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Michael K. Williams’s Charade and Redemption


Michael K. Williams, best known to some as The Wire’s Omar Little or Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White, talks publicly for the first time about his battles with addiction, and how his stint on the Baltimore crime drama coincided with some of the lowest points in his life. “I suffered from a huge identity crisis,” Williams says. “In the end, I was more comfortable with Omar’s skin than my own. That was a problem.”

The Great Taxonomy of Literary Tumblrs: Round Two

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[Ed Note: Don’t miss Part One and Part Three!]

Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.)

Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent “How-To” installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers.

So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed.

For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory.

Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One.

0. Shameless Self-Promotion

The Millions: duh!

1. Single-Servings

Book and Beer: The combination of everybody’s favorite duo will tease you from your office chair.
Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair?
Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions.
Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I’ve yet to find a match, however.
The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn’t say that.
Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana’s Infinite Jest.
Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify’d?) This is ongoing.
The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that.
Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets!
You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken “Choose Your Own Adventure” readers. It’s like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust’s eyes really suit him.
Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds.
Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more.
PBS’ This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox.
Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you’ll rival Howard Zinn in no time.
Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond.
Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader’s collection of twenty seventh pages.
Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design.

2. Requisite “F*** Yeah!” Blogs

Book Arts!

3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers

826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers.
The National Book Foundation: They’ll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you’ve got some time to get acquainted with the foundation.
The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I’ll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here.
The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation’s oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling.
Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace’s papers, you know.
The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super relieved when they finally found Rob.
PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center.
Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers.
Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities.
VIDA Community: The creators of publishing’s annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing.

4. Humorous

Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools.
The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them.
What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe.
News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.)
Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet.
Hey, Author: It’s like a Regina George’s Burn Book for the literati.
Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking.

5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs

Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.

6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines

Smithsonian Magazine: “Retina” consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine.
The American Scholar: Follow them. You’ll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties.
Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they’ve got plenty of both.
Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to Salon.com!
The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too.
Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy!
Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.’s new venture.
Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives.
Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways.

7. Publishers (Big Six) — Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher’s marketing team, but you’ll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site — just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post!

Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team.
Vintage Books Design: As they say, “vintage design from Vintage designers.”
Harper Books: The publisher’s flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr.
The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste.
Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard!
Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House’s literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint.
Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead!
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown’s paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible.
Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr’s multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book.
Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers.
Free Press Books: Let’s just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics.
HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too.
Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot.
Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing.

8. Publishers (University Presses)

Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.)
Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting.
McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is “America’s McGill.”
Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff.

9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones)

Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform.
Grove Atlantic: I’m not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite.
Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone.
Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich’s book (the one I recommended), so you know they’re good.
Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis.
Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog.
The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they “rescue.”
The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub‘s staff.
Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin’s legion of interns.
Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr.
Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature.
Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus “little” points because it’s run by their interns.
Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their “Sunday Rejections” posts seem promising.

10. Authors (Direct Involvement) — The Tumblr “Spotlight” list can be found here; it’s not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you’re sure to enjoy. I’ve listed one of each author’s books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors.

Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet.
Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Patrick Somerville: This Bright River.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods.
Roxane Gay: Ayiti.
Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?
Emma Straub: Other People We Married.
Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too.
Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case.
Miles Klee: Ivyland.
John Green: Looking for Alaska.
Alexander Chee: Edinburgh.
Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow.
Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Tao Lin: Richard Yates.
Dan Chaon: Stay Awake.
Christopher Dickey: Securing the City.

11. Authors (Indirect Involvement)

Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Chuck Palahniuk: Don’t forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses.
John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I’ll excuse myself now.)
Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times.
A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic’s best one-liners.
Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott’s got lines for days.
Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone.

12. Poets — As with the authors list, Tumblr’s poetry “Spotlight” can be found here.

Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator.
Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors.
Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He’s also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine.
Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It’s like the poet’s global travelogue.

13. Bookstores — I’ll list the location of each one.

Unabridged: Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.
Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
McNally Kids: Manhattan.
Skylight Books: Los Angeles.
Open Books: Chicago.
Emily Books: The Internet.
Mercer Island Books: Seattle.
Luminous Books: East London.
Politics & Prose: Washington D.C.
Micawber’s: St. Paul.
City Lights: San Francisco.
57th Street Books: Chicago’s Hyde Park.
The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia.
Tattered Cover: Denver.
Uncharted Books: Chicago.
Green Apple Books: San Francisco.
Taylor Books: Charleston, WV.

14. Libraries

Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation.
Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.”
Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL.
Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they’re reading.
School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts.
Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too?

