It’s been a full week, which means you’ve had to time to digest the half-season finale of AMC’s Mad Men. But before you dive into the works on our Mad Men Reading List while awaiting the premiere of the next half-season, you should take some time to read Phillip Maciak’s incredible recap and analysis of “Waterloo.”
“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines.
Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry?
That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash.
But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens.
Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing.
Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture?
It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who “play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be childrens’ librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification.
I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations.
1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn’t have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward!
2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath).
3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling…shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here.
4. In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” His contributor bio is as follows: “A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic.” Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here.
Can you add to the list in the comments?
Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr
I first came across the work of Teddy Wayne in his debut novel, Kapitoil, the story of a Qatari computer programmer living in Manhattan. Daring in subject matter yet impeccably relatable in its concerns — how does one live well? — Kapitoil marked the arrival of a new voice in fiction with something important to say about our relationship to not only the complex machinations of the stock exchange but to pop culture as well. Now, Wayne returns with his sophomore effort, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, a coming-of-age novel about a tween singer in the vein of Justin Bieber. Once again, Teddy Wayne examines the role pop culture plays in our lives. Who creates it? Who benefits from it? What is its effect on us? In January, I had the opportunity to read with Wayne in Manhattan, and almost immediately after, we set up this interview to discuss some of these questions.
The Millions: The lame cliché writing instructors often tell their students is to avoid dropping pop culture references in their work so that it’ll be more timeless. Yet both of your novels are steeped in their time and place. Kapitoil touches on fantasy baseball and samurai flicks, and the plot hinges on the paranoid run-up to Y2K. Your new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, discusses Jonny’s music, his concerts, his Twitter feed, even his staged relationship with another teeny bopper. What is it about popular culture that interests you? Why do you think it keeps popping up in your work? And do you think the old advice about avoiding pop culture in fiction is old-fashioned or esoteric?
Teddy Wayne: David Foster Wallace got into arguments about this in graduate school, when he wanted to depict the heavily mediated space around him — subject matter his professors thought was inconsequential or un-literary. As he pointed out, he’d see hundreds of ads and commercials each day, and they constituted an integral part of his mental activity. Writing about this material gets pejoratively labeled “postmodern” or “experimental,” but what’s more “realist” than describing the physical world, even if billboards and 30-second spots replace trees and rivers?
Likewise, it misses the point to discard fiction simply because it’s about social media or the celebrity-gossip machine and not Iraq or divorce. By focusing on areas that seem marginal through a narrow aperture, you can sometimes render a much more expansive portrait of a country. I’m an advocate of critic Manny Farmer’s agile, industrious “termite art” (as opposed to bloated, self-important “white elephant art”):
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
Moreover, James Joyce and Jane Austen — and nearly all writers, ever — also wrote about the popular culture of their times; it just wasn’t called “pop culture” then. Disposable songs of the day frequently recur in Ulysses, for instance, including “What-Ho! She Bumps!,” which sounds like a Black Eyed Peas’ single.
Many Americans no longer have physical communities. We don’t know our neighbors or live in the same place for our whole lives; our kids don’t play together in the street; we don’t socialize in organized groups, whether in a house of worship or a bowling alley. What we do have is mass culture that binds us, so that two coworkers who have little in common can still discuss last night’s episode of American Idol around the water cooler. (And that ritual, too, is getting fragmented now that people watch television shows on their own time and the culture is further splintering into yet more tribes.) This has become our ersatz religion, and it’s important to document and analyze its effects on us.
TM: Even though The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is drenched in our tween-sensation, YouTube landscape, there are very few references to real life pop culture phenomena within the book. Jonny’s favorite video game sounds appropriately complex and plausible, yet it doesn’t exist. Jonny speaks about the artists that have influenced him, but they’re rarely, if ever, real-life singers. Even his hero, Michael Jackson, is only referred to as MJ throughout. What prompted you to go this route with the novel? Why create an entire alternate universe of pop culture for Jonny to exist in? And did you ever consider using real life singers and video games in the novel?
TW: I generally find it hacky when public figures show up fictionalized in books (or TV shows or movies) in cameos, because it lends itself to caricatures, unless the writer does something radically revisionist with the received persona (as Wallace, for example, does with Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak in the story “Little Expressionless Animals”). It feels like gratuitous name-dropping, in the same way that it annoys me when writers use a historical event, completely independent from the story, to ground us in time and place (the way Mad Men does far too much, for my taste).
So while Jonny and the novel refer to real musicians and songs throughout — from the aforementioned MJ and “Billie Jean” to The Clash and “Complete Control” — the two other musical performers who dominate the book are fictional: pop megastar Tyler Beats, whose career Jonny is trying to emulate, and Zack Ford, the front man for the Latchkeys, Jonny’s opening rock band. The late-night talk-show host who interviews him might strike some readers as similar to a real figure, but by naming him, it reduces the character to that sole possibility. I’d like the book to operate, as you suggest, as an alternate universe, both to preserve this potential and to invite in readers who have limited knowledge of contemporary music. Ideally, you should be able to enjoy this even if you stopped listening to new music after 1970.
