You Must Go and Win: Essays

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Don’t Even Get Me Started About Opera: An Interview with Alina Simone

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Indie rocker Alina Simone’s loyal army of depressed Jews was surely devastated when Simone bowed out from music a couple years ago to focus on her writing, but it’s hard to kvetch about the results: the hilarious and humble 2011 essay collection You Must Go and Win, and Simone’s shrewd debut novel Note to Self, which FSG published in June. For a book in which relatively little happens (Simone’s husband joked while reading that he “couldn’t wait to read what doesn’t happen next!”), Note to Self is about a lot of things: Internet addiction, the thirst for fame, what makes art art, and when it’s time to suck it up and get your shit together.

The novel’s origin story is a strange one: Simone loved the title of a Tao Lin book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, so much that she set out to write the book she wanted Shoplifting from American Apparel to be. (Simone has read some of Lin’s work, but not the book whose title inspired her.) Though there’s no actual shoplifting in Note to Self, it does capture the “loose half-hearted morality of the hipster generation” that Simone had in mind when she started writing the book at a mercifully WiFi-less Think Coffee in the East Village.

Simone took time away from not tweeting or emailing (“Sitting in front of the computer doesn’t make me happy… I unsubscribed from everyone on Twitter except one dead girl”) to meet me at the FSG office, where she sat in a fat leather chair, profane profundities escaping her mouth like jagged bursts of cigar smoke.

The Millions: So, there are some gilded turds in your novel—

Alina Simone: That really happened.

TM: Those are real things?

AS: No, I mean nobody really gilded turds, but I had a day job that was in the Financial District and City Park, a few years ago — they always have sculptures there, public art — and they had these things that looked like giant turds. They were painted white or black or whatever but you’re wandering around wondering how this dude pulled this off. Like what is this? What was in his mind when he sat and made this? Was it just the way the clay came out of the bag? And he just said, “I’m done”? It literally looked like shit. I would walk through these giant shitty things and think, It’s kinda cool. I’m glad I live in a magical city where giant turds can decorate the landscape, and that someone is making a livelihood decorating public parks with terrible turd-like sculptures. But it got me thinking what if it literally was shit? If the guy said, “This is shit. I have this whole pretentious and elaborate backstory that makes it okay and makes it art.” I thought that would be really funny if it really was shit; that’s what inspired me.

TM: Somebody has put shit in a gallery before, right?

AS: Lots of people have put shit up! God, when I was in art school, there was a guy in my class — there was an end-of-the-year exhibit of all the undergrads’ art, and he wanted to do horseshit. It was horseshit in a bowl; he hadn’t made a beautiful painting or sculpture out of horseshit. He got some horse or cow shit and there was just a bowl, and maybe a sign over it, but it was conceptual. And my university wouldn’t let him do it because they thought it was a public health hazard, because it wasn’t behind glass or anything; it was just a bowl of shit. They said what if someone touches it, or there’s some disease in it? I dunno, it did seem a little conservative, ‘cause come on, no one’s gonna touch it, and being in a room with some cow shit probably isn’t gonna hurt anyone. But it was this huge thing and it made all the papers and I think eventually he did put it in a glass box. People have been putting shit in places for a long time. Shit is a thing. It’s totally a thing. Shit, pee, any human bodily fluid. It sells. People are into it.

TM: Do you think there’s more of that kind of shit in the art and photography and film worlds than in literature or music? Or do you think there’s the equivalent of that in every medium?

AS: I think that photo and painting and definitely video, certain art forms are probably more conducive to — I mean if you’re sculpting things I guess you can be scatological, you can use shit, sure. All of those. Literature, definitely. I feel like there’s a whole subgenre of people who write very salacious things to varying degrees of quality. I’m fine with you writing something really dirty and racy if the sentences are nicely crafted, if the writing is carefully constructed. But there are people who just poop it all out, just bloggy vomit of what happened to them, and it’s really really salacious and so it draws people. It’s like when I was in school, it was really hard to compete with people who were just yanking on people’s biological impulses to look at a giant picture of a vag. You might take a picture of a tree that’s awesome, and you used a 8 x 10 camera and it took you two hours to get that shot right and then you mixed the developer by hand using a gram scale and fine-printed it, and you made this Ansel Adams-level picture of a tree—and right next to it is this huge picture of a vag. I mean that was the photo that greeted everyone in my art school for six months. It hung over the front desk; there was a person sitting at the front desk and above him was this vag —

TM: As if he’d just exited the womb.

