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March 31, 2008

He's Just Not That Into Your Library

Did you read Rachel Donadio's NYBR back-page essay about literary dealbreakers yet? Or her subsquent Paper Cuts blog post, in which she asked Times readers to state their own literary dealbreakers?

So, what are the most common literary dealbreakers? People who don't read at all, people who love Ayn Rand, people who dote on Harry Potter, people who worship The Da Vinci Code, people who are too pretentious, and people who aren't pretentious enough.

This is one of the best Paper Cuts comment so far (the prose is a bit rough, the ideas are good):

People who reject others for reading a particular book have either:

1) read the book themselves to merit their rejection of its content, in which case they are hyppocrites [sic] for dumping other readers of the same book
2) demonstrated dishonesty and sterotype [sic] by dumping someone based on a book they have never read themselves and of which they cannot, with integrity, state what they object about it.
— Posted by Student

Most of the blog commenters and people quoted in the piece are guilty of both of these points. Donadio is very wise for not coming out and stating her own dealbreakers. She's absolved. Lucky her.

For as long as we can remember worrying about whether were cool, "worthwhile", popular, whatever -- we knew that we would often be judged as such (or not) based on the things we liked. What we read. The music we listened to. The art we admired. Our tastes, the things we enjoy -- now, especially -- define who we are. You don't need to get to know a person in order to peg them based on their Facebook profile, to decide that the last book they posted on their iRead application was way, way below your standards of snobbery, or that they're "A Fan" of a band you outgrew five years before hipster became a New York magazine cover story. It seems that these days, few people can afford to be genuine -- if they want to adequately compete.

It's sad.

If we're honest about what we truly love, and what we truly value -- whether it's a short story by Chekov or a poem by Jewel -- compatability tends to follow suit. And then, if you want to go ahead and judge people for being happy enough to have found each other based on their alleged crappy-ass taste in blogs, well -- that's your perogative, we say! And we say it with a smile.

Instead of inviting you to comment on your literary dealbreakers (snore), if you would like to, please post either the last five books/magazines/comics/whatevs you read (no cheating, even if one of those books was really embarrassing) or a book that you adore that you get a lot of flack about from other people. You don't have to defend it, although you can, if you want to. What's more important is the fact that you like it, regardless of whether anyone else does. If it made you think or feel something, good or bad or in between, we want to know about it.

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by Sharon Steel | with 1 comment(s)
March 27, 2008

All the Sad Young Literary Hotties

Keith Gessen: Author, broad-shouldered man.

The Observer is really doing some excellent shoe-leather reporting on sub-cultures these days. Last week's awkward musing on Urbane Tomboys flummoxed us (aren't these girls just hipsters who wear boy clothes, and what does this have to do with feminism?) but Doree Shafrir's story on Nerds of Steel this week is a little bit more our thing. Hipsters or Ripsters? Buff, and Proud? Oh, yes, of course, of course. The publishing industry's collective boner for hottie authors doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So it makes sense that examples of current "nerdy beefcake poster boys" include a lot of literary lads: Conan O'Brien, Keith Gessen (N+1 editor and author of everyone's favorite new galley, All The Sad Young Literary Men), and up-and-coming buff dork Benjamin Nugent. Nugent penned a book called American Nerd: The Story of My People, which will come out in May. We. Must. Read. This.

Shafrir's piece was a fun romp, but we're a bit disappointed that there wasn't some kind of sidebar thing on female buff nerds. She glosses over it by noting that "female nerds can be 'buff,' but that makes for a sexy librarian/Tina Fey kind of paradigm."

Radar has some ideas for the new tribes the Observer should hunt down, but we think their next feature should focus on a group we're going to go ahead and call Book Tramps. More specifically: Slutty Ass Bitch Whores Who Read. We are very interested in this phenomenon, given the number of prostitutes with double-lives out there.

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by Sharon Steel | with no comments
March 26, 2008

Wise Words from Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith: "Put it in a drawer."

One of PopSerious's correspondents was at a lecture at Columbia University yesterday, where writer Zadie Smith (White Teeth) gave a lecture on "Feeling Fraudelent." Below, some wise words by the author. We love this kind of thing. So far, the best advice about writing we ever got was "Sometimes you just have to puke over the side and keep rowing." This is close competition:

On the subject of finishing a novel (or for those writers out there squeamish about the N-word, “a piece”), Smith said you should “step away from the vehicle.” Put it in a drawer. Do not publish it–-do not even read it–-until you absolutely have to. The most important reader of your work is not yourself who has written it, or an editor who has seen ten drafts of it already, but a complete stranger, and if you can keep the thing in a drawer long enough chances are that you’ll become that stranger yourself.