A friend proposed I name the video-game system Jonny plays, but I declined to, for the same reason; if it’s a PlayStation, then it can be only that system, and the game Jonny plays incessantly has to accord to its real-life standards. Incidentally, the game, called The Secret Land of Zenon, is based off a real role-playing game series (does this make me sound incredibly cool or what?), Ultima, that I played for a few years when I was much younger. It’s always a catalyst for bonding — since I’m not in a bowling league — when I find out someone else has a nostalgic attachment to the same semi-obscure object from their youth. I got a lot of emails for a throwaway allusion to the “purple stuff” Sunny Delight commercial in Kapitoil.
TM: I also steep my work in the details of the era. My novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is set during the first Obama campaign, and the characters routinely voice their triumphs and failures on Facebook and Twitter. Even in four short years, the way people interact over social media is totally different. People don’t write things like “Teddy Wayne is answering questions for an interview” anymore, but they did back in 2008. So I’m wondering if you share my fear, that perhaps we’re dating our work by relying so much on the internet and pop culture. In Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he worries that his book will one day be “as outdated as a 1983 book about Fantasy Island.” I teach Klosterman’s essay about Saved by the Bell, and it’s always astounding to see how and if undergraduates can interact with it if they have no knowledge of the show. Do you ever worry about prematurely dating your book, or do you think it’s almost impossible not to date your work?
TW: I really like that Klosterman essay, having parlayed my years of committing every episode to memory into a single humor piece years later. Efficient use of my youth. And I’ll resist the urge to make a bad joke about dating my book by taking it out to dinner and a movie and we’ll see where the night takes us. I’ll strongly resist it.
My aim for this book, and my first one, was to capture something about the era it portrays (and in the case of Kapitoil, set in 1999, also the era it was published in) while doing my best to write a story that transcends the time period. It’s true that, 50 years from now, we won’t be using Twitter as we currently do, but we don’t ride in stagecoaches or believe in the Olympian gods, either, and plenty of those narratives remain relevant. Investigating your contextual surroundings confines you to that spatial-temporal sphere only if that’s your one concern. I recall reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis about Glamorama, in which he responded to concerns that its extensive cast of millennial celebrities might soon be outdated, as this list from the first chapter makes clear:
Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Sheryl Crow, David Charvet, Courteney Cox, Harry Connick, Jr., Francisco [sic] Clemente, Nick Constantine, Zoe Cassavetes, Nicolas Cage, Thomas Calabro, Cristi Conway [sic], Bob Collacello, Whitfield Crane, John Cusack, Dean Cain, Jim Courier, Roger Clemens, Russell Crowe, Tia Carrere and Helena Bonham Carter — but I’m not sure if she should be under B or C.
Ellis’s answer was that of course it would be outdated — that was exactly his point. (This seems like an easy point to make, but that’s another matter. When a novel’s major project is to expose the shallowness of the culture, it risks being equally shallow. Also, check out how outdated that New York Times page looks by now.) If your entire mission is to traffic in the there-and-gone minutiae of our culture, then, yes, I think you flirt with early obsolescence. If you marshal it as the trappings for a complete story, though, you have a chance to pinpoint exactly what it is about the epoch that is also universal.
It’s ironic, though, that we sometimes criticize contemporary work steeped in modern detail for its triviality, yet lavish praise on period fiction or entertainment with hyper-accurate attention to historical detail (again, Mad Men). To me, that sometimes also feels like the name-dropping of celebrities, or an occasion for the writer — or set and costume designers — to prove to the reader that he’s done his homework.
TM: This is a bit of a softball question, but it’s one I kept coming back to while reading Jonny Valentine. You seem like a very well-adjusted, adult man. What prompted you to write a book from the perspective of a prepubescent tween heartthrob? What is it that interests you about this world? What do you think it says about us as a society when Justin Bieber can go from a completely normal kid singing on YouTube to an overnight sensation recording tracks with Kanye West and the Rza? Does it say anything?
TW: You’d have to canvas my friends to gauge how well-adjusted and adult I really am. Though I’m not an 11-year-old, I certainly share many of Jonny’s anxieties, especially his professional ones. He gets nauseous before sold-out performances at corporate arenas; I get a few butterflies before reading in front of four people at a bookstore. He’s promoting his second album; this is my second book. He chronically masturbates in hopes of achieving his first ejaculation; I…never mind.
I’ve always been interested in child stars and prodigies. It’s a strange phenomenon, to have an adult mind or adult responsibilities but the restricted emotional comprehension of a child. We’ve had huge child stars in this country for a long time, ever since Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple in the 1920s and ’30s, and many more the last few decades, especially this most recent one. We’re fascinated by the contrast of outsized talent in somebody so small, and we impute qualities to them — usually angelic innocence — that may not necessarily reflect their private personae. And their histories are often profoundly tragic; I don’t need to list the examples.
