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Topple the Top 10 List: The Millions Interviews Emily Nussbaum

I Like to Watch is the first book by Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker’s TV critic. It combines nearly two dozen of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning reviews with essays on subjects ranging from product placement to Joan Rivers, profiles of showrunners like Kenya Barris and Jenji Kohan, and a new 17,000-word essay on the question of separating the art from the artist in the age of #MeToo.

Nussbaum traces her love affair with television back to 1997, when an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the way she thought about the then-derided medium. She has spent the two decades since arguing for the once-unpopular notion that TV is an art form central to our culture and worthy of our attention and criticism. Since then, television has entered its current “golden age,” and Nussbaum’s side has won what she calls “the drunken cultural brawl” over the importance of TV. In the process, the best shows have slowly shed adjectives like “novelistic” and “cinematic” and earned respect on their own terms: as television. But along the way, she says, too many great series were ignored or met with condescension. And as innovations from TiVo to Netflix transformed the industry, the very definition of television itself became less and less clear.

Nussbaum and I sat down last month at a Park Slope café to talk about underrated shows, the downside of technological advances, and the benefits of Twitter. (And if you need a new show, she said she was looking forward to Season 2 of Succession; and she recommended Los Espookys, The Other Two, the most recent season of High Maintenance, and the final season of Orange is the New Black.)

The Millions: A key part of the case that you’re making in I Like to Watch is that we should be celebrating shows with female protagonists like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jane the Virgin and Sex and the City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In fact, in a piece about your book, Mother Jones said that you’re shaping an “alternative canon” for television’s golden age.

A lot of my female partners and female friends have loved those shows over the years. And honestly, I’ve ignored most of them in favor of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. So your book definitely gave me pause. I’m wondering: Do you feel like this part of your argument has been less successful than your larger argument, which is that we should be valuing TV?

Emily Nussbaum: Well, it depends on who you’re talking to. I think your experience is not unusual at all. And I do think that, to the extent that the book has kind of a pugnacious project, it is to say: Cast your attention elsewhere. So, I think that the point made in that Mother Jones piece about an alternative canon is true.

It’s not that I’m trying to put down certain great shows of the masculine antihero type. Several of them are among my favorite shows, including The Sopranos, which I have an essay on [in the book]. And I think The Wire is an extremely brilliant show. It’s not about creating a new hierarchy. It’s about exploding the false status anxiety and, to a certain extent, the gender bias that’s basically kept all of those [female-centered] shows categorized as “optional” shows that girls and teenagers watch. It’s like: topple the top 10 list, the anxious hierarchy. Look across the universe at different kinds of creativity, and find ways to celebrate and critique all of them for what they’re trying to do.

[The undervalued shows belong to] a bunch of overlapping categories. Some of it’s about gender, some of it’s about comedy, some of it’s about genre (like sci-fi), some of it is about shows that are bright and warm and deal with domesticity and romance—and that stuff gets coded female.

The main theme of the book is about celebrating television as television. And a lot of those shows that you mentioned actually fall into categories that people deride as particularly “TV-like.”

TM: Like the romantic comedy…

EN: Romantic comedy, sitcom, soap opera. They have arch or stylized qualities that I think people condescend to.

But I have to say, TV is not the only medium that this happens in. [Another is] books. There’s a major issue with male friends of mine who have literally never read a female author. It’s a real rancorous struggle.

It’s always a little shocking to me that some men that I know haven’t watched certain overtly great female-centered shows: Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, Lady Dynamite. It is a perpetual frustration for me. I hope that the book shames people into watching good TV shows. I’d be happy!

TM: It’s not that I haven’t ever watched any of them, but you have made me think…

EN: Not every show is for everybody. I mean, I don’t require people to love Sex and the City. Some people really don’t like that show. I get it. But part of my thing is to oppose the default condescension, and also the sort of stink of, “oh, that’s a teen girl show. I don’t want to watch with teen girls, because that’s somehow embarrassing…”

Sometimes I get frustrated when female shows are only compared to other female shows. Some of the pieces in this book are about trying to break the ghettoization of things. So it’s not like, ‘if you like Jane the Virgin, you might like Claws!’

[For example,] there’s a piece in the book comparing House of Cards to Scandal. Those are the same show, just done in an aesthetically different way—and one of them has a sense of humor. I’ve written a couple of pieces like that, that are basically just pointing out the incredible similarity of shows that people generally think of as in different categories. I think that’s a valuable thing for critics to do—to break the boxes that people have created for art, that keep people from seeing them in a bigger vision.

TM: There have been other books that have been so specifically trained on the male antihero drama as the epitome of the golden age. So it’s really helpful to have a book like this…

EN: You know, poor Brett [Martin] wrote this great book, Difficult Men. But then I used it as a teeing-off point for my piece [about Sex and the City].

