Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap

A confession – I haven’t read much about Australia.  To be completely honest, I’m a hopelessly provincial reader – sticking mostly to the US, with only the occasional foray to Europe, Latin America, and Canada.  I’m working on it, okay?  This is all to say that I am incredibly lucky that Christos Tsiolkas landed on a panel I was moderating for the LA Times Festival of Books, as it put his tremendous novel The Slap before me in a pressing way. The premise of The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Novel of Southeast Asia and Australia and is now longlisted for the Booker, is deceptively simple – at a suburban barbecue, a man slaps another couple’s child.  The beauty of the novel is how that slap, that one moment, reverberates through the lives of the dozen or so people who witness it.  The structure is remarkable for both its simplicity and its dexterity.  As opposed to a Rashomon structure, in which each character tells their (differing) version of the events, Tsiolkas uses each chapter to further advance the story.  But like Rashomon, each new character offers us a different perspective, not so much on what happened, but on what it means, for the characters themselves and for Australian society. Make no mistake, The Slap is a social novel, a snapshot of the Australian middle class – prosperous, self-obsessed, and maybe a little bit complacent.  Indeed, it’s one of the many miracles of this book that a small personal incident can reveal so much of a culture and a country.  Like a highly erotic Cheever novel, The Slap skewers the middle class while giving them their humanity and even, at times, a bit of sympathy.  The portrait Tsiolkas paints of Australia – richly diverse and yet mired in deep-seeded racism, prosperous but divided along subtle class lines – is endlessly fascinating.  It is further evidence that I do, in fact, need to get out more.

Better Book Titles

Did you think the title of the most recent book you read could've been improved if it had been a bit more straightforward?  Then Better Book Titles is for you.  Among their more inspired retitlings:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Gay Jewish Magicians Kill Nazis), Blink (Everyone is Racist), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (The First Book I've Read in Six Years).
Sport, The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Tom McAllister

At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as "the ultimate Philly guy."  No  wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop.  But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey.  His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life -- his father and the Philadelphia Eagles -- have shaped him as a man and as a writer.  As Justin Cronin says, "Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it."  A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves. The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book.  It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game.  From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement.  Was this always how the book opened?  How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening? Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review.  I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on.  Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly. I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons.  First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things.  In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better).  Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book.  It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish. Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan.  That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season.  That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish. TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel? McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative.  There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians.   People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot.  And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed.  But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home.  So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.” When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me.  Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project.  If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest.  I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves. TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting).  How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom?  What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans? McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical.  The relentlessness of the news cycle means there's a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle).  Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there's suspicion of performance enhancing drugs.  It's harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they're seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who's been accused of steroid use, etc. Not that it's bad to expose corruption.  It's just very different. TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person.  You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods.  But you don’t actually talk to either of them.  Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently? McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet.  There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people.  But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want-- including athletes' Twitter and Facebook pages-- so it's not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you're already friends with each other, in a way. By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on.  So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something. Same deal with Sheldon-- he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra.  I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access.  The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys. The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they're waving to me from across the street. TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship? McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people.  No matter what crazy thing you're interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation.  You can know that there's someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game.  There's an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge.  For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you've still got an outlet to talk to someone.  At least you know you're not completely alone. TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would.  Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world? McAllister: Surprisingly, yes.  Not so much re: my dad’s death.  I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar. But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes.  I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype.  I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday.  I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss.  But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system.  I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays. I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season.  I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox.  It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit. For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium.  It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss. TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard.  It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals.  How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias?  Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing? McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.”  They say, “I’m not really into football.  But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me.  One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation.  Often, they don't believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on. Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily.  Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he's mocked and his priorities are questioned.  Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn't trust someone who seemed a little too smart. So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.”  I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There's a perception that sports writing equals bad writing.   It's not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated. Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing.  On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection. If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be. TM: Agreed, it should be.  I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do).  I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood.  It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people.  Where should they shelve that? McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me.  I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn't know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA.  About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!” Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge.  Actually, I wouldn't mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway.  Not to horn in on David Shields' territory, but it seems to me that they're much more similar than we often like to admit.  Maybe I'm thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer's amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction.  But that's all a bit ambitious, perhaps. TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa).  In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too "uppity," etc.  At this point, do you think he’s done?  Too banged up to win?  Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback?  (Full disclosure:  I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.) McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly.  I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship.  When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship.  So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move.  I don't know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era.  He's not as good as he was-- too inconsistent, too streaky-- but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point. But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do-- a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people's reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history.  The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person.  He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him.  If he weren't a Redskin I would wish him well.  But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.