I don’t know what the overnight-sensation trend says about us other than that we’ve always been a country fixated on get-rich-quick schemes and the dream that someone with power will discover us at the drugstore soda fountain and turn us into a star. The difference, now, is that nearly everyone has the potential to make him or herself famous for fifteen seconds (perhaps not minutes) — especially if you don’t mind public humiliation.
TM: How deeply did you research this world? In the acknowledgments section, you bring up some influential nonfiction books, but I want to focus on the music here. Did you go out and buy a bunch of tween albums? Did you listen to them incessantly? Do you have favorites? Did you listen to any while writing?
TW: I listened to more tween pop than I cared to, to get a feel for the public images but also the lyrics, so that Jonny’s own songs sounded plausible and not like satirical send-ups. But I also read some child-star autobiographies, from the somewhat more serious (Tatum O’Neal’s A Paper Life) to the semi-trashy (Drew Barrymore’s Little Girl Lost) to the propagandistic-advertorial (Miley Cyrus’s Miles To Go). And I read a number of tween-celebrity websites and magazines, sometimes in public, which can be hard to explain to onlookers.
I’m partial to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I think that would be the way to be an adolescent pop star: in a quintet, so that you’re among friends, even if everyone knows that just one of you will make it out alive (Mark Wahlberg, Justin Timberlake).
TM: On the surface, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine couldn’t be more different; however, they share some similarities. Both are told in very convincing first-person voices from characters with extremely different backgrounds from your own, and, reduced to their most basic levels, both involve young men finding their place in the world. Do you find it easier to write in first person than third? Did you ever attempt to write either of these books in third person? Is third person something you want to work toward in future novels, or do you not obsess about the divide between third and first as much as I do?
TW: I do find it easier to write in first person, when I’m able to stretch out the fullest possibilities of a character’s voice, which is the most pleasurable part of writing for me. I’m always drawn to ventriloquism, especially of characters with idiosyncratic speaking styles. This is not to say I won’t ever write in the third person, but reading first person typically inspires deeper empathy for me. It also feels like it best exploits the native advantages of fiction — interiority and subjective language — whereas film can sometimes surpass what third-person narration does. (Film can use voice-over, of course, but it’s usually clunky.)
Kapitoil didn’t sell in its first round of submissions, and several editors complained about Karim Issar’s voice, an English-as-a-second-language hybrid of technofinancial jargon and mathematically precise grammar. My agent thought I should see what it would look like in the third person, so I “translated” a page. It was lifeless, lacking everything that a reader might gravitate to in the book, so I stopped. (I did revise the last third of the book, among other things, which was a more necessary fix.)
TM: Kapitoil was released in April 2010, and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine will be published this February. That’s less than three years. How do you manage to produce so many pages? Do you write every day? Or are you someone who writes in quick bursts? Do you think your process informs the work you do? And finally, what’s next? Are you going to take some time off between books, or are you already imagining what your third novel will be?
TW: Before and after Kapitoil was published, I was slogging through another novel for about a year. I wasn’t having fun with it and the words were coming slowly; I think I produced about 100 pages. Then, one morning in October 2010, a friend emailed me asking if I had any ideas for a humorous book we could collaborate on. Without much premeditation, I suggested a parody of the pop-star autobiographies I would later go on to read for research. He liked the idea; an hour later, I realized it could make a good novel if I treated it with more gravity. I wrote 3,000 words that afternoon, a torrent for me. (I usually aim for 500 a day and am ecstatic if I get 1,000.)
Soon after, I signed up at Paragraph in New York, a writers’ room, and used an old computer with no Internet so that my only entertainment was writing the novel itself. I finished a first draft in six months, also speedy for me, and spent about a year revising until my agent tried to sell it (and then several more months of work with my diligent, brilliant editor, Millicent Bennett, after Free Press bought it). It was a lesson that if a project is proceeding torturously, maybe you should abandon it, and if something is coming (relatively) easily, it might be a good sign. I mix in a decent amount of freelance writing, too, so I try to write something most weekdays and sometimes on the weekends, though I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule. With fiction, I can concentrate for about four hours at a time; for nonfiction or humor writing, I can last much longer.
In the near future, I’ll be working on a screenplay with the writer Amber Dermont, author of The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control, and on a TV pilot with her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz. I have a vague idea for a new novel, but if the past is any indication, it will also be a bust (I finished a failed novel before Kapitoil, too). I look forward to referring back to this interview several years from now to tell an anecdote about the misguided novel I’d been struggling with before I righted my ship.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s Manhattan apartment is quiet, classy, tasteful. It is a symphony of stillness and neutrals in stark contrast to the constant motion, precise convictions, and easy chatter of the man who inhabits it. He apologizes for having nothing to offer but ice water, but is generous and forthright in his conversation. Mendelsohn is the author of two memoirs, The Elusive Embrace and The Lost, as well as a translation of the poems of C.P. Cavafy, a scholarly book about Greek tragedy, and two collections of critical essays, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken and the just published Waiting for the Barbarians. Previously the book critic for New York magazine, he is now a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He has a Ph.D. in Classics and is a professor at Bard College, and there is the air of the scholar about him. Yet his lean freelancing-and-grad school, ramen-eating days remain a favorite topic, as do current movies and TV shows.
