Tonight at Brooklyn's 177 Livingston, Triple Canopy and Cabinet magazine are hosting "A Hearing on the Activities of the International Necronautical Society," where editors and audience members (as well as novelist Joshua Cohen and critic Christian Lorentzen) will debrief INS founder Tom McCarthy and Chief Philospher Simon Critchley on recent findings. What strides has the INS made toward their goal to "map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit" death? McCarthy's new novel, C, is his most emphatic answer to the question yet.
Chuck Klosterman's essays are now available for the iTunes-like price of 99 cents each, which seems about right—Klosterman's best essays have always had the confectionary appeal of a great pop song.
The staff of Knopf looks dapper in their gold Sperry shoes and spiffy whale ties, worn in honor of the newly published book True Prep. We'd love to see the folks at powerHouse Books one-up them by donning threads inspired by the 1960s classic Take Ivy. Literary fashion buffs looking to guage the present moment need look no further than the bohemian sartorial elegance on display at last Saturday's launch party for the new Paris Review.
We are listlessly reading the Telegraph. We see a headline that must be a joke. We laugh. But it is real. Two British authors criticize the Man Booker Prize shortlist for having too many books written in the present tense.
Last night, The Rumpus's "Summer Shakedown" event at Brooklyn's Death by Audio space (which comedian Michael Showalter described as, if we remember correctly, a "blown-out former dentist's office,") was everything we told you it would be and more—but also a little bit less. We saw Neal Pollack read about his adventures in yoga and then do the "alligator" pose onstage. We saw Sara Marcus read from her new history of Riot Grrrl, Girls to the Front, and actually sing some of the passages. We saw Nick Flynn read a chapter from his memoir The Ticking is the Bomb about Rumpus honcho and emcee Stephen Elliott (which involved a dominatrix), and joke about the venue's very dusty fan that was precariously attached to the ceiling by very dusty bungee cords. And we witnessed an intense spoken-word performance by Corrina Bain. But we did not see Hilton Als, at least not before we left. It appeared, as far as we could tell, that he did not show up.
Sunday's Brooklyn Book Festival, photo by Carolyn Kellogg.
Pictures and video from this weekend's soggy Brooklyn Book Festival, and critic David L. Ulin on the fest's "moral mysteries." At one of the marquee events, John Ashbery chatted with Paul Auster about the poet's first job in New York, at the Brooklyn Public Library: "I did so miserably at that job and was so unhappy at it—though loving Brooklyn of course. I had to punch a time clock and almost every day it was red because I was staying out late in New York."
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Defense Department was negotiating to buy and destroy a 10,000 copy print run of Operation Dark Heart, an Afghanistan war memoir by former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Anthony Shaffer. Now, the book is being sold on eBay, with one copy fetching more than $2,000 yesterday.
Google attempts to eradicate writer's block with Scribe, a predictive typing tool that might just help you finish writing your Great American Novel.
Tonight, the Harry Ransom Center is celebrating its public opening of the David Foster Wallace archive with a reading of the late author's work featuring Elizabeth Crane, Doug Dorst, Owen Egerton, Chris Gibson, and Jake Silverstein. Can't make it to Austin for the event? Watch it on the Ransom Center's webcast at 7pm CST.
CHRIS LEHMANN CHATS ABOUT 'RICH PEOPLE THINGS'
Chris Lehmann is a conspicuously over-employed editor and cultural critic. He’s a co-editor of Bookforum, a deputy editor for the Yahoo news blog The Upshot, a columnist for the Awl, a contributing editor for The Baffler, and a guitarist and singer for the band The Charm Offensive. He’s also just penned a book, Rich People Things, which will be published this fall by OR books. We recently caught up with Mr. Lehmann via email to discuss the how his blog column became a book, why he considers himself an economic populist, and what we talk about when we talk about class in America.
Q: Mr. Lehmann, I can’t help notice that your name figures prominently in my Gmail Priority Inbox. In the interest of full-disclosure, we should probably mention that you’re one of the chaps who edits timely and informative articles for Bookforum, and that we sometimes spy you thumbing through galleys here in our New York office, though you’re based in Washington, DC. That is you, isn’t it?
Yes—which is one reason among countless that it’s absurd for you to refer to me as “Mr. Lehmann.” I know your own preferred form of address for me is simply my last name, with maybe an under-your-breath expletive before or after.
It’s true that for a while, I was trying to capitalize on the occasional confusion between my name and that of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the retired daily book reviewer for the New York Times. But then I recalled Philip Roth’s longstanding vendetta against the guy—Roth once offered to sponsor a competition among college seniors, any of whom, he maintained, would be an improvement on Lehmann-Haupt. There’s also another Chris Lehmann who’s a prominent educational tech wonk in Philadelphia; I plan on impersonating him the next time an angry author letter targets one of my reviews.
