Tonight at 192 Books, Frederic Tuten will read from his new book Self-Portrait: Fictions. Recently, Bookforum's Peter Trachtenberg caught up with Tuten to ask him about cinema, his friendship with Roy Lichtenstein, and his "painterly prose."
Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, Known and Unknown, will be released on January 25. The book has been embargoed, so we won't be able to read Rummy's rhetorical twists, revelations about the events leading up to the Iraq War, or recollections of meeting Elvis until the book is in stores. In the meantime, can someone please cook up a book trailer?
The Rumpus presents its second "Culture Death Match"—this one between Tom Bissell (who is represented here by author Salvatore Pane) and Sarah Vowell (Amy Whipple). The battle is in part between Bissell's and Vowell's obsessions—video games and history, respectively—but also about men and women writers. "Think of the guys here on The Rumpus or over at HTMLGiant," Whipple writes. "You get to say what you want to say when you want to say it and it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re right—just so long as you act like you are."
Laura Kipnis's latest book attempts to help you become better not just at scandalizing people, but at being scandalized.
AN INTERVIEW WITH FREDERIC TUTEN
Since dropping out of high school at the age of sixteen with dreams of becoming a painter, Frederic Tuten has lived in Paris; traveled through Mexico and South America; earned a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century American literature; acted in a short film by Alain Resnais; conducted summer writing workshops in Tangiers with Paul Bowles; and written fictions and essays for the artist’s catalogues of Eric Fischl, David Salle, John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein. He has also written some of the slyest and most beguiling fiction ever to be described as experimental. His five novels include The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (1971), Tallien: A Brief Romance (1988), Tintin in the New World: A Romance (1993), Van Gogh’s Bad Café (1997), and The Green Hour (2002). Recently Bookforum contacted him to ask about his latest book, Self Portraits: Fictions (Norton), a collection of mysterious, funny, sexy, and ineffably melancholy short stories.—Peter Trachtenberg
BOOKFORUM: Your new book has a recurring narrator named Louie who’s in love with a woman named Marie. Do you think of these as separate stories or as episodes in the unfolding story of a single character or set of characters?
FREDERIC TUTEN: The stories seem to revolve around a single love story that recurs eternally; the two lovers appear in different guises, in different places, at different times, before and after death even, and sometimes as different people. It’s perhaps more accurate to describe the book as having principal souls than principal characters, as they are not literally the same persons in each. My characters are transformations of the people I’ve known in my own life—that’s why each story is separately dedicated—and in each story there are traces of these people, including and especially me, in fact and in fantasy. That’s why I began the book with an essay about storytelling and going to the movies with my grandmother. In a sense, all my novels are self-portraits. I am now engaged in an ongoing memoir project and think of this book of interrelated stories as part one in my autobiography.
My recollection is that your early work—and that of your contemporaries like Harry Mathews and Donald Barthelme—tended to be quite cool, une ecriture blanche. Do you think some kind of shift has occurred within your own writing and maybe within literature as a whole?
Let’s just say that in the late sixties and seventies, many of us shunned adjectives and liked our sentences trim. I wanted to be sure that in my first novel nothing of the autobiographical surfaced, but now I see it is everywhere rising to the surface. In any case, there are many ways and many different voices with which to tell a story. I’m still exploring, but I’m glad to be mentioned in the company of Harry Mathews and Donald Barthelme. Some people mistake Realism with emotion and the writing of the writers you cite as “cool” or without fire. Barthelme is a passionate writer. He just doesn’t announce it. I think of Poussin and Roy Lichtenstein in the same way. They burn with a cool flame and a lasting one.
The cover of Self Portraits has a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, who also did original covers for The Adventures of Mao on the Long March and Tintin in the New World. He was your best friend.
I have never enjoyed a friend’s company or learned as much as I did with Roy. Our friendship covered more than thirty years. It was a friendship of mutual esteem and good will and humor. Roy once said to me, when an artist goes to make a painting, he or she already has in mind what a work of art should look like. And that, he said was the problem. It is the same problem for writers when they start a novel or a story. Hence, we produce the same novels and stories. Roy was a seeker, an original, and his work inspired me to approach my writing with questions.