I‘ve come to talk to Mendelsohn about that vexed and suddenly trendy topic, the current state of criticism. A piece he published on the New Yorker blog Page-Turner, “A Critic’s Manifesto”, in late August described his love for the New Yorker critics of the 70s and his views on criticism, so it seemed like a good starting point for our discussion, which covered that piece, both of his essay collections, Mad Men, Grandma’s noodle kugel, John Cheever, cultural mushiness, and Battlestar Galactica.
The Millions: I read “A Critic’s Manifesto” and thought, “Oh no! You wrote about all of the things I was going to ask you. There goes my thunder.” But I thought we could spend some time talking about the piece and what prompted you to write it.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, there was this flamboyant review of Dale Peck’s novel which I think people had mixed feelings for because Dale Peck has specialized in that theatrical kind of criticism. I don’t think many people were shedding a tear for him. Then there was the Alex Ohlin piece [both negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review]. Then there was this great outpouring in the literary community. The New Yorker emailed me and said do you want to weigh in on this? And I did. I thought the way the discussion was trending, should negative reviews be published, seemed so egregious. It’s like saying should I use half of my brain? But I wasn’t planning on writing 4,000 words. I just wrote it in one white hot sitting.
This is very important to me. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, and I’ll be doing an interview about one of my books and they will be talking about my criticism as a day job. And I laugh, because this is not a day job. This is what a lot of my mind inhabits. I thought there was something that wasn’t being said about what critics are or can be or what criticism is or isn’t and how it functions.
TM: There is a formula for criticism in the piece which says that knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment, with an emphasis on meaningful. What makes a critique meaningful? As you point out, a lot of people have opinions who are not really critics and there are lots of people who are experts on subjects who don’t write good criticism. If everyone is not really a critic, where is the magic?
DM: It’s a very interesting question. It is magic, it’s a kind of alchemy. We all have opinions, and many people have intelligent opinions. But that’s not the same. Nor is it the case that great experts are good critics. I come out of an academic background so I’m very familiar with that end of the spectrum of knowledge. I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a professional explainer of the Classics—when I first started writing whenever there was some Greek toga-and-sandals movie they would always call me in—so I developed the sense of what it means to mediate between expertise and accessibility.
You use the word magic, which I very well might make part of my stock Homeric epithet about criticism. It’s intangible, what goes on. I know a good critic when I read one.
It’s a hard thing to nail down, but that’s why I described it as a kind of recipe. Look, it’s exactly like a recipe. Three people can make grandma’s noodle kugel but only Grandma’s noodle kugel tastes like Grandma’s noodle kugel.
DM: There’s all kinds of intangibles and personality is one of them. Critics have weak spots and strong spots according to their personalities. I think good critics avoid their weak spots, the things you dislike for reasons that might not be totally kosher. It’s not supposed to be some august, abstract, neutral judgment. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s an engagement of a specific persona with a specific work.
What is vitiated in this project of criticism right now is the consumerization of everything. Everything is should I get it? Should I click? Should I not click? That’s not the point of criticism. That’s the point of the shopping channel. I’m not trying to persuade someone to go see a movie or to read a book. I’m talking to someone who is interested in that book about what I thought about it. So it’s very subjective and yet it has to ultimately have a wider appeal than just the subject. It’s very much like being a good judge in the legal sense. You bring a lifetime of experience and in the end it’s very specific to the case.
TM: That’s an interesting metaphor because what do judges write? Opinions. And what do critics give? They give their opinion. And it should be a meaningful opinion, and have something to back it up.
DM: Traction is the word I always come back to. It has to have a purchase on something. I like that idea of the opinion. No judge says this is the law of the cosmos. He says this is my opinion based on everything I know which should be a lot.
TM: Which is why good critics can take on a subject which they didn’t know about before and offer an opinion that ends up being meaningful. You talk about people having strengths and weaknesses but I’ve taken assignments on the basis of thinking, oh, that would be interesting to learn about.
DM: Yes. Because what’s interesting is your mind as applied to different things. As a reader of Lisa Levy I’m interested in the interaction between your specific mind and that specific thing. This is where the other secret ingredient of journalistic criticism—it can be a blog, it can be the New York Review of Books, that doesn’t matter—is you have editors. And I at the New York Review of Books have one of the greatest editors in the history of editors [Bob Silvers]. Very often some of the best pieces I’ve done, or the strongest pieces, to use Bob’s favorite adjective, are things I would have never have thought of for myself. But that’s what great editors do. They match up a writer with a subject. For example, I think one of the best pieces I ever wrote was about The Producers, the musical [“Double Take” in Broken]. I in a million years would never have chosen to write about The Producers. Bob was very insistent. And in the end it was fruitful.