Q: Rich People Things started out as an accidental column on the blog The Awl, in which your assignment was to cover the media’s most egregious examples of wealth worship. Can you describe how the column evolved into a book?
Well, the efficient cause was Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books. He’d been reading the column for a while—and for some time before that, he’d wanted to enlist me as a writer when he was at Scribner’s. I’d never considered the column as potential book fodder prior to that—I’d mainly just adopted it as an odd public form of therapy, an outlet for the dissonance I’d feel reading delusional twaddle on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page or viewing Vanity Fair slide-shows of heirs and heiresses in the midst of a crushing recession. And when you’re filing a column every week, you don’t really have time to consider how the same material would come across in a longer format. But Colin assured me that we could approach the book as an extended version of the column. The idea, as he saw it, was to use the column’s point of view to size up various freestanding institutions that shore up the social myths and free-market orthodoxies that rationalize howlingly unjust and destructive life outcomes for most Americans at punishing moments in our economic history like the present.
He was full of it, of course—but in the productive and creatively beneficial way that book editors are often full of it. The book wasn’t so much an extended version of the column as well, a goddamn book, and therefore a lot more work than it sounded like an overgrown column would be. But that’s the sort of Tom Sawyer style bait-and-switch that makes one a talented and persuasive book editor.
Q: How does the OR Books distribution model work, and how can readers buy Rich People Things?
Well, the only part of this question I can confidently answer is the most important one, from my standpoint: Readers can get the book by ordering it here. As to the OR model, I think it’s actually pointed in the way the publishing industry as a whole will likely be headed in the years ahead—an initial run of pre-orders and e-book sales is supposed to trigger a deal with another distributor or publisher for an additional (and so I hope, anyway, larger) print run after the poor little thing demonstrates it can stand on its own two legs. Colin is also waging a noble crusade against Amazon, which is nice for him, but of course puts all that much more pressure on his writers to generate early sales. But you know, as the book makes painfully clear, no one ever said that solidarity would be easy.
Q: Rich People Things is at time polemical (though always leavened with humor), assailing cornerstones of American life such as the US Constitution, The Supreme Court, The Free Market, and the New York Times as mere playthings of the rich. And yet, you’re no Molotov cocktail-flinging radical intent on overthrowing capitalism. What are some of the reforms you think could move social and economic policy—and the media that reports it—back towards something that actually addresses our current distressing reality?
I’ve always considered myself an economic populist—even though that term’s been pretty well debased by legions of cable pundits who clearly have no idea what it might refer to in our actual political history. The capital-p Populists of the 19th century were able to highlight the many ways that the emerging financial order of the industrial age were defiling the institutions of our democracy, and proposed creating things like a labor-and-commodities based system of currency, public ownership of utilities, direct election of senators and the like to level the political playing field to accommodate the interests of small producers and the working class. Many of these reforms were later carried out in the Progressive and New Deal eras.
There’s no reason that similar campaigns for economic fairness couldn’t emerge today—to make the Federal Reserve, for instance, not merely a de facto annex of Wall Street but to include representatives of labor and consumer groups on its board. (Oddly, the original Populist battery of financial reforms, known as the Subtreasury Plan, was by some accounts an early model for the Fed, though obviously the Fed’s founding overseers came from technocratic policy and financial elites rather than from the ranks of the farming and laboring classes.) Likewise, if the government is going to continue to subsidize and oversee banking concerns, it seems reasonable to ask why it should abjure exercising shareholder rights and vote on corporate policy. What’s so sacred about the present modes of corporate governance—especially after its administrators fiddled so complacently for so long over the sacking of our productive economy? Or, if we really do see a quality public education as a birthright for American workers competing in a globalized new information economy, then why do we continue to fund our public schools via property taxes—one of the most regressive and unequal ways to distribute a social good imaginable? Why are our prestige universities privately owned—and their endowments to a ridiculous degree tax-exempt—when most other Western democracies have managed to sustain nationally competitive state-run university systems without any noticeable slide into socialist ruination? Why had the public health insurance option—which consistently showed polled majorities supporting it, once pollsters dispassionately explained how the system worked—turned into an unthinkable policy notion, and virtually a byword for socialist revolution, much as the eminently fair and sensible single-payer system had been demonized out of consensus debate in prior battles over health care reform?
To even raise such questions in the present political climate seems weirdly utopian and wild-eyed—though of course virtually every other developed democracy on the planet has arrived at fair, equitable, and politically appealing solutions to dilemmas like these, which seem hopelessly intractable on the American scene. I don’t know how you marshal the political will to demand a modicum of this kind of fairness in our political culture, but my best guess is that you’d begin roughly where the 19th century Populists did—by spelling out very plainly and directly the ways in which the Money Power has turned our democracy into a dead letter.
