For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I've been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I'm at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, "This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen..." The ugly truth, however, is that I've never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can't answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness... I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn - a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn - landed a recurring role as Blair's mother's boyfriend. "The life of an actor can be very enviable," Shawn told the New York Times this week. "If the phone rings and somebody says, 'I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads... I think that's fantastic."That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl's centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker's role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW's role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I'm tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
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"Is starting a literary magazine a gamble?" editor Sean Finney asked a crowd of inebriated sophisticates and sophisticated inebriates at the NYC launch party for Canteen. The answer was lost in a wash of drink orders. Even if it turns out to be "yes," though, Canteen seems well positioned to walk away with a few chips. I'm not just saying that because publisher Stephen Pierson is funding this operation with his winnings as a poker pro, or because I contributed a story to the debut issue. Or okay, probably I am, at least partly. Still, Canteen offers readers an unusual mix of personal essays, fiction, poetry, and contemporary art.Andrew Sean Greer's remembrance of failed novels past and chef Dennis Leary's truly weird manifesto about the Restaurant of the Future are both funny and original. But careful attention to the visual is what strikes me as most promising about Canteen. Few literary magazines lavish such attention on full-color photography, painting, and illustration. Often, this is because editors want to focus attention on the text... and more power to them. But visual art and literature should have as much to say to one another today as they did in the heyday of Gertrude Stein. Finlay Printing, which used to print the late, lamented Grand Street, has produced a handsome successor. For more information, check out www.canteenmag.com.
Three and a half years ago in some brief comments on Michael Lewis' seminal memoir of Wall Street in the 1980s, Liar's Poker, I noted,While the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar's Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.In a remarkable piece for Portfolio magazine this week, Lewis revisits Liar's Poker amid the wreckage of Wall Street and readily admits that the book now seems "quaint," tragically so:I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they'd be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn't expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, "How quaint."And:In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents' world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?In the long piece, Lewis posits, convincingly, that the obit for Wall Street that he wrote more than twenty years prematurely is finally relevant, though rendered absurd by the cataclysmic collapse.The essay is a must read. In it he profiles a few who will, when the dust eventually settles, be known as - not the heroes; there are no heroes - the ones who saw it coming. And at the end he sits down with the legendary Gutfreund, whose career Liar's Poker ruined, for the first time since Lewis left Solomon Brothers back in the 1980s.Kottke also highlighted the Lewis article today and he points out that this essay is likely material (along with several others Kottke points to) for a forthcoming book that Lewis intends to write about the death of Wall Street as we knew it. There's little doubt that this new book will be the obit that Liar's Poker was meant to be.
1. Collaborating with another writer is something I've done only once. It was for a Washington Post Magazine cover article about the stock car racing legend Richard Petty, who was making his first run for political office in the fall of 1978. At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter in Greensboro, N.C., and after work I would drive the 22 miles to Petty's home with one of the paper's editorial writers, and we would spend the late afternoons talking with Petty as he drove his customized van along the back roads of Randolph County. Petty was always dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, cowboy boots and wraparound shades as he knocked on doors, flashed his famous thousand-watt smile and urged people to help elect him to the board of county commissioners. Naturally, Petty lapped the field. When it came time to write the article, my collaborator gave me his notes and disappeared. This delighted me. I was free to sit alone in my room using his notes and my own to write a draft of the article as I thought it should be written. My collaborator then made suggestions, some of which I heeded, most of which I ignored. The article appeared under both of our bylines, with mine before his, an arrangement that struck me as more than a little unfair. We also split the $750 paycheck down the middle, which struck me as enormously unfair. Afterwards I felt like the character Nelson Head in the Flannery O'Connor short story, "The Artificial Nigger," a young yokel who survives a harrowing visit to the big city of Atlanta and vows never to return. To paraphrase Nelson, my feelings about collaborating with another writer were I'm glad I did it once, but I'll never do it again. 2. My vow has remained intact for more than 30 years, but I recently learned about a group called NeuWrite that has forced me to reconsider my abiding disdain for the art of collaborative writing. The group began to take shape back in 2007 because a Columbia University neuroscience grad student named Carl Schoonover had arrived at a blunt realization. "Lots of interesting neuroscience research gets reported badly," he says. "And most scientists can't write for shit, myself included, because they don't teach you how to write in science grad school. The trick was to find writers." So after discussing the idea with his colleagues, Schoonover persuaded Stuart Firestein, the chairman of Columbia's biology deparment, to introduce him to Ben Marcus, who heads the university's Master of Fine Arts program in non-fiction writing. Marcus offered the names of half a dozen of his students who might be interested in collaborating with neuroscience grad students, and Schoonover took each of them to The Hungarian Pastry Shop near campus to pitch his idea. In early 2008, the group came together for the first time at an informal salon in the home of Firestein and his wife Diana Reiss, a psychology professor at Hunter College. "I think you need to develop trust for it work," Schoonover says. "We scientists are accustomed to collaboration. It's built into the scientific process. But the writers were very reticent, especially at first." As the members became more familiar and comfortable with each other, scientists started pairing up with writers and working together. Eventually the salon atmosphere of the meetings gave way to a classic MFA workshop format – members would bring in a piece of their own writing for the group to discuss; established science writers would be invited to speak; the group would read and discuss examples of high quality science writing. Schoonover wound up pairing with Abigail Rabinowitz, 32, who has since gotten her MFA and