The Mad Men piece [“The Mad Men Account” in Barbarians] was something Bob was insistent for years that I write. For the record no serious critic goes into a job planning to do a takedown. All I heard about Mad Men was that it was great. I watch TV—I watch more TV than most people, trust me. So I was excited. I sat in my bedroom watching with a good friend of mine and we looked at each other after three episodes and I said, “The love is not happening.” Then it becomes interesting. Why does everyone else love it but not me? That becomes the germ of the piece. To pick up on what you were saying before there can be a danger to staying in your comfort zone. It becomes boring. I honestly don’t want to write about many more toga-and-sandal epics. You’ve said what you have to say about a certain range of cultural products. You have your schtick, right? And sometimes you can just not have something to say. Bob wanted me for years to do a big piece about John Cheever.
TM: That’s interesting.
DM: When the Library of America volumes were coming out. And I spent six months working on this piece. I read every word of, about, for, and by John Cheever. For me it’s always a matter of working up a theory. In the end I didn’t have one. There was nothing I, Daniel Mendelsohn, was going to write about John Cheever that a thousand other people weren’t going to write. So I said this is a waste of your money. It just didn’t speak to me.
TM: You mentioned loving the New Yorker critics of the 70s and then elsewhere you named Henry James, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and Aristotle as critics who influenced you. Is there anyone else you feel like has molded you as a critic?
DM: You’re molded by the first people you encounter. I would certainly say Gore Vidal had a huge influence on me. The best thing about Gore Vidal was even when he was writing about something he knew intimately he never came off as academic. I still remember a piece he wrote about Montaigne. It was always conversational, engaging. It was like talking to a very smart person but someone who wasn’t an egghead. I don’t know how else to say it.
In terms of influences those early people—Andrew Porter, in the New Yorker, I learned more about music from him than I did for the rest of my life. Particularly opera, which is a great love of mine. And [Helen] Vendler. Look, not everyone is a Vendlerite. She has her own distinctive way of reading things and likes and dislikes but that’s not the point. She has a kind of voice. It’s always so interesting when these people who are so august reveal personal flashes. I still remember this thing she said when Jimmy Merrill died which made an incredible impression on me. That’s the kind of thing I’ve emulated. Your first obligation is to do your homework, obviously, read everything, but there is that subjective magic. It’s very important to reveal your feelings if you have strong feelings during a performance or about a person. You’re allowed to say I burst into tears or something. If it doesn’t do that to you, ultimately, why are you in this business?
Those were the people: Kael, Vendler, Porter, [dance critic] Arlene Croce, Whitney Balliett writing about cabaret. They just seemed to have authority. It made that an attractive idea: that if you worked hard enough you could have a kind of authority and speak in a way that other people who were not authorities would find interesting and not threatening. That’s something a lot of academics haven’t figured out. They’re interesting but they’re intimidating or they’re opaque or they’re talking to themselves.
TM: Or they are specialists writing for specialists.
DM: Which becomes a kind of crazy…
TM: Dog eating its tail.
DM: Exactly. It’s like the Cylons talking to each other.
TM: Are there works that you’ve reviewed that you feel differently about now?
DM: Now that’s a good question. That’s a question that should be emailed weeks in advance.
It’s likely to be the case that things I was enthusiastic about…on longer reflection the flaws reveal themselves. But that’s not a terrible thing. For example, I had to revisit Jonathan Franzen when I was writing the piece that’s in this book [“Zoned Out” in Barbarians] about his essays, which I found very revelatory. He is someone who strikes me as a novelist, and these essays are a smaller part of his output. I don’t think it’s where he really lives, and I think that’s a problem. He should be making novels out of them, not essays. I was working on that piece in 2006, but I had reviewed The Corrections when I was book critic at New York magazine which I had very much liked. When I went back to it I started to see things in The Corrections which I hadn’t picked up on the first time around that suggested a worrisome pattern.
TM: What’s the most controversial thing you’ve written?
DM: Certainly the Mad Men thing was just out of control. It took me a little by surprise. But that demonstrated the intensity of the phenomenon I was describing in the piece: that people are attached to this show in a way that transcends formal aesthetic dramatic considerations. It’s deeply emotional. I couldn’t believe how much stuff was coming back to me about it. I found myself having arguments with nineteen-year-old skateboarders in Seattle. But that’s great. If people want to argue, as long as it’s civil and intelligent I’ll talk to anybody about anything. That’s also part of your job as a critic.
Here again I would say my Classics background influences me because when you are a Classicist you are learning how to read a culture through more specific readings of buildings, tragedies, comedies, whatever. In that sense I think it can be your job not just to look at the text itself but to look at the cultural surround, which is why in a piece like that one is allowed to mention the action figures, the Sesame Street episode. This is part of it.