15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks — Everybody’s favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform.

Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth.
Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_’s oeuvre.
33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read’s impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes.

16. Wish List

Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands.
Garden & Gun
Oxford University Press
More authors and poets!


[Ed Note: Don’t miss Part One and Part Three!]

Much Ado About Baltimore


One consequence of creating a beloved show is that you’ve got to deal with superficial paeans to it. David Simon has to know this, but he still seems cranky in this interview. Of course I’m not saying he can’t be chagrined by Grantland or Vulture’s recent TV brackets (which Simon singled out in subsequent remarks), but when he says he’s “it’s wearying” for people “to be picking [The Wire] apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like they were there the whole time or they understood it the whole time,” it’s a bit harder to take his side, and you feel like he hasn’t watched Erlend Lavik’s sophisticated and thorough video essay about The Wire’s visual style. Surely analyses like this (or Žižek’s, which we’ve mentioned before) deserve due credit.

‘There It Is’: Vietnam and the Generosities of Fiction

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“The life story of every American soldier who died in Vietnam.”

The idea came out of nowhere, just appeared in my mind and stayed, occupying my thoughts with visions of the enshadowed, marching dead. Every single man. The events of his life. The circumstances of his death. Page after page after page. A library for a lost generation.

The stories would be humble, detailed, and clear. “Clarence Rowantree was born in Boston in the winter of 1949. He was educated in Catholic schools, and he played halfback for his high school football team. He had a girlfriend, Cathleen Trencher. He got her pregnant their junior year. Plans were made for the couple to wed, but Cathleen miscarried, and was afterwards sent to live with a spinster aunt. Clarence never saw her again. He was drafted the summer after he finished high school, when he was working in his grandfather’s barbershop, sweeping hair into piles, washing combs, and refilling the bottles of tonic. He trained at Fort Sill and was stationed at Mutter’s Ridge, near the Laotian border. His friends in the service called him Rowboat. He was very popular. He could stand upright on his hands for an impressive amount of time, and would perform this trick whenever the guys needed a boost in morale. He was also the company’s unofficial barber, performing trims and shape-ups for when the brass came around on inspection tours. He died after stepping on a landmine while out on routine patrol in his eighth month of service. He was 20.”

The idea moved me greatly, and even though I knew the project would take a long time, I felt rallied by it, and full of energy, so I sat down and did some calculations, to see exactly what kind of commitment I was getting into. I thought that each man’s story needed a full day’s work, and probably more — but I used eight hours as a base figure for estimation purposes. I multiplied eight by 58,175 (the number of names on the Vietnam War Memorial). The answer came out at 465,400 hours. I divided that by twenty-four to get the number of days, and that number by 365 to get the number of years.

I hit the equals sign on my calculator.

The screen read fifty-three.

My mouth dropped open.



I leaned back from my desk and put a hand to my forehead, considering the implications. If I worked nonstop on this project — meaning nonstop, without stopping, at all, for anything, even sleep — I’d be finished in 53 years.

Take that into your heart and tremble at the meaning. If you spent just eight hours composing the life story of every American man killed in the Vietnam war, the job would take you over half a century to complete.

I ran these results by a friend of mine, and even though I was still goggled, he was far less impressed.

“It’s a nice image,” he allowed, “but it’s just a numbers game. You could do that with anything.”

“Anything?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “Anything where lots of people died.”

He was right, of course, and as soon as I started considering various death tolls (625,000 killed in the Civil War, six million in the Holocaust,  fifty million in all of World War II together), it occurred to me just how truly impossible a complete account of those killed in war can be, depending on the war, depending on the number of the dead. In this way, war is categorically different from other kinds of tragedies. When one person dies a tragic death, we seek consolation in the story of who that person was. The details of his life — his flaws and heroics, the people he loved and cared for, the work he did — all that meaningful information has the power to outweigh the fearful or horrifying circumstances of his death.

But when a thousand people die, or a hundred thousand, or a million, or fifty million, the magnitude of loss tilts the scales away from understanding, and toward despair, nihilism, and madness; because we can’t find solace or redemption in a million life stories: it’s absurd even to try.

What we can do, though, is to seek analogs, avatars — ways of distilling the raw, titanic information churned up by war into something relatable and human.

I’ll put it another way: If there were no such thing as fiction, we’d have had to invent it, if we ever wanted to make sense out of a thing like the Vietnam War.

All this was why, earlier in the summer, I set out to read three books on Vietnam: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Dispatches by Michael Herr.