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by Sharon Steel | with no comments
March 21, 2008

Will White People Buy Stuff White People Like, the Book?

Memed Out

Have you read Stuff White People Like? It's a very funny blog. We hope it will be a very, very, very funny book. Actually, it will probably have to be the funniest book in the entire fucking world to sell enough copies to justify the alleged $350,000 Random House advance, as reported by the Observer's Leon Neyfakh. (Random House's publicity department won't confirm the actual amount, but they say that $350,000 is an incorrect figure.)

Neyfakh also points out that I Can Has Cheezburger, another cute web phenomenon that started on the 4chan message boards, along with anti-Scientology supergroup Anonymous., is similarly basking in the literary glory of viral meme fame. On the political front, Barack Obama Is My New Bicycle also scored a recent contract. Both Cheez and Bicycle will be published by Gotham Books.

Bloggers who get memoir deals? So over!

Quirky meme-creators who get coffee table, gifty humor-pop-culture deals? So now! So very now! Coming soon to your local Urban Outfitters.

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by Sharon Steel | with 1 comment(s)
March 20, 2008

E-Books: Ew

We love the Interweb! (Except when it tries to break our blog.)

But you know what we don't love? E-books. E-books are gross. It's like, we and nearly everyone else we know with day jobs spend hours upon hours staring at a screen and reading the Internet all day long. Everyone reads a different Internet. We like to read about literary gossip (um, duh), regular gossip, music, criticism, musical criticism, literary criticism, clothes, media, and more assorted esoteric shit. But you know what we don't like to read on screens? BOOKS. Excerpts are fine. Reviews are fine. Author interviews, again, fine.

NOT books.

Not our beloved Pride & Prejudice.

Reading a Pride & Prejudice e-book is like watching the Kiera Knightly/Colin Firth superfilm, which was NOT SUPER. It's fake! It's bad and wrong! Um, we prefer the BBC version. Obviously! That, friends, THAT, could never be as good -- nothing could ever be, really, let's be honest -- as the book, but it's close! Oh, it is close!

We know e-books must make things a million times easier for people like, say, editors. They can load up all their manuscripts into the thing and just carry that around, instead of a thousand pound canvas bag (we've seen it happen). And we know e-books also have other, added, educational, environmental, and otherwise extremely practical purposes. We just don't care to think of them.

Because. Well. We hate them! We never want to read a book that way! Especially not anything by Jane Austen. No, no, no. We reject these technological developments. We prefer to read novels in an "antiquated" manner. Fuck e-books. We're just saying.

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by Sharon Steel | with 1 comment(s)
March 12, 2008

The Dark Side of Manners: Lady Snark's Guide to Common Discourtesy

© Rachel McPherson

You know how sometimes, someone says something that makes your face hot and your hands ball into fists of fury and your face go into perma-scowl only to realize you have let them get away with it?

We do! Oh, we do, we do, WE DO! We have been there again and again, only to lie awake at night thinking of The Brilliant Things We Ought To Have Said. It can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to snark back. We are rather shy, and these things don't always come easily to us. Our personalities are “confrontationally-challenged,” shall we say, which seems to be a quirk shared by many biliophiles! We’re likely the sort alpha-individuals refer to, smirkingly, as a "meak-voiced door-mat.” Yes, someone said this to us once. It was awful! Our insides were quaking, and yet we were unable to properly defend ourselves! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Help has arrived, friends, and we are delighted to share the news. In this week's fishwrap, we wrote about Lady Arabella Snark's (a/k/a A.C Kemp -- writer, slang expert, and MIT lecturer) The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion. Basically, the book is our NEW BIBLE, and that's not something we admit to lightly. Particularly when our Jewish mom is maybe reading this.

Kemp is extremely funny and clever, and we wished we could tell you more about her book in our little write-up. Fortunately, the Interweb has no space constraints. The Perfect Insult functions as an anti-ettiquite guide, ready to teach you about properly wounding, unconventional put-downs geared toward everyone from passive-agressive fucktards to your douchey co-worker. Also: mean boys, cruel family members, and snobs! There are quizzes and enlightening MENSA-level vocabulary lessons woven through the text. What’s an orchidectimy, you ask? “It sounds like a flower,” Kemp told us. “Or something that would be really nice. Except it’s removing your testes.”