In a similar way I wrote about The Lovely Bones [“Novel of the Year” in Broken]. There’s the thing itself, then there is this incredible cultural event around it. I think it’s legitimate to include that. One of the good things about writing for the New York Review of Books is Bob doesn’t care that much about timeliness. So you can take something like The Lovely Bones—that piece was four months after publication if not more—and that allows you to do a different kind of review than if you were doing it for New York magazine and had to get the word out. I think those reviews might actually have more legs—Greater legs? Longer legs?—because they’re anchored in the longer cultural picture rather than in the moment. I won’t know until I’m dead, but it will be interesting to see if those pieces have a little more edge.
TM: Well, I think you’ll probably know in two years, five years, ten years, to some extent.
DM: Again, as a Classicist, you are used to taking the long view. I was once doing an event and somebody asked, “When you write reviews do you think of the feelings of the writer?” I said that I was trained to think of the writer as having been dead for two thousand years. It’s actually very good because then you focus on the work. You don’t want to be cruel or snarky but to take the work seriously. So that long view is an echo or inheritance from the way I was trained to read things.
TM: I was trained in an English department where I studied eighteenth- and nineteenth- century American literature so I have the same attitude. A certain detachment is welcome when it comes to criticism. And I write a blog called Dead Critics.
One of the themes I saw in reading both collections was a kind of reaction against sentimentality. You brought up the Lovely Bones piece where I think it’s very much present and in the Mad Men piece also, a certain maudlin—
DM: A kind of mushiness…
TM: Right, mushiness, that if it’s not predominant in the culture then that the culture seems to celebrate.
DM: Yes. I think that’s an excellent summary and I think that we are in a culture of a kind of reflexive celebration of everything and therefore you have to dig in your heels a little and resist. Especially if it’s an overwhelming tsunami of public feeling. Then it’s doubly your duty to use your mind, use your tools, and to dissect the object at hand and to look at it not coldly but coolly. You can find that you like it, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a negative or a destructive enterprise. I do think we’re in a sentimental culture and I think it’s making us a worse culture. I really do. Look, I’m a guy who wrote a book about Greek tragedy which is a very appealing form for me because there is no wiggle room in tragedy. You do things, you suffer the consequences. There’s something about the rigor of that that appeals to me.
TM: I’m curious as to what you think some of the other themes are in this collection.
DM: I think that what I call the reality problem is a big one. This idea of reality as subjective—obviously in the memoirs thing [“But Enough About Me” in Barbarians] it comes up and that was of great interest to me as I’ve written two memoirs. Certainly I would say that writing about the self is a big theme in this collection. If I were reviewing my collection a consistent theme—talk about The Producers, this is certainly the theme of that piece but it’s also the theme of the Julie Taymor piece [“Why She Fell” in Barbarians]—is how because of the seductions of pop culture interesting artists end up betraying themselves. Sometimes a disappointment is in an artist that I liked and somehow the work ends up betraying itself. Sometimes the sentimentality, the mushiness can end up making a work mean the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.
TM: It’s in the Alan Hollinghurst piece too [“In Gay and Crumbling England” in Barbarians].
DM: Yes. I think that’s happening to Alan Hollinghurst. It’s not a sinister thing, it just happens.
TM: I’m thinking about some of your positive reviews, like the one of The Master [“The Passion of Henry James” in Broken]. On the whole it is very positive but at the end you have that feeling about Colm Tóibín, that he’s on the verge of doing that. One of the themes that I found running through both collections is about a kind of moral failure, or people who face moral dilemmas and either make the wrong choice or have a failure of nerve. They can’t quite follow through on the promise of the work.
DM: Very few people can carry through an entire career the wonderful, momentous, originary strangeness of the vision that got them noticed in the first place. Hollinghurst is a great example. The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star are probably two of the most interesting novels of the past twenty years. But you’ve remained you, and the world keeps going. Very few people—and usually they are just very great artists, and I don’t use the word great lightly—are the ones who can just keep going. Picasso, Shakespeare, Balanchine, people who are just beyond time. What happens to most people is they start out, they’re subversive, they’re quirky, they’re interesting, they have a new way of dealing with a subject. It puts them on the map. But then, you know, you win a lot of awards, you have a house in the country…And whatever your edge was, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, you keep working. I did not enjoy The Stranger’s Child. Clearly, something had shifted. Art goes on forever but artists are mortal and careers have arcs and you get into a groove. It’s like what we were talking about before. Very few people transcend their position within which the moment that they live. We exist in time, as writers and critics and artists. It’s going to happen unless you are very exceptional. I think that’s an interesting observation about that as a theme. Probably because I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me. I’m sure someone is writing a piece about my book right now saying Mendelsohn has betrayed himself.
TM: One last question. Is there anything or anyone you are dying to write about but haven’t yet?