Dispatches, a “New Journalism” account of the war, was the first to be released. It came out in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon. It’s an odd, free-wheeling set of stories, at times reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and William Faulkner, with the same pawky humor, fractured lensing, dreamlike narrative, and deliberately subjective attitude toward the underlying reportage. The haziness of the book’s structure grows organically from the material itself, as does the spookiness of it all, the eerie setting and unpredictable action. Herr pays a lot of attention to the superstitions of the grunts, because through them, the men seem to face and even endure their own unrelenting mortal fear, like the man who carries around a sock containing a months-old, uneaten oatmeal cookie mailed to him by his wife. Then there’s the fanatical Lurp, who makes this one chilling war story into a kind of Zen koan: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr speaks to another young man, a marine from Miles City, Montana, who checks Stars and Stripes every day, hoping to learn that someone from his hometown has been killed. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?”

The funky superstitions of the marines run parallel to their own black senses of humor and, because of this, Dispatches is at times spectacularly hilarious. Nothing sums up the book’s comic-terrifying take on the war — Herr at one point calls Vietnam a “dripping, laughing death-face” — better than this story from Ed Fouhy, another reporter, about a helicopter ride he took with a torpid, weary young soldier. Fouhy, trying to make conversation, asked the kid how long he’d been in-country.
The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.

“All fuckin’ day,” he said.
If Dispatches is Fear and Loathing in Vietnam, then The Things They Carried is Vietnam as MFA: a meditation on the craft of writing as well as a semi-autobiographical account of the war and the things it did to the author and his friends. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, is explicitly instructive. A story within a story, it presents a character in the frame-narrative who provides a running critique of the interior tale, arguing (Chekovianly) that each element of a story has to play some role in the central action, and that “clarification or bits of analysis and personal opinion” have no place in the tale: “It just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic.” Now, O’Brien knows this isn’t strictly true — after all, this same character makes his point by interrupting the underlying story O’Brien’s trying to tell. But that’s how people tell stories to each other in real life, and O’Brien is interested, perhaps more than anything else, in just that kind of storytelling — and with good reason. He thinks it’s how you survive a thing like Vietnam.

Take “Speaking of Courage,” for instance, a disturbing account of cowardice and grisly death, and its immediate follow-up, “Notes,” in which the author breaks through to comment on the construction of the previous story: its emotional core (a returning veteran’s simple need to confess about his failure to save a friend’s life), its dramatic frame (the story takes place as the vet drives around and around a lake in his hometown), and the symbolic counterpoint between the lake and the muddy field in Vietnam where the vet lost his friend. The vet’s need to confess is stifled by the warm, protective, polite cocoon of peacetime society, in which it’s not seemly to talk about the realities of war. Without an outlet, though, the poor man suffers, and ultimately takes his own life. In “Notes,” O’Brien tells us about the man’s suicide, but he also tells us that the prior story — at least, the part about the man’s failure to save his friend — was entirely made up. To get at the hard truth — that these guys needed to talk about what had happened to them — O’Brien had to tell a pretty big lie. That’s how you raise the stakes, he says. That’s how you make the drama that makes the people pay attention so you can show them what you know. That’s writing.

A final note: the direct incorporation of these technical aspects of fiction into the final product is something we might today categorize as “meta.” But there’s something natural, even inevitable, in their use in stories about Vietnam. They suggest a gruntlike impatience with the sleek packaging of professional fiction. In that way, they have an almost jury-rigged quality, as though they were thrown together under fire, and with all the guts still in full view.

Matterhorn (which I’ve described to friends as The Wire in Vietnam) follows a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas as he survives his first three months in the bush. Waino is a Princeton graduate who abandoned a life of certain professional success to serve as a combat marine, a decision he hopes will come in handy later on (Mellas wants a political career). Although at first the other grunts are suspicious of him, Mellas quickly settles into life at firebase Matterhorn, a hill on the western side of Vietnam, close to the DMZ. Matterhorn is home to Bravo Company, a group of about 200 marines, and they have one big problem. The Company’s commander, Lt. Fitch, has gotten on the wrong side of his immediate superior, Lt. Colonel Simpson, a drunk who doesn’t like that a handsome young marine like Fitch has received praise and commendation from the higher-ups without having the good sense to share his glory with Simpson (who doesn’t actually deserve any, but still).