The Perfect Insult is written from the perspective of Lady Snark, a character Kemp created for fun. What a card! What a kick! We heart Miss Snark. And you will, too, if you make the time to see her in her full glory -- engraved flask, elbow-length satin gloves, superior smile and all -- tomorrow at the BU Barnes & Noble (660 Beacon St) at 7 pm. Go! But first, read our interview outtakes with Kemp, in which she discusses her insult collection, the book's upcoming YouTube tie-in, and fake socialites.

How did you come to write the book?
It was kind of an organic thing, I guess. I had taught this slang class to international students and I wanted to write a book for international students on slang. I went to a bunch of publishers and none of them were interested in it. Around the same time I started Slang City, and it was really astonishing to me that most of the people who came to this web site were not international students but native speakers. Then I thought, oh, well I’ll do a book that’s connected to that. I decided on insults. But then, somehow, between the time that I came up with the idea and finishing writing the book it turned into something else. Part of it was that I had written in it in this sort of arch, ironic tone and when my agent took me on he said, Well, why don’t you try assigning an actual character to that voice? And I thought, "Oh, a socialite would be good!" I didn’t know anything about socialites so I read a bunch of books about them.

And was that when it morphed into an anti-ettiquite guide?
Once I started writing it in that voice, it kind of changed the direction. Originally it was just going to be a book about insults and different categories of insults. When I decided to do it that way, it became more of an anti-ettiquite kind of book. I ended up putting other things in, like, you know, information about exotic poisons.

Did you have a running collection of insults to cull from?
A lot of the stuff in the book I had to spend a great deal of time thinking about. The book has a lot of obscure words -- those, I just sort of collected. I hadn’t originally intended to include so many arcane words. But at some point in the early stages of the book I was reading The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. It’s about Edgar Allen Poe and it’s one of those historically based books -- he wrote The Dante Club. So, he had all this vocabulary in there that was sort of the 19th century stuff that nobody uses anymore. And so I started just writing these things down on the backs of envelopes. Every time I would find something funny in a newspaper article or book, I would just write it on the back of an envelope until I had a very large collection of envelopes! Then I just started putting them into the book. Sometimes I would look for something that I had found somewhere else and though, that’s an unusual word. And then I’d go onto the online Oxford English Dictionary and I would find something else by mistake when I was looking for that.

Which section of the book is most dear to Miss Snark?
Well, I think the quiz in which you have to differentiate between grammar terms and sexual perversion and rocks and people from the Bible. That was one of my favorite parts. But the other part that I really liked is the letter on refusing invitations. Last week a bunch of my friends got together and one of my coworkers from MIT shot a video acting that out. I’m going through all of the shots but I’m hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll be putting that on YouTube. I was a little nervous to do it and have my friends do it, who were not professional actors, but they were amazing.

Are you planning on dressing up as your nom de plume for author events?
Yes, absolutely. This afternoon one of the tasks on my list is to order an engraved gin flask! She’s one of these people -- and this was something, when I was reading these various socalite books, there were these various real-life characters who had been from this poor background and married someone who was better than them, divorced them, married someone who was better than that, and kept moving themselves up the ladder. Actually, I don’t know if you noticed this but the dedication in the book is to this woman named Baroness Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrborn. She was one of the characters that I found, but it was like a one line mention in a book about New York socialites. I looked it up and she was this woman who was a dressmaker, but she called herself a Baroness. She took a couple of her friends and moved to the Galapogos Islands and called herself the Empress of the Galapogos Islands. She would do things like steal her neighbor’s mail, and then charge them for it! When you look at the current socalites -- Paris Hilton? It’s like, that’s not what a socalite is supposed to be!

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by Sharon Steel | with no comments
March 10, 2008

"The story is mine"

Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million) wrote what we thought was a depressing but super-smart Op-Ed piece in the Sunday Times. He makes excellent points about the fake-memoir trend, but even more important, he explains what it means to the opressed classes of individuals whose identities are being stolen in the process. Much has already been written about how race and oppressed minorities play into these book scandals (most recently, Jews and African-Americans). Mendelsohn brings that in, and makes a key connection to our culture's reality-worship. The observations he makes about our obsession with the fantasy, and the satisfaction of experiencing a "redemeptive" situation -- regardless of its validity -- are particularly chilling. An excerpt from the last part of the essay (read the whole thing if you have the time, though!):

In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”...

“My reality” raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of “reality” seems to be in danger. Think of “reality” entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: in them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.

That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.

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by webteam | with no comments
March 05, 2008

Literary Lies: The Next Generation


Everyone is all in a huff over the "Margaret Jones" scandal. Her True Life story, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, was a fraud. She is not part Native American. She was not an abused foster child living on the streets of L.A., or a member of the gang the Bloods. She grew up with her biological parents in Sherman Oaks, CA, and went to a private Episcopal high school. While she did work with inner city kids, she interviewed a lot of them in L.A. coffee shops and pawned composites of their stories off as her own. Margaret Jones isn't even her real name. It's Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer.