DM: The great regret that I have is that I would have loved to have written a really major piece about Battlestar Galactica, which I think is one of the greatest things to have ever been on TV. It’s extraordinary. I would love to take that thing apart. I thought it was so exciting and I was just evangelical about it. I think the most interesting thing that is going on in culture right now is television. There’s a whole Classical angle, an Aeneid thing going on, but also the Iraq war. People have discussed different aspects of it but I would come at it whole.
TM: I’ve never seen anything written about it that I thought was great.
DM: I also thought it was deeply philosophical in the real sense of the word. It made you think. It was an existential problem that was established by this genius idea of having these robots be indistinguishable from humans even by themselves. And they milked it. They dramatized it. That was my complaint about Mad Men. I don’t think the issues were dramatized. They were announced or advertised. But this existential, philosophical issue in Battlestar was dramatized. When the first officer [Colonel Tigh] realized that he was a Cylon and there was the scene between him and the captain. That was wrenching! That was drama. Then there is the religious thing, about monotheism and polytheism.
TM: There’s so many things. There is a psychoanalytic thing that is very strong, about are we our fantasies? Are we who we think we are? There’s a nationalist thing—
DM: The whole political angle, the civilian government versus the military government. It’s really gripping. And the acting was so incredibly great. From the minute I started watching it I thought I was going to die, I was so happy. So that’s my big regret. I really think this needs to be done. And I would like to do it.
For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.
It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.
That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.
In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).
With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”
And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.
For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.
I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.
Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”
“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them. Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.
Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.
It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.
Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.
But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.
Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?
Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.
I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.
The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.
And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.
This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.
I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.
To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.
Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.
This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.
There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.
What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.
My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.
I’ve never been a great fortune teller. For instance, I had the Dodgers and the Tigers in the World Series this year, and I was sure — sure! — that Avatar would win Best Picture at last year’s Oscars. But when it comes to spotting great book ideas, I’m Nostradamus. Or, at least I was when it came to Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. Just a day or two into the life of her now-hugely popular Footnotes of Mad Men blog — a blog that unpacks the historical and cultural trappings of the popular AMC show Mad Men — I predicted it would “have a book deal by the end of Season 3.” And it did.
To be fair, it wasn’t hard to call. Vargas-Cooper was already a rising star in the online world. Her smart and moving series on the Jesse James Hollywood murder trial was one of the highlights of the early days of The Awl, the kind of smart reportage/memoir hybrid that demanded attention and rightly got it. Her signature prose style — exuberant, tough, and daring — started popping up all over the place, from Gawker to The Daily Beast. By the time the news broke that she had a book deal, the only surprise I felt was that it hadn’t happened sooner. The book that came from Footnotes of Mad Men — Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America — a gorgeous paperback full of slick, glossy reproductions of photos and advertisements from the era, is out now. It is, as its blog predecessor was, a worthy companion to what many would call the best show currently airing on television.
The Millions: Take me back to the beginning. You’re watching the show, you’re already blogging and writing about all sorts of things for The Awl, for your own site. What made you say “I have to write about this show. This needs to be a blog.”?
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I think, too often I have the thought, “this needs to be a blog.” I was at a very bleak phase of my mid-twenties. During the summer of last year, I had a number of losses dealt to me in rapid succession, and in order to stave off constant wallowing, I started to rewatch the show. Its mood and details had me enveloped; I wanted them all in one place and I wanted to walk around in them, so naturally comes the thought: “this needs to be a blog.”
TM: And what made you realize it could be a book?
NVC: Mainly the call from HarperCollins that asked if I’d like to make this into a book. Originally, I thought I would just continue writing the blog as is and the book would be a collection of the writing but that notion got junked pretty quickly. The blog has a purposefully ephemeral quality to it. The book is all original writing conceived with the idea that these arguments need to be lasting (but not boring).
TM: The book is broken into sections by theme – the ad business, style, sex – and it strikes me as a particularly genius way of organizing it, since it allows you to address each issue within its context both on the show and in the time period. But it’s not how the blog is structured. How did you come upon that? Was there ever another structure in mind?
NVC: My first structure laid out the book geographically.
Manhattan (Sterling Cooper, advertising, professional life, men);
Brooklyn (the life of working girls, Peggy’s problems, scenes from the steno pool);
Ossining (Betty’s world, the domestic sphere, anything having to do with the kids, the lives of suburbanites);
Out There (the world at large, Kennedy, Los Angeles, Hilton).
That’s actually how I wrote the book, by trying to culturally map these places. I turned in that version and we decided it was a little too esoteric and indirect.
TM: That’s kind of brilliant, though, as the locations are so much a part of the fabric not just of the show, but of the time, as well. The opening section of the finished book gives an impressively broad overview of the advertising industry, circa 1960. In other interviews, you’ve mentioned research at CalArts, but it’s clear you also did a lot of reading. Who wrote the best of the ad memoirs? Where should people go next if they want to know more about that business at that time?