Partly out of spite, partly out of simple dereliction, Simpson orders Bravo Company to abandon Matterhorn and march for eight days without food or rest in order to build another firebase on a cliff further to the south. This is part of a larger project — driven by political motivations coming all the way down from the Oval Office — that will involve the marines in a useless joint operation with the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese easily exploit this retreat, capturing Matterhorn while the marines are busy elsewhere. Simpson then commands Bravo Company to retake the hill — not because it serves any useful strategic purpose (Simpson orders the company to abandon Matterhorn almost as soon as it’s recaptured), but because “the kill-ratios” are all off. And if killing more Vietnamese means that more Americans will have to die, they’ll just reclassify the whole thing as a battalion action, rather than a company action, and the numbers will even out.

In spite of such mindlessness, the manly human spirit of Bravo Company endures, even finding a way to turn such evils into acts of spiritual rejuvenation. In the novel’s closing pages, a group of marines sit around a fire and sing a rondo about death: “If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me.” As they sing, they replace the name of each dead man with the name of another dead man, until they’ve sung out all the number of their fallen friends. The interchangeability of one grunt with another is a belief that damns the souls of men like Simpson; but in the hands of men like the marines of Bravo Company, that same belief becomes a bond, a testament. A pledge of relentless true faith.

In each of these books and in all the several stories they tell, one thing keeps popping back up.

“There it is.”

“There it is” was a common catchphrase among the guys in Vietnam, a sort of verbal asterisk that put the whole affair in proper light. Radios down just when the shit’s getting heavy? “There it is.” Colonel breathing down your neck about making checkpoints? “There it is.”

All the many little ironies of bad luck, incompetent commanders, and pass-the-buck-to-the-bush politicians are summed up in those three little words. Like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” there’s not much more to the phrase than a simple expression of futility, a throwing up of hands in the air, a sigh at the deadly indifference of the universe. But there’s power in these words, and it’s the same with these stories: They are each a human reaction to the inhumanities of massive, nonsensical death. Whether it’s the cluttered, dreamy information of Dispatches, the transparencies of Tim O’Brien, or Matterhorn’s tale of redemption in friendship, the Vietnam War is transformed through each of these books into something we can understand, distilled into something edifying, and saved from the overpowering magnitudes of death. These books close the gap between the untellable story of the dead in Vietnam, and the rest of us, the ones who want to know what happened over there. In this way, they are a powerful act of generosity, both to we, as readers, and to the men who died on the hills and in the jungle, the ones who didn’t make it out.


Image credit: hookbrother/Flickr

Friday Night Fumble: When Mediocre TV Masquerades as High Art

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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.

A Play is a World: Conservative PC, Liberal PC, and Taking Art Seriously

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It’s a commonplace that beautiful art can, and often does, come from ugly souls: Caravaggio knifing a man in a Roman alley; Wagner writing Jew-hating tracts alongside his operas; Schopenhauer pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs. But what about the reverse? What about the hypocrisy of living well?

That’s the charge leveled earlier this spring, on a conservative National Review blog, against the Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter—and I want to dwell on that criticism because, as ridiculous as it seems on its face, I think it can lead us in a roundabout way to a better understanding of what it means to take art seriously.

In her National Review piece, Carol Iannone cites an article about the late writer’s remarkably loving relationship with his wife—evidently three decades of not going to bed angry—and contrasts it with the much bleaker world Pinter painted in his plays during those years: “While Pinter was enjoying his high-level marriage of refined intellectual equals in the British upper class, he was inflicting on his servile public a dark vision of obscure miseries, casual cruelties, inarticulate vulgarity, strangled miscommunications, and menacing silences in sordid rooming houses.”

I’m no expert on Pinter, so for the moment I just want to take that harsh characterization of his work, fair or not, as a given. What interests me is the way Iannone goes on to justify it: “We shouldn’t imbibe the bleak visions of many modernist works (especially by left-wing writers), visions based not on life but on willed projections of darkness and despair.” There are a lot of assumptions here that go completely unjustified: that we should be “especially” wary of left-wing writers; that writing has to be “based on life” in some unspecified way in order to succeed. But the basic claim is this: we wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the world of Pinter’s plays, we wouldn’t want to willingly take on that amount of darkness, when we could spend time somewhere brighter. And the fact that somewhere brighter exists is proven by the writer’s own life.

We might call that view conservative PC. And my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand: “What’s wrong with a play about despair? Even if a play is nothing but cruelty and vulgarity, a play isn’t a world. I can spend an hour or two with something depressing and despairing, because I also know that there’s plenty of uplifting art for when I feel like being uplifted. The fact that the writer lived a good life—the fact that I can live a good life—is actually a point in favor of bleak, dark plays. I can watch them secure with the fact that that’s not all there is.”