Q: As someone who has worked in journalism through two boom and bust cycles (the tech bubble of the ‘90s and the recent housing market collapse), and as a student of Depression-era American history, can you describe how the language that’s used to depict economic prosperity and calamity has changed? Why is it so difficult to talk about class in America now?
Well, the very long answer to this question is the book’s concluding chapter. But the shorter one is that the whole idea of social class militates against the core myth of American social mobility. If you endorse the idea that a great many of our life outcomes are severely delimited by economic forces far over our heads, you’re going up against the sturdy Horatio Alger myth holding that infinite opportunity awaits every plucky self-made individual doggedly pursuing the main chance. Of course, Alger’s tales ultimately hinge on anything but hard work and self-starting virtue. Instead, they rely on completely implausible infusions of coincidence and luck—the young boy-hero rescuing some wealthy soul or another from peril and thereby getting set up for life. What’s more, Alger himself was a disgraced preacher who regarded himself as a literary failure. Ironically enough, he gave up writing novels toward the end of his career in favor of nonfiction works that denounced the excesses of capitalism and speculative investment—not exactly the sort of epilogue you encounter in one of his own novels.
Anyway, so long as Americans fundamentally view themselves as upward striving Algerian monads—entrepreneurs waiting to happen, in essence—the language of social class, and the political aims of economic fairness, will always strike our ears as dangerously alien and morale-sapping. But of course class privilege is everywhere on view in our common life—especially at a moment like this one, when the investment economy subsists on government subsidy, while our trade balances and manufacturing base are consigned to the none-too-tender mercies of neoliberal market values. One concrete way out of this bind, it seems to me, is to get in the habit of talking more plainly about the predations of our lords of finance. Past economic reformers had a whole colorful vocabulary of abuse reserved for such figures—from Croesuses and Molochs for the classically minded to robber barons and plunderers for the merely outraged. Reviving these more vivid sorts of expressions may not seem like a huge step forward, but language can be a powerful determinant of thought. If I didn’t believe that, after all, why would I be at Bookforum?
Q: Finally, I have to ask: The Prosperity Gospel’s preacher Creflo A. Dollar, the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, too, Ayn Rand’s continued popularity—these things strike me as ridiculous and couldn’t possibly be true. Did you go the James Frey route and simply make some of this stuff up?
Hah. If only. I didn’t even get to the real howlers, like the “rational market hypothesis” and the Laffer Curve.
Tonight, the Rumpus ushers in autumn with a "Summer Shakedown" event. There's a stellar lineup of authors including Nick Flynn (The Ticking is the Bomb), Sara Marcus (Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution), and Hilton Als (Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis), as well as comedians Michael Showalter and Jessi Klein, performers Elissa Bassist and Corrina Bain, and music by Frankie Rose and the Outs.
The new Paris Review is out, and we haven't been so excited about a literary magazine in ages. It's the first issue edited by Lorin Stein, and if it’s any indication, he's taking the magazine in an exciting (and more fiction-friendly) direction. There are stories by Sam Lipsyte and Lydia Davis, both authors whom Stein edited during his tenure at FSG. The interviews—with Mating author Norman Rush and French bad boy Michel Houellebecq—are excellent. And it looks fantastic. Do check it out. In other lit-mag news, Hilton Als's new novella appears in the latest issue of McSweeney's, which has a magic ink cover, along with fiction by Steven Millhauser and Roddy Doyle.
In the 1970s, William S. Burroughs collaborated on a "Word/Image" novel with Malcolm McNeil. Fantagraphics has just announced that it will publish the work, "Ah Pook Is Here," along with McNeil's memoir of working with the junky high priest of the Beats, next year.
With a month to go before the Man Booker prize announces its winner, Andrew Motion, chair of the judges' panel, writes about the hard work of whittling down the list from 140 titles to the shortlist of 6, the criteria used to pick these titles, and their variety: "what characterises our list is the difficulty of fitting it into a neat category. Which feels like a fitting tribute to pay to a form that has always thrived on notions of surprise and unpredictability."
The true identity of the famed Twitter satirist Emperor Franzen and Evil Wylie has been revealed!
If you're in New York this weekend, you really must go to the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday. There are too many events to list, but here are just a few highlights: Joshua Cohen and Matthew Sharpe will talk about Kafka; poet John Ashbery will discuss his work with Paul Auster; and Bookforum co-editor Albert Mobilio will talk about international noir with Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II, French author Caryl Férey, and New York's Pete Hamill. Other participating authors include Mary Gaitskill, Colson Whitehead, Russell Banks, and Stephen Elliott. There are also a number of related events on Friday and Saturday nights. You'll find us at the Saturday-night Bell House event DJ'd by Rob Sheffield.
The Wall Street Journal will unveil its new stand-alone book review, edited by Robert Mesenger (formerly of The Weekly Standard and The New York Sun) in the next few weeks. As The New York Observer points out, this appears to be another one of Rupert Murdoch's direct challenges to The New York Times.