New York City Pub Crawl — This Thursday!

For those in New York City this week, Goodreads is hosting a literary pub crawl around lower Manhattan this Thursday night starting at 7 p.m.  Millions contributor Emily St. John Mandel will be joined by fellow authors Colson Whitehead and Amy King for a reading at Housing Works.  After that, the group will decamp for Botanica and Tom & Jerry's before finishing the evening at KGB Bar.  The event is free (though the booze will cost you).

Fuck Yeah, NYRB

Who says publishers have weak brands?  Someone loves the NYRB Classics so much they started a Tumblr blog about them.  It is called, appropriately, Fuck Yeah NYRB Classics!

Long Live Books!

Do you have an ereader but miss the look and feel of a gorgeous hardcover book?  Do you want people to think you're all about print when in fact you are riding the digital wave?  Then you simply must get this incredible Book sleeve for your iPad, Macbook or Kindle.  (Via Peter Knox's tumblr blog)
Notable Articles, Screening Room

Nobody Wants to Go Home: A Unified Theory of Reality TV

I. In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment.  It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star.  It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying.  No, I'm not talking about the internet, I'm talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television.  Reality TV was supposed to devour television.  It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades.  Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war.  These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form.  They were the beginning of the end of the world.  Except that they weren't.  They didn't really do any of the things they were feared to do.  And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous. We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade.  We've largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions.  We're scapegoating Twilight now, and we're all terrified of the internet. Or we're terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet.  Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter.  We've all moved on to Twitter.  But it wasn't too long ago when none of this seemed possible.  It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end.  It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them. II. MTV wanted to make a soap opera.  Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours.  America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up.  Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations -- the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world -- while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day. MTV had tried a few different things to kill time -- most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety  -- but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture:  the eternal fountain of disposable income.  MTV's dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show.  Their solution was brilliant -- they'd simply make a show without actors or writers -- two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera. The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement:  "This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real."  That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World.  Not only is it the longest running program in MTV's history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today. III. The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today's most successful scripted programming.  At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan.  A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts.  The casting logic of the show was fairly simple:  find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure.  In this way, the cast member's situation wasn't unlike that of today's bloggers and vloggers -- they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career.  For some it did; for others, not so much. The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension.  We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate.  This balancing act -- with help from some racial tension -- blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show.  In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show. Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years.  It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation.  The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment.  The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show's premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws.  It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time. The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more.  Again we saw characters who desired fame and success -- singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon -- and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension.  This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David "assaulted" Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear.  For this crime -- something kids at camp do every summer -- David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely. Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting.  Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke.  While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it's pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn't a big deal.  It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import.  One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami's request for safety and removed David. Secondly, it's no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men.  The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded.  Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show's run. While the house may have been split on David's departure, the audience ate it up.  Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season.  This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was.  No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid.  The producers' disgust with Jon must've been intense.  How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything? If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it.  When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree.   Here, long before the phrase "voted off the island" became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come.  If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode? Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four's setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own).  In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still).  The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house. IV. It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt.  Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives.  The emotion on the show seemed real.  When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible.  There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling.  Something might happen; this was the "real world" after all.  (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way.  One has to imagine the network wasn't pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.) In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur's dream.  These people were fascinating!  Watching them do the most basic things -- eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed -- felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique.  Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did. And when they revealed something unique about themselves -- such as Heather B.'s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson ("Larry Johnson is so fine!") -- it was revelatory.  Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument "Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?"  That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence.  It's certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world. Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with "reality" didn't last.  A few things broke the spell.  For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real.  Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked.  The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be.  They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go. This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show.  It can't be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase "here for the right reasons" on their own, can it?  Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America's Next Top Model learned to scream "Tyra Mail!" every time the show's producers drop off one of their cryptic missives.  In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted.  They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as "Nobody wants to go home," and "I'm not here to make friends," but the result is the same. For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable -- if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance.  It's affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner.  And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly "This is real, okay?", all the better. For other shows, the effect is less desirable.  Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of "reality."  It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine.  It's no wonder that the show's "characters" seem to burn out after a few seasons.  It can be difficult to keep up the illusion. At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real.  Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking.  Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.  The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing.  It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation. The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn't unique to The Real World.  Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was).  Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements.  Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America's Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World's great revelation than American Idol has:  that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking).  Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process.  In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies. The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal.  Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we'd already watched them do something.  Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape).  The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called "anthropological shows," programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead.  Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this.  Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows.  Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to. Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character.  One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing... well, anything.  With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence.  Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse -- think about the craze created around The Situation's summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) -- but it's not like it was.  For a few years there, watching people's lives was all we really wanted to do. V. Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours.  That isn't to say that reality TV's influence isn't felt in a variety of programs.   The confessional, perhaps The Real World's most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom.  The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address.  These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama.  They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV. It's difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television.  My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real.  After we'd seen that, reality was dead, so to speak.  We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves.  HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire.  These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen.  Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age.  Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24. It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of "quality" scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case.  Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom.  Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV. If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it's no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation.  Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon.  As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist.  In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right:  "There is no new thing under the sun." [Image credits: MTV]