What struck me about my reaction, however, was just how much it had in common with the defense against artistic PC from the other side. How often have we seen a movie or a TV show criticized for, say, a negative or stereotypical portrayal of women? And how often have we heard an instant response like this? “This movie (or show or book) isn’t portraying women—it’s portraying individual characters. You may not like them, but it’s unfair to make them carry the weight of an entire worldview about women, or about anything else. A movie isn’t a world.”

The argument here isn’t simply one over politics, over liberal elites or gender roles; the argument is between two different ways of reading. One is a sort of deliberate tunnel-vision: it asks us to fully inhabit a work, to treat if for the time we’re there as a self-contained world. The other view places a much lighter burden on artists: it tells us in the audience that it’s fine to watch with one eye, and to keep the other eye on the “real world”; and when we can remind ourselves that there’s always a world outside of what we’re watching, the artist’s choices carry a good deal less weight. What the second view is really promising us is art without responsibility—or at least with much less responsibility. That’s exactly why it’s so instinctively appealing. But, by stopping us from becoming fully involved with what we’re reading, watching, or hearing, it also carries a high cost—one I’m not convinced is worth paying.

The term world-building, when we use it at all, is usually reserved for thick, Tolkeinesque fantasy books: world-building means inventing imaginary continents with their own geographies and landmarks and kingdoms. I’d argue, though, that all art is engaged in world-building—and that it can be accomplished as successfully in 14 lines as in 500 pages. Here, for instance, is a world without spring:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

That’s Shakespeare’s Fifth Sonnet. The claim is that time will destroy the beauty of the poem’s subject, just as winter strips the leaves from trees, and the only defense is to bottle up and save “summer’s distillation”—in this case, as it turns out, by conceiving an heir. The sonnet’s urgency comes from the fact that it ends in winter: it is a world where spring, regeneration, and rebirth are all impossible. In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the great critic Helen Vendler explains the poem’s power, and why it’s dependent on this cold ending:

In both quatrains, no possibility is envisaged other than a destructive slope ending in confounding catastrophe. Since Nature is being used as a figure for human life (which is not reborn), the poem exhibits no upward slope in seasonal change. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that nothing can be said to happen in a poem which is not there suggested. If summer is confounded in hideous winter, one is not permitted to add, irrelevantly, “But can spring be far behind?” If the poet had wanted to provoke such an extrapolation, he would by some means have suggested it.

Even though Vendler talks about what we are and are not “permitted” to see in a poem, this kind of reading is much more than an artificial convention or an English professor’s trick. It’s the kind of reading that is compelled by great world-building—by art that is so convincing or so powerful that we barely stop to think that it’s artificial. Just as one can make it through The Lord of the Rings without seriously reflecting that there are no such things as elves, one can make it through this sonnet without seriously reflecting that there is no such thing as a world that ends in winter.

Just as importantly, the kind of blinkered reading that Vendler argues for is our contribution to making a poem or a book or a film “work,” a contribution that is easier the more compelling the work we’re dealing with. If we read through the Fifth Sonnet constantly reminding ourselves of the artificiality of its world—repeating to ourselves at the end of every line, “of course spring comes after winter”—the experience of reading it starts to fade. Without immersion in its world, we can still admire the rhymes and meter and metaphors from a distance, but we are also shut out from them. The poem loses whatever power it had over our emotions; it stops to “work” in the same way. This immersion, or tunnel-vision, is really just a kind of suspension of disbelief, maybe the most fundamental kind. Just as it’s hard to fully experience Hamlet without temporarily believing in ghosts, it’s hard to fully experience this sonnet without disbelieving in spring. It’s hard to fully experience any work without, at least temporarily, treating it as a world.

From that perspective, we can’t mentally protect ourselves from a uniformly bleak play by recalling that there are other, happier plays or other, happier possibilities for our own lives; the point of the play, if it works as theater, is to ask: “What if the world were like this?” Or take a TV series like The Wire, which paints the failure and breakdown of public institutions from police to schools to unions. To treat the series as a world is to understand that it’s passing a judgment not just on Baltimore, the city in which it’s set, but on cities and institutions in general, along with the men and women who run them. We can’t shield ourselves from those conclusions by remembering that there is, say, a well-run town somewhere in Scandinavia.

Or rather, we can—but only at the price of trivializing what we’re watching, reducing it to a forgettable entertainment. In fact, it’s those of us who put the greatest responsibility on art who are most willing to take seriously its power over us: to shape the way we see the world, and the way we act in it. It’s not surprising that the godfather of this view—Plato, who famously called poetry morally corrupting—was one of the most gifted writers who ever lived, as well as (by some accounts) a former poet himself: in other words, a man who knew the power of literature so directly that he came to fear it, arguably too much.