The latest issue of N1BR, a.k.a. The n+1 Book Review, is out. In addition to reviews of Mary Gaitskill and Paul Berman, it includes a very smart essay by Naomi Fry, the first writer we know of to really grapple with the "toxic environment" of Bret Easton Ellis's Imperial Bedrooms.
Thomas Guinzburg, a co-founder of The Paris Review, dies at 84.
Novelist Lionel Shriver details her experience of how "publishers are complicit in ghettoising not only women writers but women readers into [an] implicitly lesser cultural tier." Using her own novels as examples, such as the disturbing health care tale, So Much for That, Shriver writes that publishers’ insistence on "trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress."
Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, "lyrics just don't hold up without the music . . . I assure [my students] that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word." Perhaps not Morrison, but how about Biz Markie, who is on cover of the fall issue of Bookforum? Poet Kevin Young asks this question about rap lyrics in his feature review of The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, writing "poetry can move you, hip-hop can make you move—for my part, I'll take both."
Did Tony Blair crib a line from the 2006 film The Queen for his new memoir? Screenwriter Peter Morgan thinks so, telling The Telegraph that perhaps Blair "had one gin and tonic too many and confused the scene in the film with what had actually happened, and this I find amusing because he always insisted he had never even seen it." We'll be perusing Blair's book, The Journey (published last week in the US), for other cinematic scenes, and hope that a Monty Python moment somehow snuck its way into the prime minister's remembrances.
When Michael Lewis's The Big Short came out last March, the book's Amazon page was besieged with complaints because it wasn't available in a Kindle edition. Now that it is, eBookNewser is tracking the most popular passages readers are highlighting in the e-book version. Topping the list is this pithy summary of the housing bubble's toxic recipe: "How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnant? You give them cheap loans." We can't decide which is more unsettling about this story: the terribly imprudent lending practices of the housing bubble, or Amazon’s tracking of what people are highlighting on their Kindles.
The shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize has been announced.
Sure, we may have entered the age of wireless devices and ADD, but as The Millions points out, big, sprawling novels with lots of characters aren't dead yet. In fact, "the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span."
OR Books, the new independent publisher who does not work with Amazon, has announced that it will publish Douglas Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed, in which the novelist and countercultural essayist will attempt to help you swim, not sink, in the digital age.
Tonight at Brooklyn's Word bookstore, Stephen Elliott will host a party for the paperback release of his excellent The Adderall Diaries, which coolly blends memoir, reports on a Bay Area murder, and pointed meditations on storytelling itself. Among Elliott's many themes is masochism, so it's appropriate that he'll be reading with Melissa Febos, whose Whip Smart recalls how she paid for college in NYC by becoming a high-end dominatrix. Turns out that Jonathan Franzen is reading in NYC tonight too. Says Elliott: "I love Franzen, but I'm not going to miss my own reading in Brooklyn to see him read in Brooklyn."
You can invite Arianna Huffington to talk to a school or group during her Third Wold America book tour.
Michael Schaub recalls how one drunken night nine years ago led to the creation of Bookslut. The excellent literary website Bookslut has posted 12,000 blog entries, more than 2,700 articles, and, now, 100 issues. One of the new articles, "After Portnoy," responds to Katie Roiphe's notorious essay for the New York Times by interviewing three young male writers about sex.
The Virginia Quarterly Review story continues to develop, as the University of Virginia plans to perform a "thorough review" of the literary journal.
French novelist Michel Houellebecq's controversial work has been called racist and sexist (and sometimes brilliant). Now critics are crying "plagiarism," as the author apparently pasted portions of Wikipedia into his new novel, The Map and the Territory. Houellebecq has responded to the charge with his usual sangfroid: "When you use a big word like 'plagiarism,' even if the accusation is ridiculous, something (of the accusation) will always remain. . . . And if people really think that, then they haven't the first notion of what literature is."
At the New Republic G. W. Bowersock remembers the great classicist Bernard Knox, who passed away last month.
Tonight, Barnes and Noble's security may keep a close eye on author Tao Lin (an accomplished shoplifter), as he appears at the chain's Tribeca branch to discuss his new novel Richard Yates. But can Lin be as uninhibited in person as he is on the Web? As Joshua Cohen writes of Lin in the latest issue of Bookforum: "To Lin's generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity; many of our peers maintain that it's psychologically healthy, and artistic, to expose oneself entirely online."
As Christopher Hitchens battles esophageal cancer, God-fearing fans have anointed September 20th as "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day," but the preeminent atheist is still having none of it: "I don't mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better."
The Brooklyn Rail has a gripping (and disturbing) excerpt from Xiaoda Xiao's forthcoming novel The Visiting Suit: Stories From My Prison Life, based on the author's seven years in Chinese labor brigades.