So anyway, the main things that seem to be erupting from what has been deemd the Worst Week Ever in Publishing are:
1. Memoirs sell better than fiction (just like reality TV gets networks better advertising and bigger ratings). This, apparently, is something writers have caught on to. So they turn "novels" into "memoirs." Even if they aren't exactly true.
2. Publishers don't do deeper fact-checking because it could ruin the author-editor relationship.
3. Love and Consequences wouldn't have gotten the reception it did in the first place if it wasn't for the Charles McGrath connection.
4. Er, James Frey is still publishing a new book.

Frowny faces all around.

We think it would be nice if fiction wasn't so hard to sell anymore, if every woman writing about their coming-of-age experiences wasn't immediately categorized as chick-lit and designed a book cover featuring pink sparkly heels and a Cosmo, if publicists could somehow, magically, control positive hype before it resulted in hundreds of bloggers hating on talented writers, if writers could be championed without having to be Diablo Cody for it to happen, and if classic books we love weren't repackaged with stupid cartoons that look nothing like real characters just to appeal to new audiences, because it really undermines the intelligence of buyers!

These are just a few of our complaints. Margaret, we are sure, will be feeling the heat for quite some time.
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by Sharon Steel | with 2 comment(s)
March 04, 2008

Liars, Promotions, and Profiles!

Sloane Crosley: The new Dorothy Parker, some say -- or just our new Imaginary Friend

Kelefa Sanneh, our favorite New York Times pop music critic, is going to be a staff writer at The New Yorker! Now he and the S.F.J. can totally duke it out over the Lil' Mama and Britney coverage. Loving it! Also moving to 4 Times Square is New York magazine writer Ariel Levy, of whose work we are also big fans.

Margaret B. Jones's (not her real name!) Love and Consequences, a memoir about coming-of-age as a penniless, abused foster child in the L.A. gang the Bloods was -- wait for it -- a big, fat lie. Girl got Michiko Kakutani creaming over her writing last week, and she's a stone-faced bullshit artist. Oh, the many ways in which she could have handled this differently. Peggy, did you ever think about writing a non-fiction book based on your friends' accounts, instead of, we don't know, passing them off as your own?!

Remember when we freaked out over that Sloane Crosley profile in the NY Observer? The Most Popular Publicist in the World is back, and her new book is about to come out. The hype machine is nearly short-circuiting itself over her tome? You don't say! We're still really, really excited to read it, though. This is the first personal essay Sloane published, in the Village Voice, and it's very funny and good, so we guess the blurbers are all right. We like her. We can't help it. Please let her survive this ugly process of the build-up and the backlash.

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by Sharon Steel | with 2 comment(s)
March 03, 2008

The New Yorker reviews Gossip Girl

Er, more specifically, JANET MALCOLM has reviewed Gossip Girl, and we're talking about the book series by Cecily von Ziegesar, not the television series by Josh Scwhartz. Oh, we are completely losing our shit over this review. It is three pages long online, although we would be so happy if it were longer, and that Malcolm did succumb against her own will and "go on telling Blair stories until they are gone..." The piece is so full of delicious bits we're pretty much at a loss. We would cut and paste the entire thing here just to satisfy our need to have it preserved somehow, but instead we elected to simply link to it and cut out the clip from our print copy and file it away in our file folder of amazing stuff. But just because we really can't help ourselves:

Von Ziegesar uses the technique of narration through interior voice with all her major characters, but when she gets into the id-shaped mind of Blair Waldorf she crosses a kind of boundary. Blair is both a broader caricature and a more real person than the others. Her over-the-top selfishness and hatefulness has the ring of behind-our-masks-we’re-all-like-that truth. And among her malevolent internal mutterings lurk some of the series’ funniest lines. When her mother marries Cyrus Rose, for example, and proposes that Blair reconsider her refusal to take his name, Blair’s inner voice growls back: “Blair Rose? No thank you. It sounded like the name of a perfume made especially for Kmart.”

Even though the books are about a hundred years old in terms of newsiness and timeliness, it really doesn't matter because of how elegantly Malcolm dissects them here. We wish we were her, pretty much.

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by Sharon Steel | with no comments
On The Phoenix's books blog, we obsess over literature so that you don't have to. Reviews, readings, news, and literary gossip. Levar Burton might not have wanted you to take his word for it. But we do.
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