Taking a strong view of artistic responsibility doesn’t tell us what that responsibility has to look like. It doesn’t compel us, like Plato, to expel poets from the city. It doesn’t mandate that all of our art be uplifting. It doesn’t tell us where to draw the line between the kind of bleakness that’s bracing and the kind that’s just degrading. It doesn’t commit us to a view of the gender roles we want our movies and TV shows to embody. It doesn’t commit us to a particular ideology at all. It is the beginning of those arguments, not the end of them. It simply tells us that we can’t sidestep those arguments by protesting that it’s just a play, just a movie, just a book, just one entertainment among many.

Or rather, we can—but in the process, we also admit that those plays, movies, and books can’t really move us, at least not enough to care about the way in which they’re moving us. And to admit that is to flatten the distinction between those entertainments that really are forgettable, and the art that, with our cooperation, successfully creates worlds. The more compelling the world, the greater the obligation that it be one worth living in.

(Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (now with h-alpha) from astroporn’s photostream)

2010’s Literary Geniuses

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This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:

If you weren’t already aware that The Wire was a special TV show, then perhaps its creator David Simon receiving a genius grant will persuade you. The show and its creator have already been written up and effusively praised by cultural arbiters like the New Yorker, the series has been analyzed in academic journals, and the travails of McNulty, Bunk, Omar and the rest are now the subject of numerous college courses, so the conferring of geniusness on this particular corner of the small screen should really come as no surprise, a final confirmation of The Wire’s unique contribution to the medium and to the culture at large. We include Simon in the “literary” camp of the latest crop of geniuses because he and his show have been of enduring interest to the literary set (for example). Simon’s credits also include Homicide: Life on the Streets and his new series Treme.

Yiyun Li has been having a good year. First she was named to the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, and now she has joined some very esteemed company (Deborah Eisenberg, Aleksandar Hemon, Edward P. Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, etc.) among the few dozen literary writers who have been honored by the MacArthur Foundation over the years. Li’s stories are typically set in her native China and she wields a darkness and weightiness of tone that she has used to carve out a place for herself among the broader community of first generation immigrant writers. Her debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers came out in 2005, followed by a novel, The Vagrants, and then another collection of stories this fall, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Li participated in our “Best of the Millennium” series last year, and wrote up Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for us.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed deserves much of the credit for our reconsideration of Thomas Jefferson over the last two decades, particularly his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the overall implications of slave ownership among the country’s founding fathers. The Harvard law professor’s books on the topic include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The latter book won Gordon-Reed the National Book Award in 2008.

The Book as Cross-Town Bus: The Pleasures of Hometown Reading


A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice.  Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County).  After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers.  Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live.  I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.

Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting.  Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome.  Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike.  Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in.  Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.

In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands.  The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling.  “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.”  “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”

In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street.  He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.”  I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine.  “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say.  My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting.  Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book?  So it didn’t actually… happen?”  “No, not really,” I’ll mumble.  But… I could’ve sworn…

Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief.  But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page.  I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.”  When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains.  Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”

Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see.  Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it.  This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both.  But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know.  Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it.  I spend enough time with myself.

In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia.  As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors.  For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia.  And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender.  Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers.  We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right.  Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years.  We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.

(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)

Circular Dread: The Narrative Pleasures of Damages

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The opening scene of Vertigo is one of the most spectacular in film: across a series of San Francisco rooftops, the city and bay glittering in the background, a cop and a detective chase a criminal—until the detective slips and the cop falls to his death. Hanging from a ledge that seems certain to rip away, Jimmy Stewart eyes the twisted body below him, and the movie’s narrative is set. Will Stewart’s acrophobic sleuth conquer his vertigo as he trails a possessed woman who’ll also take a plunge? We watch to find out, even though the film’s dominant image—and theme—has already been revealed.

I thought of Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterwork, as I watched the latest episode of Damages, the FX series starring Glenn Close that returned for its third season this Monday. Nominally a legal drama, the show’s serpentine plotting and titrated flashes of violence make it a first-rate thriller, and Close plays her quasi-villain to the hilt. As Patty Hewes, an attorney more ruthless and brilliant than any before seen on TV, she projects ambiguity at every moment. It’s impossible to know what her role in the plot is, a tension only heightened by Damages’ “flash forwards,” which depict each season’s brutal denouement from the outset. This season’s premiere showed Tate Donovan’s character, Patty’s right-hand man, in a body bag, while six months earlier he’d become a named partner at her firm. The image of his death is returned to again and again, as the temporal gap starts to close.

