well move on to other authors beyond the missionary position. The very “literary” authors Docx desires them to read. And he’s incapable of finding anything positive in this apparent predicament. Which makes him more of a pinpricked sourpuss than a viper for the people.

Here is a man who berates a blue-collar worker for having to put down a Larsson volume. He writes: “And when, finally, I arrived at the buffet car, I was greeted with a sigh and a how-dare-you raise of the eyebrows. Why? Because in order to effectively conjure my cup of lactescent silt into existence, the barrista in question would have to put down his… Stieg Larsson.” Now if it had been me, I would have viewed this exchange as a rather comic moment. Maybe an opportunity to ask the barista why he liked Larsson and recommend a few names in response that might help him find a way to wider reading pastures. That is, if he didn’t want to go back to his volume. In which case, I would have offered a generous tip for blabbing on for five minutes. But for Docx, the barista represents a foolish opportunity to cling to class assumptions that haven’t been in place since the 1880s. You insolent reader! Fix me my latte now, you unthinking peon! And this makes Docx not unlike Charles Pooter, the hapless protagonist of Diary of a Nobody, who demands some respect from a blue-collar “monkey of seventeen.” The laborer replies: “All right, go on demanding!”

Of course, Docx can go on demanding all he wants. It isn’t even noon Eastern Standard Time, and I can see that the man has already been thoroughly ridiculed on Twitter. But if Docx gets his money quote, I get mine. And if we assume that dictating taste represents a fleeting freedom, I think Nietszsche best sums up why Edward Docx is such a small and pathetic man:

People demand freedom only when they have no power. Once power is obtained, a preponderance thereof is the next thing to be coveted; if this is not achieved (owing to the fact that one is still too weak for it), then “justice,” i.e., “equality of power” become the objects of desire.

[UPDATE: This post has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly observed that Docx had not cited Larsson. This was not true. Docx did quote a passage, but his argument remains so pisspoor that Docx’s “takedown” still doesn’t hold water. Nevertheless, I apologize for my error and express my gratitude to Nico for pointing this out to me.]

The Emails They Downloaded

First the unemployed Jimmy Cross downloaded emails from a girl named Martha, a dropout at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not tweets, but Jimmy Cross was hoping that he and Martha would be Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter, so he kept Martha’s emails in his inbox and made sure they were copied to his iPhone. She did not return his emails. In the late afternoon, after a day’s laze, he would send text messages to Martha, wash his hands in the sink with unclean dishes, look at his iPhone again, tilt his iPhone so that the window would shift from portrait to landscape, and spend the last hour of light wondering if he should bother to turn on the kitchen light. He would imagine romantic trips to the cafe only three blocks away. He would sometimes hit refresh, hoping that Martha would send him an email or update her Facebook status. More than anything, he wanted Martha to friend him as he had friended her. The emails had been mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of friendship. She was “single,” he was almost sure. Facebook was communicating every personal detail on her wall. Last night, she had attended a party and uploaded drunken photos of herself. The caption was “LOL.” She was into Farmville, and she wrote clumsily about her friends and roommates and acquaintances and even her 72-year-old neighbor, who was not on Faceboook but who she had set up an account for. She often quoted other tweets by retweeting them; she never mentioned whether she ordered a tall or a grande, except to say to her friends, “Meet me at Starbucks.” The grande weighed 16 ounces. They had a crude corporate logo that displeased Jimmy Cross, but Jimmy Cross understood that BRB was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it to mean. At dusk, he would wait for Martha to Be Right Back. Then he would return to his bed and watch the night and wonder again if Martha would return his emails.

NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a nifty science fiction novel named Never Let Me Go. Despite the fact that Ishiguro’s narrative was steeped in speculative fiction cliches (organ harvesting, parallel universes, extended human lifespan creating an underclass, the belabored philosophical inquiry over whether an artificial creation has as much of a soul as its creator, et al.), the novel was inexplicably categorized in the fiction section, leading to many uncounted stoned conversations among frustrated geeks over the question of whether twenty dollar bills had been slipped into the hands of bookstore managers. But it was more likely that Ishiguro eluded the genre ghetto, garnering that vital all-access pass awarded to certain literary titans, by way of putting together imagery and story considered graceful and/or beautiful by the cultural elite. (To cite one example, Tommy reacting to a piece of news as if the messenger was “a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.”)