gone to India on a Fulbright grant to study surrogate motherhood in Mumbai. Rabinowitz had wanted to be a scientist when she was growing up, and the announcement that NeuWrite was forming in early 2008 caught her eye. "I wanted to find my way back to science through writing," she says, "and I thought this would be a great way to look at writing from a different perspective and possibly find new stories." Schoonover and Rabinowitz's first collaboration was on an article for Science magazine about a show at the American Museum of Natural History called "Brain: The Inside Story". "First, we heard the museum's directors speak about how they'd planned the show," Rabinowitz recalls. "Then Carl and I walked through the show together and shared impressions. If I wasn't sure about something, he explained it to me. Our impressions were very similar, even though we were coming from different backgrounds. We both felt the show wasn't organized visually as well as it could have been." Next came the hard part. "So we sat down together with a computer," Rabinowitz continues. "We both had a lot of notes, and we outlined the piece together. I had a vision for the introduction when you walk into a kind of spaghetti forest that represents the brain. Carl also thought it was a good way into the piece. Then we moved through the show, and that became the article's structure. I typed while we were both speaking – not trying to hone language, just trying to get basic ideas in order. Then I wrote the first draft until the halfway point and e-mailed the draft to Carl, who then edited what I'd written – not structure, but word choice and one factual error and some added information. Then he wrote the second half. He sent it back to me and I edited what he'd written. We both killed the other's darlings." More and more refined drafts went back and forth a half dozen times. Changes were tracked on each draft, and the collaborators spoke frequently by phone. The finished product possesses two things you don't always find in science writing: accurate, easily comprehensible information related in a style that's brisk and clear. The pair's next collaboration was an article for the New York Times about the emerging field of optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control electrical activity in specially engineered neurons. The technique is beginning to yield insight into such human disorders as Parkinson's disease and anxiety. Rabinowitz now feels that collaboration, though painful, is worth the trouble. "Ultimately I think it produced better writing than I could have done myself," she says. "Carl knows what he's talking about. If he liked something I wrote, I got the joy of recognition. But it can be frustrating too. I wouldn't want to write this way with most people I know, because it's hard and there has to be a good reason to do it. If you're writing with somebody else, you need to communicate very well." For Greg Wayne, a grad student in theoretical neuroscience and a member of NeuWrite, this hasn't been his first exposure to collaborative writing. Wayne and his brother, a novelist, had worked together on humor sketches, a form that's "incredibly amenable" to collaboration, he says. "With humor, there's a joke every line, and that can be edited immediately. Is this funny? Does that work? But if you have long, discursive writing, sitting at the same keyboard is much more difficult. I think novel writing would be just about impossible." Wayne collaborated with the writer Alex Pasternack on an article for Science magazine about a panel on artificial intelligence at the World Science Festival – replete with robot demonstrations, including Watson, the "Jeopardy!" champion. The experience left Wayne convinced that there are times when two minds can produce better science writing than one. "For the article we divided up responsibility based on what we know best," Wayne says. "Alex, as a writer, was going to look at social issues, how the public views artificial intelligence, how people think about a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie. As a scientist I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how the robots work. In the end, neither one of us alone would have been capable of writing what we wrote together." 3. Tim Requarth studied Spanish literature as an undergrad and wrote a book about his father's dementia before entering Columbia's neuroscience program. Requarth, who recently wrote a review here at The Millions of the neuroscientist David Eagleman's best-seller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, teamed up with Schoonover to help run NeuWrite. "I was a logical person to step in because I've had a foot in both words – science and writing," says Requarth, who has collaborated on articles for Science and Scientific American with Meehan Crist, who has just finished writing a book called Everything After, about traumatic brain injury. "One thing we've all discovered is that it works better if one person writes the first draft. Meehan and I discuss the ideas and arrive at a sketch, details to include, how to start. Then I sit down and write. Then Meehan does a first-pass edit, and we pass it back and forth until we're both happy with it. When someone reads your rough draft, it's like letting them see you half-dressed. It's about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process. In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work." Requarth is now working to start a second NeuWrite group that will branch beyond the neuroscience field and beyond the Columbia campus. He's recruiting students from other science disciplines at NYU and CUNY, as well as journalists. Another group is beginning to form in Boston. Schoonover is optimistic that the group's tenets will spread. "We're trying to make the argument to science editors that the best way to guarantee accuracy and avoid hype is by having a scientist involved in every step of the crafting of articles," he says. "Once we show that this collaboration between writers and scientists works with NeuWrite, we'd love to see it become routine. We're sowing the seeds for expansion." (Image: Christmas DNA from pagedooley's photostream)
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HarperCollins is trying a new model with an imprint that cuts out author advances in favor of a larger proportion of royalties and eliminates remainders (also known as returns) entirely. The industry has been debating the pros and cons of the move since the Friday announcement. As has been only sparsely discussed in the media, HarperCollins isn't the first to try this business model. Millions contributor Ben profiled MacMillan New Writing last year:No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it's not all upside. Not only are the writers' contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author's second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint "literary slave drivers" and "vanity publishers," and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it.And for a little more color on "remainders," a much despised element of the book industry, check out a post of mine from several years ago explaining the curious life cycle of the remaindered book.
I came across Narrative Magazine this weekend, which, if you register, offers a free online subscription. The magazine comes out twice a year and includes several short stories and novel excerpts as well as interviews, non-fiction, and classics. Under classics, the magazine has published work by Jean Stafford, Peter Taylor, and Ivan Turgenev. Recently they have also published a sizable chunk of the Rick Bass book I mentioned yesterday, The Diezmo. Once you've registered, go to the Archive page to see all the stuff they've got online.