This back-and-forth dynamic is nothing new—it’s the classic whodunit structure, and the show’s creators have credited the Greek tragedies as an inspiration—but as Vertigo did back in 1958, Damages makes the conceit an integral part of its effect. As compelling as Close is (she towers over her incipient awards rival Julianna Margulies, whose attorney character on CBS’s The Good Wife would be chewed up by Patty in court), the show’s obsessive, almost fetishistic circling is what keeps me watching. It heightens the suspense, yes, but it also viscerally expresses the main characters’ central emotion: a constant, uncertain dread. As a narrative tactic, the flash forward enacts a perfect mimesis for the viewer.

It’s an impressively artful technique at a time when TV still hews to conventional (read: boring) three-act plots, with conclusions that are all too predictable. Shows that neatly wrap up at the end of every episode have a better shot at maintaining ratings both seasonally and year to year, since missing an episode doesn’t matter. In its first year, viewership for Damages fell from roughly 3.7 million to around 1.4, where it perilously remains. A new ABC series this fall, FlashForward, in which an earthquake-like event gives everyone in the world a glimpse of their lives six months hence, experienced a similar decline and may now be canceled. (The show is based on a 1999 science-fiction novel of the same name, a genre that has the future-present duality at its core.) Even Lost, a one-time juggernaut that also features flash forwards, kicks off its sixth and final season next week.

But plenty of shows have complicated plots that reward consistent viewing, especially premium fare like HBO’s Big Love (which, in its fourth season, continues to mesmerize). And many have earned the honorific “literary,” or “novelistic,” like the incomparable The Wire. It’s also true that Damages is not quite in their league, given its tendency for outright melodrama and writing that could be sharper across the board. This season’s Madoff-inspired story arc already seems tired, despite the presence of Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as the family’s respective matriarch and lawyer. (And what else can possibly be said about Patty’s relationship with Ellen, her protégé-turned-nemesis? Rose O’Byrne is still wooden in the perpetually fuzzy role—the show might be better off without her.)

But by employing the flash forward, Damages is innovating in a way these other shows haven’t, in a medium that’s traditionally an also-ran in trends of any kind. Eleven years after Vertigo was released, Robert Coover published his remarkable story collection Pricksongs & Descants, including the celebrated piece “The Babysitter.” In it, a period of about two hours is dissected into various characters’ perspectives and moments that go in and out of linear sequence. (The 1995 film adaptation starring Alicia Silverstone notably flattened out this bumpy chronological terrain.) By the end, the story—ostensibly about a young woman who’s raped while the couple she’s babysitting for are at a dinner party—is beside the point, smothered in a pile-up of implausible, outlandish details. Coover’s point is to show the narrative sleight of hand at work—a literary tradition we may take for granted now but which Damages brought to TV.

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

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In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment.  It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star.  It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying.  No, I’m not talking about the internet, I’m talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television.  Reality TV was supposed to devour television.  It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades.  Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war.  These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form.  They were the beginning of the end of the world.  Except that they weren’t.  They didn’t really do any of the things they were feared to do.  And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous.

We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade.  We’ve largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions.  We’re scapegoating Twilight now, and we’re all terrified of the internet. Or we’re terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet.  Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter.  We’ve all moved on to Twitter.  But it wasn’t too long ago when none of this seemed possible.  It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end.  It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them.

MTV wanted to make a soap opera.  Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours.  America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up.  Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations — the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world — while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day.

MTV had tried a few different things to kill time — most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety  — but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture:  the eternal fountain of disposable income.  MTV’s dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show.  Their solution was brilliant — they’d simply make a show without actors or writers — two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera.

The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement:  “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real.”  That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World.  Not only is it the longest running program in MTV’s history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today.

The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today’s most successful scripted programming.  At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan.  A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts.  The casting logic of the show was fairly simple:  find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure.  In this way, the cast member’s situation wasn’t unlike that of today’s bloggers and vloggers — they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career.  For some it did; for others, not so much.

The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension.  We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate.  This balancing act — with help from some racial tension — blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show.  In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show.

Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years.  It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation.  The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment.  The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show’s premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws.  It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time.

The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more.  Again we saw characters who desired fame and success — singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon — and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension.  This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David “assaulted” Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear.  For this crime — something kids at camp do every summer — David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely.

Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting.  Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke.  While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it’s pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn’t a big deal.  It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import.  One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami’s request for safety and removed David.

Secondly, it’s no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men.  The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded.  Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show’s run.

While the house may have been split on David’s departure, the audience ate it up.  Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season.  This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was.  No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid.  The producers’ disgust with Jon must’ve been intense.  How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything?