The literary critics at the time, mostly unfamiliar (as always) with speculative fiction, praised the novel as if nobody had told similar stories before, or as if the “genre” was confined to certain moonlighters. The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand smugly declared that “the book belongs to the same genre as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, counterfactual historical fiction,” as if Harry Turtledove (or Fritz Leiber’s wonderful novel, The Big Time, for that matter) could not exist in the same bookstore. The fiery and often superficial Michiko Kakutani was even more dismissive, writing, “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” (Never mind that the majority of The Twilight Zone was truly brilliant and paradigm-changing because of its commitment to writing and acting. Only a superficially bourgeois critic would condemn art purely on its aesthetic.)

And for those of us who read literary and pulp novels because we genuinely appreciated both, it was a bit embarrassing to witness all this ignorance. And let’s be honest here. Take away Ishiguro’s beauty and Never Let Me Go is little more than a rewrite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man.” At least the British Science Fiction Association had the decency to shortlist Never Let Me Go for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, where Ishiguro lost to Geoff Ryman. (A few years later, the critical elite would deliver similar plaudits towards Cormac McCarthy’s YA dystopian novel, The Road. The great irony is that Oprah Winfrey would be the one to push the book hardest. Through the populist medium of television, Winfrey’s endorsement dwarfed all the fulsome praise eked out by a handful of pedantic mice.)

Now Ishiguro’s book has made its way to the big screen, where the mass medium of cinema hopes to reframe it yet again. Never Let Me Go is hardly the first time Ishiguro has tangoed with celluloid. In 1993, there was a film version of The Remains of the Day put together by the Merchant-Ivory team, a cold and highly overrated team of collaborators who are more committed to putting audiences to sleep than producing art that pops. I have tried to watch the movie three times over the past seventeen years and was only able to make it to film’s end once without falling asleep – and this was only because I wished to respect my sexy videowatching companion, who counted herself as a Merchant-Ivory fan. Yet despite the film’s bland and soporific qualities, it was afford all sorts of award nominations. A more successful Ishiguro collaboration was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), but one suspects its giddy qualities emerged only because Maddin and his co-writer George Toles had the decency to rewrite a hypothetical dud. I avoided 2005’s The White Countess, largely because James Ivory had directed the film and I had no desire to relive the trauma of The Remains of the Day in any form.

So when I learned that director Mark Romanek (the man behind the underrated One Hour Photo and several music videos) and hit-or-miss screenwriter Alex Garland (once a brilliant novelist) were involved with Never Let Me Go, I figured that this adaptation would be more Maddin than Ivory, that the Ishiguro cinematic stigma would be salvaged. I regret to report that this was not the case. Never Let Me Go bored me to fucking tears.

The film’s sloooooooooooooooooooooow pace, presumably intended to invite comparisons to needlessly protracted slideshows or weekend corporate retreats, is perhaps best epitomized by the following exchange (character names replaced by variables to avoid spoilers):

A: We’re going to do it.

(Unfathomably long pause before cutting to B.)

B: You’re going to apply.

(Another needlessly fucking long pause before the next line; never mind that all this would have been tightened by the line, “We’re going to apply.”)

A: Yes.

(A pregnant pause. Good Christ, Garland, you should know better than this.)

B: Good.