AS: Exactly. It was just a logical progression. I remember, because I wasn’t doing that kind of art — with no judgment of value; I just happened to not be doing it — and I was like damn, it’s really hard to compete with people who are doing that. I can see why they want to look at that vag more than my tree. It’s really a brutal world out there. That was definitely another genesis for the book. I feel like that issue of narcissism in art — I don’t mean to call it narcissism, but there’s no word for it, so for lack of a better word, narcissism — I thought it was such an interesting philosophical thing to explore, and I wanted to try to do it in a narrative form. I think it’s a fascinating subject and one that really hits people’s buttons. You might have an aunt who’s 70 and you take her to New York to go to some gallery, and she might say, “What the hell is this? I could make this! I want to have an experience of art that’s deep and meaningful. This sucks.” People like to debate what makes things art, what makes things worth something. So that was part of the drive behind the book.

TM: You’re essentially retired from music. Do you miss it?

AS: I do. If a billionaire waved a wand and said he’d set me up with all the things I need to make an amazing album, I would do it. But the economics of it are just so daunting, like how do you even break even on the production costs of an album at this point? And as a solo person — I’m not part of a five-person band sharing the load — just the promotion of it. I’m not a very self-promotional person; I don’t love doing Kickstarters and websites and tweeting and blogging. I just don’t like it. The way the music industry is now, it’s essentially weeded out people like me who don’t like that stuff and aren’t good at it. If you’re kind of quiet and you don’t want to beg people and make a big thing, there’s nowhere for you to go because all the labels that used to support those people are bankrupt now. My label that put out my first two records went bankrupt. The label that put out my first EP went bankrupt. That whole tier got wiped out, and then it just leaves the major indies, and I think you have to be really going for pop success if you’re going to try to get signed to one of those, and I’m not doing that at this point at all. So it leaves you in a place where you’d have to do it all yourself and spend a lot of money, and more importantly a lot of effort and time doing things you don’t like doing that don’t reflect who you are, and it’s just exhausting. So it’s kind of sad. It does make me sad because I love to sing and I would love to make some amazing album, but I just don’t see logistically how it can be done. I think every day how I can do it without doing all this stuff, and I can’t figure it out, and no one else can figure it out either. It’s a constant discussion in the music world of the new model and how to make it all work.

TM: It seems like every job I apply for wants me to be proficient with social media and HTML and all this other stuff. There’s a whole new skillset and the younger people are going to be fine with it, I think, because they grew up with it. I used to sub at my old high school and they all had laptops that the school had lent them for the year, and they were on their cellphones the entire time.

AS: That would totally freak me out. That’s crazy. Yeah, maybe the new kids will be all about this stuff. I don’t know. I have very strong feelings about the right to be quiet, and the right to not be self-promotional. I actually pitched The New York Times an editorial about the right to be quiet, trying to put forward the notion — especially as a musician, now that things have changed and now that a purely capitalist system is not going to support musicians at the level of real people, not Lady Gaga or something — I said why is it that people keep telling musicians they need to change their model and be self-promotional and tweet and Kickstart and do this and that? Why don’t cultural institutions that support all the other arts open the umbrella to support pop musicians? Because at this point all the pop musicians I know — even people you’d be shocked, shocked that are struggling — are really having a hard time making a living. It was never how I made a living; I always had a day job and I’m married and I’m fine, but I know people who this is their life, they don’t have another source of income, and downloading and all this stuff has eaten away at their livelihood. Why is it that now that I’m a writer I can get a job teaching? My resume as an indie rocker completely dwarfs my resume as a writer — very impressive, lots of press from fancy places and citations and awards and things. But there’s no job for that. How come that is less valid an American art form than writing poetry and saying, “I published a chapbook with 500 copies on some little press that some guy runs”?

TM: “You’re hired!”

AS: Yeah, but they are hired. And I don’t understand why that is seen as more of a valid thing to teach undergrads than songwriting. It’s just another genre, another format. Just like poetry has its constraints, so does songwriting. Why is it that you can get a Guggenheim Grant for being a writer but not for being a pop musician? If you look at the requirements, you’d really be shoehorning your way in. They’re not trying to get people like that; the musicians who are encouraged to apply for that are experimental or world or something that has traditionally been labeled as uncommercial. But indie rock is uncommercial now — it’s free, people steal it. It’s not a way to make money. So I pitched this article to say that it’s not just musicians who should reform themselves; they’re fucking reforming. They’re doing everything they can; they’re hustling and scrabbling and selling t-shirts and god knows what else. But what about the cultural institutions? Why shouldn’t anyone else reform given the way things are? I feel really passionately about that too; I think it would be — in every genre, not just music, but writing and film and everything — I think it would be a huge loss if we lost the quiet artist. Someone like Kafka or PJ Harvey, who does not blog or tweet or anything. If we lost that artist because it wasn’t possible to be reclusive and just go away and make great art. That would be tragic.