I’m struck by how painterly these stories are. They seem to take place before a series of vivid backdrops: the corrida in Madrid, a circus trailer, a cafe across from the Metropolitan. Can you talk about the influence painting has had on your writing?
I was in love with painting and when I was sixteen I dropped out of high school. I wanted to go to Paris and become a painter, though I did not know French and neither my family nor I had a centime. This was in the Bronx, in the early fifties, when mostly delinquents dropped out of school. I guess in some sense, I, too, was a delinquent. Most of all, I think I wanted to escape the Bronx and live in a bohemian paradise. I worked and read and wrote in my free time and tried to paint on the kitchen table. Then by some wild luck I was introduced to John Resko, an artist who had been in Dannemora prison for twenty years and who had transformed his life there. He became the father I never had, and he tried to help me with my painting, but he ended up being more of a help by introducing me to books I had never heard of, like The Sheltering Sky and Kafka’s The Trial.
Slowly the desire to be a painter disappeared and the passion for writing took over, but all of my life I have always had artist friends like Roy, and I have written essays and reviews about artists. My idea of a great adventure is to check into a hotel close to a museum I love—like the Prado—and spend days in the galleries, revisiting the Poussins, mainly. In this sense, I take after some of the characters in my fiction.
Many of these stories are exquisitely sad. Yet they’re also often very funny, and even the saddest ones are suffused with what I can only call gaiety. Do you see yourself as a tragic writer? A comic one?
I love your question, but I can only answer it with great difficulty because it is obvious that I feel, as I show through my characters, that life is at once sad and comical. For example, I found it very funny and sad that when my character in “Self Portrait with Sicily” visits the spirit of a girl he loved, who tells him it is chilly in the other world, he thinks of returning home and coming back to bring her a sweater. The one he used to give her when as teenagers they went to freezing-cold movie theaters.
Counterpoised against the exotic and romantic locales of many of these stories are evocations of the Bronx—not the squalid, torched wasteland of the seventies and eighties, but a place that seems almost as exotic as the other settings. What role does the Bronx play in your work? In your memory and imagination?
The Bronx is the grim and golden, sad and magical place of my childhood. It haunts two stories in this book, appearing as a place of sanctuary and sexual heaven. But also as a mirage and twin of Sicily, from whose poverty and danger my mother’s parents fled. My grandmother lived with us when I was growing up and we all kept the poverty as a souvenir.
I know you’ve lived in Mexico, Brazil, France, Italy and Morocco. Your work seems to belong to what I think of as the continental or European tradition. Yet I know you wrote your doctoral dissertation on the ur-American writer James Fenimore Cooper. Do you see yourself as working in the American literary tradition? Or in the European one?
I don’t know what you mean by the two different traditions. Is it that I write about artists and revolutionaries and intellectuals, and that most of the books have been set in France or China and South America? Cooper, by the way, lived in Europe for seven years and wrote three novels located there. My thesis was on his novel, The Bravo, set in eighteenth-century Venice. A great dark book, an allegory for the oligarchy Cooper feared America would become. Hemingway’s books are set in Spain, France, Africa, and Cuba, and he is an American writer. In any case, it’s a good question. I really think its underpinnings are about literature that is either cooked or raw. For myself, I go toward the cooked but without the sauces.
I really wonder what the question means, finally. The French have Naturalism and Realism and so do we—we got it from them. They have experimental writers, and so do we. But maybe only we could have a Cooper, a Melville, a Faulkner and a Whitman here. Something in our soil and our space. But maybe only the French could have created Proust and Queneau, maybe something about Paris, the steamy cafes in winter. I love all engaging writers, wherever the source.
The stories also have a cinematic character. I’m thinking of the gallant, snappy patter of your men and women, the dramatic settings and the sly or blustering villainy of the antagonists. It’s not realistic cinema. I’m thinking of Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Renoir and even of Georges Meliés. I know you’ve written screenplays and were friendly with Godard.