And that’s it. That’s Romanek and Garland’s idea of exposition. And we’re supposed to accept this weak narrative because the characters here, as the film telegraphs without subtlety, are sequestered from society and committed to providing organs through “donations.” (That’s not really giving anything away. If you don’t figure this out in the first twenty minutes, then you’re not paying attention.) But the atmosphere never feels particularly disturbing (as Romanek’s last feature film did, perhaps more because he had the smarts to tap into Robin Williams’s undeniably discomfiting qualities), which is odd given that Romanek has a great visual knack at conveying isolation (such as the mostly barren blue wall of an apartment or the Gordon Willis-like amber glow of a dark hospital corridor illuminated solely by the sun). Romanek gets the feel of the class structure here by framing many of his shots with the backs of heads to the camera. He gets a great performance from Carey Mulligan, who is especially good at disguising her unshakable sadness, pretending to be human with tragically feeble smiles and fine cheekbones. But scenes from the novel that should feel creepy, such as the scripted laughter at a television sitcom, feel more like obligatory than vital.

The fault here must be leveled at Alex Garland, who has clearly traded in his fiction talent for the lucre of video games and passable screenplays. It’s almost inconceivable to be reminded that Garland once had his finger firmly on the pulse of his generation. Clearly, those days are gone. Garland doesn’t seem to understand that Faulkner and Fitzgerald aren’t remembered for their Hollywood work, but the attentions they committed to the page. And Garland’s failure to evoke Ishiguro’s subtle style on screen isn’t just the indication of a screenwriter out of his depth. It’s the sad story of a burned out talent, once capable of reaching a mass audience and defying myopic critics, who doesn’t even have new novels to atone for the hackwork.

Notice to Readers: Offline for Uncertain Period

I’m typing this in my neighborhood cafe. I just moved and I thought that the broadband transfer would be flawless. It has been anything but. An evil company* by the name of Ace Innovative lied and misrepresented what the true nature of service was in my new neighborhood was. (I will have more on this later. Also, please pardon the lack of contractions. I am typing this on a keyboard where I cannot do apostophres. This probably explains why I sound like Data from Star Trek.) I have also lost my landline number. So I cannot be contacted for a while. What this means is that I am essentially out of commission for the foreseeable future. Bat Segundo is now on hiatus. I cannot respond to email. Content has slowed to a halt. I hope to be back up and running sometime in the next few weeks. And hopefully I will be able to offer reviews of films that I have seen (which have apparently been released) and audio interviews that I have conducted. My apologies to the publicists who were counting upon timed release of said content and the readers and listeners who regularly come here. If you need to get in touch with me, try friends or email (very slow response time).

* — As is often the wont for expanding companies, Ace was wonderful until they decided to grow. It was a company run by Russian geeks. Now it is a company run by closet sociopaths.

9-1-10 UPDATE: I appear to have found alternative broadband service. A small independent company who has been nothing less than polite, professional, and transparent about getting this done. Should be back in about two weeks.

February 15th! Reader of a Lonely Heart!

Read your work. You always read your work. Never thinking of the future. Prove yourself. You are the book you make. Take your chances win or loser.

This silly lyrical reference is a roundabout way of saying that the exuberant Russ Marshalek has organized yet another fantastic installment of his infamous reading series, “Just Working on My Novel.” It’s set to go down on February 15, 2010, whereby new and established writers read unpublished and/or new novels. The latest episode will center around love letters, breakup stories, sad sack notes, and other harrowing emotional indictments befitting the day after Valentine’s Day.

The sexier-than-you Jami Attenberg be hosting this event, and I can think of few people better suited to the exigencies. In addition, due to the unexpected reception of Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project, it appears that I’ve been enlisted to read one of the proffered pieces in a wildly theatrical manner that may involve the breaking of glass. And as an added incentive for curiosity seekers, I’ll also be performing an excerpt from my sprawling novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which will involve a pregnant attorney, an eccentric restaurant, and a dissolving relationship and contains the striking sentence, “Perhaps maternal canvassing was a form of social suicide.” This section has not been read before and it may perplex some audience members unfamiliar with recent developments in upscale cuisine.

But more importantly, there are the readers! Sign-up spots before the event are limited. But you can email Russ directly to secure your spot.

It all goes down on Monday, February 15, 2010, starting at 7:00 PM, at The Tank, located at 354 West 45th Street (near 9th Avenue).