NVC: George Lois, the art director of Doyle Dane Bernach who worked on the Volkswagen campaign and went on to create most of the modern logos that are burned into our brains, as well as Esquire’s most iconic covers, has the best autobiographies because he’s really dishy while never giving up his tough guy style. You get all the swagger and war stories, but also a sense of how exciting it was to be a part of the creative revolution in advertising. David Ogilvy’s books [Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions of an Advertising Man] are also my favorites because he’s so austere and witty. Ruthless even.
TM: Another section of the book that I connected with is the chapter on Don Draper and his trip to California. A special circle of hell is reserved for East Coast film/TV people who move to LA to work in the industry and then make movies/TV that show LA completely inaccurately (Paging Greenberg). I thought Mad Men showed a pretty nuanced version of California — the hedonism of the wealthy in Palm Springs, the working class enclaves like Long Beach and San Pedro. Do you see California returning to the show in future seasons?
NVC: I hope so! Every time Don heads to the bungalow in Long Beach I go over the moon. Southern California should play a role in future episodes because more than any other city/region in the country, Southern California embodied all of the ideals that came to define the late 1960’s and beyond: youthful, informal, image-driven, ahistorical; a golden land of consumers.
TM: Let’s talk about Don Draper. I think he’s an interesting character, but he’s also impenetrable, and the show sometimes seems to want to do nothing but revel in his darkness. I get that he’s a sexy man (I understand the Jon Hamm fascination more than the Draper one), but what is it about him that makes him so compelling to so many people? Myself, I’m a Pete Campbell man. (You can imagine Pete Campbell saying that, if it helps.)
NVC: Yeah, well, Pete Campbell is a pretty extraordinarily conceived character; I like him when he’s at his most wolfish. Don Draper is appealing because he’s an existential hero, an alpha male, and sophisticated without being snotty. Don is faced with all the dilemmas of modern life, and all the achingly human ones. I think the tension between conforming to what your family wants from you and participating in some kind of social harmony with those close to you versus hoisting the black flag, going into full tilt nihilism, denying yourself nothing, pouring all your energies into trying to create something with vitality while the void looms is a conflict that exists in many of us. I think the way we see Don deal with those dueling impulses is enthralling. Pure drama, in the Greek sense.
TM: What do you make of the critiques leveled against the show, specifically those that Mark Greif presents in his piece in the London Review of Books – that the show doesn’t actually present any moments of advertising genius (Don’s “It’s Toasted” slogan had been in use since 1917, for instance), that the characters mostly lack dimension, and that the writers luxuriate in all the things we can’t do anymore (snap the secretaries’ bras and pound bourbon in the boardroom)? Any truth to that?
NVC: Ugh, gross! First of all I’m suspicious, actually, downright hostile to any critique that starts from the premise of a swindle; that the popularity of certain cultural objects coming from some kind of bamboozlement of its fans and that we need members of The Academy, like Greif, to parse the lie, is a bore. Also, while it might be a kicky-thrill for wall-eyed Brooklynites to revel in the un-PC nature of Sterling Cooper, I think it’s much less about back patting and thinking “Look how far we’ve come!” and more about wish fulfillment. That’s where the real kick comes from, a desire to fuck, drink, smoke, and behave badly with impunity. To the point about uninspired advertising: wrong! You are dealing with inherently banal products, nylons, cigarettes, cameras, hairspray; what’s incredible about the show is the allure Draper and Co inject into them, even tag lines that we’ve heard before are refreshed by the narrative Don develops behind them and all the psychological reasoning that goes into that narrative. Also, Don coming up with a brilliant pitch for every product for every episode would turn the show into some NBC primetime gimmick. I point to Don’s Kodak pitch as evidence of high art and Greif’s wrongness.
TM: Give me three predictions for the show (not counting your call that baby Gene is done for, as I suspect you might be right about that).
NVC: Don and Betty will hatefuck at some point this season. Sally Draper is going to mirror the social upheaval by being totally out of control. I see arson, adolescent lesbian — general terror. I think one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to bail because those boutique, scrappy shops had a very short lifespan. I see a Campbell vs. Sterling showdown. One of those guys will walk and be a rival. Maybe even Don?
TM: Will the blog continue for as long as the show does?
NVC: I think so. It still remains an impulse, to watch the show and catalogue.
TM: What do you think of the blog-to-book phenomenon? While I don’t think it’s right for every blog (My personal blog never, ever needs to be printed and bound), I think this project was a perfect fit for it, and I think it makes sense as a business move. There’s a built-in audience there (and doubly so in this case, because of the people who love the show who might not know about your book).
NVC: What I find puzzling about the blog to book phenomenon is that the focus has been on user generated sites when there are thousands of blogs that feature original content and commentary from a single author or a group of them. The appeal of user-generated content is that it’s constant, instant, and evolving. These are elements that are the opposite of what books offer. I think there’s plenty of room for all sorts of books; the way they are conceived is beside the point. Nevertheless, I would like to see a book from Ivy Style or This Recording or David Bry’s Public Apology column from The Awl those are endlessly more fascinating than a collection of aloof hipster pictures with sarcastic captions.