If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it.  When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree.   Here, long before the phrase “voted off the island” became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come.  If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode?

Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four’s setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own).  In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still).  The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house.

It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt.  Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives.  The emotion on the show seemed real.  When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible.  There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling.  Something might happen; this was the “real world” after all.  (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way.  One has to imagine the network wasn’t pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.)

In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur’s dream.  These people were fascinating!  Watching them do the most basic things — eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed — felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique.  Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did.

And when they revealed something unique about themselves — such as Heather B.’s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson (“Larry Johnson is so fine!”) — it was revelatory.  Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument “Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?”  That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence.  It’s certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world.

Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with “reality” didn’t last.  A few things broke the spell.  For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real.  Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked.  The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be.  They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go.

This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show.  It can’t be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase “here for the right reasons” on their own, can it?  Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America’s Next Top Model learned to scream “Tyra Mail!” every time the show’s producers drop off one of their cryptic missives.  In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted.  They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as “Nobody wants to go home,” and “I’m not here to make friends,” but the result is the same.

For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable — if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance.  It’s affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner.  And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly “This is real, okay?”, all the better.

For other shows, the effect is less desirable.  Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of “reality.”  It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine.  It’s no wonder that the show’s “characters” seem to burn out after a few seasons.  It can be difficult to keep up the illusion.

At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real.  Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking.  Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.  The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing.  It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation.

The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn’t unique to The Real World.  Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was).  Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements.  Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World’s great revelation than American Idol has:  that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking).  Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process.  In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies.

The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal.  Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we’d already watched them do something.  Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape).  The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called “anthropological shows,” programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead.  Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this.  Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows.  Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to.

Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character.  One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing… well, anything.  With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence.  Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse — think about the craze created around The Situation’s summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) — but it’s not like it was.  For a few years there, watching people’s lives was all we really wanted to do.

Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours.  That isn’t to say that reality TV’s influence isn’t felt in a variety of programs.   The confessional, perhaps The Real World’s most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom.  The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address.  These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama.  They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV.

It’s difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television.  My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real.  After we’d seen that, reality was dead, so to speak.  We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves.  HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire.  These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen.  Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age.  Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24.

It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of “quality” scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case.  Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom.  Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV.

If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it’s no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation.  Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon.  As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist.  In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right:  “There is no new thing under the sun.”

[Image credits: MTV]

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

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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.

Evan Wright’s America: Hella Real, Hella Harsh

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There’s a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as “Reporter,” and treat him with a cool saltiness – until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO’s Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler’s entertainment editor. “My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax,” he writes, and we’re off and stumbling. Wright’s back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there’s an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and “waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was.” In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that “failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.” He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it’s like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In “Portrait of a Con Artist,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry’s version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt’s Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky’s pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright’s straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG’s initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG’s video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman’s desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. “The one with the MBA from Harvard,” writes Wright, “suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss – Warshavsky – ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile.” This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright’s work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society’s margins. The credulous businessmen in “Portrait of a Con Artist” are in this way not unlike Wright’s readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, ’02), where infantry soldiers from the Army’s 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald’s in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone ’01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men’s Journal ’02). In a breezy essay entitled “Scenes from My Life in Porn” (LA Weekly ’00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late ’97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band’s drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: “‘I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,’ Tommy relates. “‘I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'” A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s conference there: “As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, ‘I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'” Wingnut’s other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their “son,” and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March ’07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a “conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right.” Dollard’s late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, “When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing.” Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: “[Evan Wright’s] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness.” I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. “Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing,” he writes in the introduction. There’s no gonzo to Wright’s straightforward narrative approach – no madcap prose fraught with the writer’s own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson’s work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright’s writing is reminiscent of Thompson’s is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright’s subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.

Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath

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Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]

If Every Day Were Really Like Sunday…

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…I’d have to bite the bullet and get Tivo, because in the last few weeks, the Christian Sabbath has become a televisual feast day for people of the book. The 8 p.m. time slot currently offers a difficult choice between NBC’s quasi-Biblical Kings (recommended by Emily) and HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (filmed in Botswana, a country that has fascinated me ever since I read Mating). Then, at 9 on PBS, there’s the Masterpiece adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, a Wire-like whirligig of plot and thespian energy that in many ways excels the novel.The rest of the week, alas, continues to be wall-to-wall reality show, and while the new Vivica A. Fox vehicle Cougars sounds intriguing, I guess I can hold off on the DVR. I have no expectation that the current embarrassment of riches on Sunday night is anything but a fluke.

Surprise Me!