Sleep Talkin’ Man

"I can't control the kittens. Too many whiskers! Too many whiskers!" A woman writes down everything her husband says in his sleep.  Why isn't this on Twitter?  (via

Off Campus Housing: Richard Rushfield’s Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost

This is the first book review I've written in nearly three years, since I hung up my reviewing socks following a stint at Publishers Weekly's online division, where I was paid handsomely in American currency to review books about sports and music.  Those books were assigned to me based on a rough affinity for the subject matter.  I liked baseball and Phil Spector music and funny writing, so I was assigned books about baseball, Phil Spector and the music industry, naturally. Despite my purported interest in the subject matter, however, I often disliked the books assigned to me.  Perhaps this was a residual effect of years of assigned reading at school.  These books, looming over my reading list like a colonoscopy, found me angry and tired.  Still, I gave them a fair shake.  A few rose above to really impress me.  Others offered diversion or momentary entertainment before lapsing into unrelenting mediocrity.  Several were nearly too dreadful to finish. When I reviewed books, I tried to find their best qualities first.  To do so, I often imagined a book's ideal reader.  Every book, after all, has its intended audience, and maybe an underemployed, poorly paid book reviewer wasn't it.  Perhaps somebody else, someone with a different background and no taste, might find merit in a memoir about the early days of off-shore gambling.  Stranger things have come to pass.  Still, it seems rare that a book finds it ideal reader, and rarer still that said reader is also in a position to write a long and self-referential review of it. Occasionally, though, God reaches down and places the right book in the right reader's hands.  Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when I received a new book in the mail.  In this particular scenario, however, God was a New York publicist named Kate. This prelude exists largely to explain why you might not like Richard Rushfield's memoir Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost as much as I did.  You might not be able to access its bleak, wintry setting.  Perhaps the events of the narrative, the college experiences of the wayward young Rushfield, won't appeal to you.  If so, I understand.  Maybe you went to a state school. On the face of it, Richard Rushfield and I are not that similar.  I went to a competitive academic school in the late 1990s while Rushfield toiled (figuratively) at weirder-than-thou Hampshire College in the 1980s.  I made friends relatively easily and dragged myself to class with frequency.  Rushfield joined an infamous band of outsiders, The Supreme Dicks, eventually achieving full pariah status in only a few years.  And yet, of all the people in the world who might read this book, none would enjoy it as much as I.  For one thing, I love campus literature.  My favorite novel is Lucky Jim, and my favorite Updike story is "The Christian Roommate."  I also enjoy books whose characters simply can't get out of their own way.  Toby Young (who blurbed this book, I notice) wrote an excellent memoir in much this fashion, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.  There's just something about people lighting themselves on fire, I suppose. Rushfield begins to self-immolate almost immediately upon setting foot on the Hampshire College campus.  Located in Amherst, Massechusetts, Hampsire is part of the five college system, along with Amherst, UMass, Smith and Mount Holyoke.  It's committed to alternative education, meaning it gives no grades and offers its students the opportunity to craft their own education around the subject matter that interests them.  It's this freedom that attracts him.  Well, that and the promise of a single room. Hindered in part by his aversion to marijuana, Rushfield has some difficulty navigating the social world of Hampshire, with its abundance of Hippies and "Preppy Deadheads":  students who came from elite prep schools but embraced aspects of hippie culture, such as hackysack, the Grateful Dead and dreadlocks (another term for this demographic is the Frisbee Elite).  Rushfield drifts along on the periphery of the school, skipping nearly every class and living a mostly solitary life. When he's caught scrawling some graffiti on someone's Bob Marley poster, he's exiled from the dorms and forced to find a new place to live.  He turns to The Supreme Dicks, the most reviled people on campus. It's here that the book hits its stride, finding its heroes and establishing a rich mythology that few memoirs ever achieve.  One part commune, one part experimental post-punk band, The Supreme Dicks live in one of the college's modular housing units deep in the woods.  From their remote location, they operate as their own world, complete with its own philosophy, a bastardized version of the teachings of Wilhelm Reich. Richard, it turns out, had been warned about the Dicks from the very beginning: Back in my first week at Hampshire, Lonnie had taken me aside, in his characteristic manner that was the more terrifying for its seeming concern that he was anxious for my safety, and warned me that there was a group of evil, despicable people at the school.  Horrible, dreadful, terrible, he said, spitting adjectives until he was gasping for breath.  He didn't want to scare me but he had reason to believe that these people, who called themselves "the Supreme Dicks," might try -- he kneaded my shoulder with a caring hand -- might try to talk to me.  You see, he continued, he had noticed that I bore a resemblance to one of them -- one of their leaders who had left the school after, Lonnie went on, eyebrow arched, his brother had died...My heart raced.  Weird people, with some tragic secret, will want to talk to me? Talk to him they do, and eventually Rushfield takes refuge in their ranks.  It's there, in the woods, that he discovers that life with the Dicks is a surreal and often directionless experience.  For instance, roughly thirty pages is given to describing a night when the group, hungry and cold, plots a trip to the new Denny's two towns over.  Despite a mounting panic about whether they'd have anything to eat that night, their inability to organize an expedition, even in the face of hunger pains, takes on an hallucinogenic quality, as they wander around the campus like Bedouin scavengers, looking for the path of least resistance. To pigeonhole the Dicks as anti-hippie would be to simplify a mysterious movement, a group composed of people from across the racial, sexual and generational spectrum (several of the Dicks are approaching their second decade as Hampshire College students when the book begins).   One couldn't rightly call them nihilists, as they have a core of beliefs, what with their Reichian theories and their belief in celibacy and vegetarianism.  And yet, they seem to oppose more or less everything and everyone else.  And therein, I think, lies the greatness of this book. At its heart, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost is a memoir of opposition, of resistance.  Rushfield and the Dicks position themselves as the "other" at a school that is all about embracing that which is different or marginalized, so long as that marginalization feels earned by genuine oppression.  The Dicks, a mix of rich and poor, white and non, straight and gay, defy easy categorization, and unsurprisingly, meet with scorn. That the Dicks emerge as the unlikely heroes of the book is testament to Rushfield's storytelling abilities.  He has talent for exposing the hypocrisies and idiocies of the typical Hampshire armchair revolutionary.  The more the college slides further and further into left-wing, politically correct fascism, the more Rushfield and his friends seem like the voices of reason. Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost contains many elements of the typical college narrative:  the confusion of orientation, the perils of dorm life, the relationships formed and dissolved in a matter of days or hours.  There's even a ridiculously ill-conceived trip to Daytona Beach for spring break.  But nothing at Hampshire happens as one would expect.  Every situation is coated with a thick haze of drugs and radical politics, rendering it both familiar and foreign at the same time.  The effect is a small, messy, often infuriating world, a world I nevertheless enjoyed inhabiting for a few hundred pages.  By the end of the book, I found myself agreeing with the graffiti Rushfield finds in the library soon after arriving at Hampshire:  "Supreme Dicks rule, OK."  But then again, they're preaching to the choir with me.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Patrick Brown