TM: Which was totally fair.

EN: It was fair! Brett really treated those antihero shows as something that transcended television. And he had a very dismissive attitude toward a lot of the shows that I find artistically substantial. So his book ended up being a perfect launching point.

But Brett is great. He sent me a tank top that said “Difficult Woman.”

TM: Another thing you talk about as far as the way TV has evolved is that there have been these huge technological advances. You say that some of them were necessary in order for TV to have the ascension that it’s had—for example, the ability to pause and rewind TV makes it a text that can be analyzed. Are there ways in which you think these massive changes have been harmful?

EN: The fact that people tweet while watching things is ironic, because it’s overlapped with the expansion of visual ambition in TV. Historically, TV was not a highly visual medium, for economic and pragmatic reasons. It’s not as though people had the money or the ability to film on-location, or in idiosyncratic ways. If you were making a network show, you had to produce 22 episodes, you had to do them on sets, you couldn’t confuse the viewer. Recently, there have been these really beautiful and visually specific shows that have a lot of silence, that have different kinds of framing that never existed before. And this has coincided with people constantly looking at their computers while the show is on. So I do think that that is unsettling. Sometimes there’s a show that I think of as a very visual show, and it worries me that people live-tweet. (But on the other hand, I sometimes do that.)

One other thing: I love that streaming puts out whole seasons at once. There’s something powerful about being able to watch a whole show. But it also bums me out on several levels, one of which is that I’ve built my whole career on being interested in the unique looping relationship [between shows and their audience] over time, and streaming changes that. Another damaging thing is that sometimes you’ll have a great show come out, and people don’t know when to talk about it. Streaming has really rattled the ability to talk about shows in any kind of logical way, because you can watch them any time you want, and you watch all of them.

TM: As opposed to the kind of appointment television that used to exist 20 years ago on Thursday night on NBC.

EN: There is something beautiful about the episodic week-by-week model. It’s easy just to be nostalgic about things because they’re older, and I don’t want to fall into that. But the episode itself, as a thing, is definitely changed by the release of a 10-episode season. The way you experience episodes, without the pause in between—I think it benefits some shows and is actually worse for other shows.

TM: A couple months back, you posted a thread on Twitter about Friends and homophobia. You were talking about how calling the show homophobic was “short-sighted, silly & simplistic.” There were hundreds of comments, including a few from people who identified as gay, saw the show as children, didn’t pick up on certain nuances you were arguing for, and instead absorbed it as homophobic. My reading of your responses was that your perspective shifted a little bit. Is that accurate? And is that one of the things you’re intentionally using Twitter for—to have your mind changed?

EN: One hundred percent. Definitely. It’s not that I changed my mind about the point that I was trying to make—which was that adults watching Friends at the time perceived it in a specific cultural space. That show had pretty clear pro-gay bona fides in that period, because there were very few gay characters on TV, and that show had a lesbian couple. Several colleagues of mine, gay journalists around my same age, talked about their own reactions at the time: that it was thrilling to see a show set in New York in which gay and straight people were constantly acknowledging one another and had relationships. (That hardly seems radical now, but it was true at the time.) And to me, the jokes about Joey and Chandler, which read very poorly now to a lot of younger people watching the show, seemed to be making fun of Joey and Chandler for their insecurity. The target of the jokes was [straight] male anxiety about the increasing visibility of gay men.

But, yes, in that thread, several people were like, “I was ten or eleven when I was watching the show. And the message to me was that straight men, when they’re alone, are incredibly nervous about being seen as someone like me.” And I found that incredibly helpful. It did change my mind.

It definitely was a fruitful conversation—and that’s happened a lot on Twitter. It reminded me that TV always sends multiple messages to multiple audiences. What seemed, to a bunch of urban friendship groups in cities, like this sophisticated show making fun of straight men for their homophobia, struck gay children as this frightening representation of themselves as the source of anxiety and the butt of the joke. Both of those things can be true at once.

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

Of Lists, Generally

Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time — which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile — we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”

The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.

Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to — lists that not only collect objects but rank them — would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):

They are always incomplete — either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?

Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “best of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred — one can agree (Yes! Great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself — but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.

Of One List, More Particularly

We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, — as Gass knows — is fun.

We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.

Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant — logically, unfairly — that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.

Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.

Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.

To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirty-something and forty-something, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.

We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.

Can Anything Be Learned from a List?

For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections,  and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.

Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free — for better or for worse — with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.

Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list — a piece of potential evidence to mull over — seemed to increase the volume and the heat.

Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.

Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.

Of Lists, Personally

As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.

As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction — to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections — people who were, yes, moved by it — may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve — and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her — than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.

To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern — hype, backlash, counterbacklash — it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.

I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose — either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit — an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

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