Godard and I were not friends, but I had dinner with him a few times when he came to New York. I had written a praising review of his film Weekend for Vogue magazine, so we met on agreeable grounds. I thought him the master of the interrupted narrative, and I loved his interjecting texts and quotes into his films—everything I tried to do in my first novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. He thought Mao should be made into a movie. I said only he could do it. The idea, as so many in the film world, went nowhere.
The snappy patter, as you call the dialogue in some of these stories, is influenced by noir, like The Big Sleep, where men and women get to the point of each other with verve and bite and wit. I love the total beauty of Renoir’s Rules of the Game. But for me, Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad is a perfect work of art, not one superfluous line of dialogue or a second of wasted time. A great impervious and mysterious film. The recurring motifs in my book are in some ways an echo of that film, whose sculpture of the man, woman, and the dog was modeled after a Poussin painting. By the way, I’ve dedicated my book of stories to Alain Resnais, my dear friend for forty years.
While we’re on the subject of friendships, what about your relationships with Hergé? Raymond Queneau?
We were friends. Hergé and Raymond Queneau were both kind, witty, and with charm and grace and without an ounce of self-importance. I was crazy for their art. They had admired each other’s work but had never met until I brought them together, along with Resnais, for a lunch in Paris in 1975, for the publication of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, in French.
Queneau had chosen my book for Gallimard, where he was an editor. After he died, his family let me live in his apartment in Neuilly for a few years. I thought of him every day in that large empty apartment and I missed his warmth and his hectoring me—to be a “good boy.” As a prank and to teach me a lesson for drinking all night and showing up a bit late with a hangover and a tongue so dry I could hardly speak, he sent in a bottle of scotch instead of the water I had asked for when I was being interviewed at the Gallimard office a few doors from his.
I met Hergé—Georges Remi—in 1972 or maybe '73. I was late in coming to know his Tintin books, but when I did I could not get enough of them. Not all were easily available in New York in English, and the French versions were also hard to find. One day in Paris, I bought every [volume] in the shop and sat in my hotel room devouring them. The second thing Hergé asked me when we first met was why I liked his books. There were so many reasons, his wondrous, compelling characters and the swift, economical editing of the images so that the story moves with a sense of inevitability—everything I myself wished to accomplish. But in a kind of confusion at so direct a question, I merely said: “I love the blue of your night sky.” He gave me a big smile: “My wife was the colorist for that,” he said. He loved his wife.
The world, my world, has shrunk without Georges, Raymond and Roy. I miss them. I love them.
Of course, we know the dismal state of publishing today—not just literary publishing but all publishing—and it often seems that reading itself has a tenuous, embattled status. What do you see as the future of literature in a world cluttered with new electronic media?
Literature has survived plagues, wars, state and religious censorship, the loathing of moralists, and general ignorance. Its value is as deep as life. Without literature, how airless and diminished our world would be. I can’t breathe without it and would not wish to. Forgive the piety, but I’m sure that literature will survive and even flourish, maybe in ways we cannot yet foresee.
We know where we'll be tonight: At the FSG Reading Series, the semi-regular literary event held upstairs at the Russian Samovar. You know the drill: The Samovar will start serving vodka around 6:30. David Bezmozgis and Rahul Bhattacharya will start reading their work at 7.
Zadie Smith takes over the "New Books" column at Harper's.
The Paris Review has just launched its redesigned website, which looks as elegant as their new print issue. You'll want to free up the next several days to peruse their interview archives spanning the 1950s to the present, listen to audio clips, and subscribe to their blog, including an intriguing post by Lydia Davis on translations of Madame Bovary.
Barnes and Noble chairman Leonard Riggio was dealt a setback in his fight with investor Ron Burkle for the company's future, as the influential advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services has backed Burkle's slate of candidates for the Barnes and Noble Board of Directors. According to the Times, Burkle says he is not seeking control of Barnes and Noble, just a more independent Board, or as he put it: “I want someone in there who doesn’t say, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I ever heard’ every time Len opens his mouth.” Riggio, who bought the company nearly forty years ago, told the Times that the battle was more than just business: “Lots of people have an emotional stake in books . . . It’s not like what they have with their haberdashers.”