Stoner, by John Williams, is not only the best novel I read this year, but it's among the best I've ever read.  It is also, I think, the sort of book that people aren't writing right now.  It's a life, from the moment when its protagonist Bill Stoner really comes alive in a sophomore English class at the University of Missouri through his career as a professor of English there.  About halfway through the novel is one of the best scenes I've ever encountered in a book.  I don't want to describe it too much here, as discovering it is one of the pleasures of the book, but I think they should teach it in writing classes everywhere, as it really is a perfect scene.  In fact, Stoner is a perfect novel. My requirements for non-fiction are pretty high:  I want  the book to challenge my worldview, or my view of something, at least.  Few books have done that as thoroughly and marvelously as Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky.  A book about "organizing without organizations," HCE (literary types will catch the reference to Finnegan's Wake) chronicles the changes taking place across media, politics and social interactions as a result of the internet.  From protest movements to software engineering to newspaper reporting, Shirky shows how much things have changed in the last ten years, and more importantly, why.  The book is so smart and so successful because, at its heart, it's a work of sociology rather than a book about technology.  As Shirky states, "Technology doesn't get sociologically interesting until it becomes technologically boring."  Here is a book that made me rethink many aspects of how I do my job and also about how the some of the things I value in this world -- good books, for instance -- might be produced in the future. (As an addendum, 2009 marks the first year that I read an ebook.  I read Here Comes Everybody entirely on my iPhone.  My suspicion is that I'm not alone in venturing into the ereading frontier for the first time.) More from A Year in Reading