Tonight at Film Forum, there's a must-see screening of Stanley Kubrick's harrowing 1957 film, Paths of Glory, introduced by The Wire's creator David Simon. Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel, on which the film was based, was recently reissued by Penguin classics with a new introduction by Simon, who will sign copies of the book after the film. Simon has cited the movie as a key influence on his work, saying, "If anyone wants to look at Paths of Glory and think it doesn't speak to the essential triumph of institutions over individuals and doesn't speak to the fundamental inhumanity of the 20th century and beyond, then they weren't watching the same film as the rest of us.” The "essential triumph of institutions over individuals" is as good a summary of The Wire as we've ever heard.
Journalist Howard Fineman is leaving Newsweek after a thirty-year career at the magazine for the greener pastures of The Huffington Post, where, he reports, "the action is." HuffPo founder Arianna H. spoke re Fineman in terms that make it sound as if she'd just purchased a particularly fine wine: "From the day we launched, it was our belief that the mission of The Huffington Post should be to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new. Bringing in the best of the old involved more money than we had when we launched. But now that our website is growing, we’re able to bring in the best of the old."
Via Arts & Letters Daily: The galling incivility of online debate.
Not long ago, book publisher's websites were mostly bland promotional fare: author photos, catalog copy, and—if you were lucky—perhaps a reading group guide. But lately, we've been spending more time on the snazzy websites of publishers like FSG, Phaidon, and Verso, which include interviews, multimedia, and blogs. FSG has just updated its very literary Works in Progress site including a chat between novelists Chris Adrian and Rivka Galchen, a feature on book and album pairings by The Thermals' drummer Westin Glass, and a riveting video of Lydia Davis from a recent reading. Phaidon's redesigned site includes interviews with tastemakers like London Design Festival director Ben Evans, galleries featuring Phaidon artists like Jeff Wall, a video interview with Stephen Shore, as well the blog Edit. The indie publisher Verso's site has some of the best radical political reading on the web, with its books, authors, and events presented in an engaging format, as well as a blog and discussion forum.
It's official: Oprah Winfrey has chosen Jonathan Franzen's new novel for her book club.
Here's a trailer for Chris Lehmann's Rich People Things, which hilariously uses a scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita (watch for the cameo from Nico).
Steve Almond takes writerly self-humiliation to glorious heights in a column for The Rumpus, in which he lampoons poems he wrote in his youth. Sample line: "The geese yank his pants with cheddar beaks."
Futurebook offers a crash course on how to use—and not use—Twitter to promote books.
The watchdog group Media Matters has examined how The Wall Street Journal handles conflicts of interest in its books coverage. One easy way to avoid all those disclaimers: Come up with a warning label to put on all questionable reviews.
It has been almost nine years since Jonathan Franzen hemmed and hawed about Oprah Winfrey's selection of his novel The Corrections for her book club, but is that long enough for hurt feelings to heal? According to rumors, it is. Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson has reported that Oprah is going to make Franzen's Freedom her latest pick on Friday. Johnson has also posted a photo that seems to prove him right. That Oprah sticker might still make Franzen fairly itch with ambivalence, but he'll be scratching his all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the Franzenfreude will surely increase, and with good reason: As Meghan O'Rourke writes in Slate, the underlying issue is an important one: "Namely, why women are so infrequently heralded as great novelists."
Susan Lehman (no relation to Bookforum's Chris Lehmann) has been selected to become Jonathan Karp's replacement as the publisher of Twelve books, which has brought us titles such as Sebastian Junger's War and Christopher Hitchens's Hitch-22.
David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, now has a cover design and a release date. Excited yet?
Letters written by Oscar Wilde to a magazine editor have been discovered. Though the quotes we've seen don't quite merit the term "love letters," they are sweet, and certainly flirtatious: "Afterwards we will smoke cigarettes and Talk over the Journalistic article, could we go to your rooms, I am so far off, and clubs are difficult to Talk in."
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.