TM: Do you think it’s because there’s a stigma attached to more popular art? That the more popular something is, the less intellectual or artistic or deserving it is?

AS: I think there probably was some truth to that at a certain time, maybe in the ’80s, but I think that most people recognize that even genre things take a great deal of skill and craft and art to execute well, and that you can be just as much of an artist working in a really broad universal genre way. But I think the Guggenheim also says you can’t enter if you’re a genre writer — so what does that mean? Colson Whitehead’s last book was a zombie book. It’s clearly not just a zombie book for stupid people, which is what the Guggenheim is implying. But a zombie book for smart people — would that be okay? Or is it just not okay because it has a zombie in it? What do you call Stephen King, who went from being a pulp horror writer to one of the great American writers, who’s publishing in The New Yorker now and getting all the awards and reviewing for The New York Times Review of Books? Is he a genre writer? I feel like our cultural institutions are twenty years behind in terms of what art really is and their definition of art. It’s crucial that those people — they are the supporters and arbiters of taste, and upholders of art and art culture — they should be keeping up with the times and nurturing art of all kinds. They’ve become these weird gatekeepers for a very old school vision of what art is, which is stupid and annoying.

I checked the Guggenheim requirements about a month ago for this article, and I think maybe children’s writers weren’t allowed, so what does that mean? Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak — are these guys just hacks who don’t deserve it? I don’t understand this criteria. Maybe it’s just because Mr. Guggenheim, this rich guy who died like 70 years ago, said, “THIS IS HOW IT SHALL BE.” But it’s not just them; it’s a lot of different cultural institutions that cling to this idea — like the music that needs to be supported is the weird experimental music that no one listens to because that’s uncommercial. Well, okay, but there’s extremely innovative and complicated and genre-pushing music being made in rap and indie rock and elsewhere, and I don’t even understand what the distinction is anymore. Frankly it almost feels a little racist to me. I feel like universities are always upset about the fact that they don’t get enough black applicants — well, why don’t you let African Americans teach creative writing based on being really good musicians? There are tons of innovative, intelligent, creative rappers; why are they less qualified to teach creative writing than some poet? It would be kind of awesome; if Jay Z were teaching a class, I would take it. Or Black Milk, or someone ten tiers down from them, whatever. I think that would be interesting.

And don’t even get me started about opera. Like, really? This? The average age of an opera-goer is like 80, and it absorbs massive amounts of resources and millions and millions of dollars to support something that such a tiny section of the population cares about or can even afford to see. Almost no one can experience this art that you’re spending lots of tax dollars and public money supporting. There are crazy disparities there. Maybe that’s what my next novel will be about — it’ll just be one long rant about that. That no one will read.

The Soundtrack of Our Books

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The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.”

Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption — anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience.

At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall.

When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests.

“There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour.

New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics — too distracting — but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.”

The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on in September as an audio book — it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.”

What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel.

While senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.”

By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says.

Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.”

But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners.

Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.”

Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey

A Year in Reading: Michael Schaub

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In a promotional video for The Great Frustration, Seth Fried’s debut book, the author deadpans, “Technically, the book is a collection of short stories. Though I prefer to think of it as a novel that doesn’t make any sense. [Pause.] That is how we’re marketing it.” On his “Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog,” he fantasizes about ditching literary fiction to become an advertising copywriter hawking “Seth Farm Pigeon Butter” (“the pigeon butter that’s a smidgen better”); and urges fans who want to help sales of The Great Frustation to “social media the book with social media.” And before Hurricane Irene, he offered some (good) advice to New York apartment dwellers by way of a hilarious tweet which ended up going viral.

Fried, 28, is one of the funniest writers in America. But it’s not just his sly, absurdist sense of humor that makes him an author to watch — his short stories manage to be both hilarious and tragic, both surreal and enormously sensitive. The Great Frustration is a debut, but it’s also something most writers, even the most acclaimed ones, have never accomplished: it is a perfect short story collection. It’s also the best book I read in 2011.

Too often, fiction written by very funny people can turn either frivolous or precious, but Fried’s stories never even come close to trivial. He’s a brilliant humorist — see “The Frenchman,” one of the funniest stories I’ve read in years — but he doesn’t use jokes where they don’t belong, and he never uses humor to show off, or to avoid tragic conclusions that many authors would rather not face.

Humor isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal. Fried has a keen sense of history and science, which he uses to great effect in stories like the heartbreaking “The Misery of the Conquistador” and the uniquely beautiful “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those stories someday end up in a definitive anthology of American fiction; they’re that good.) Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before.

I should mention some of the other great books I read in 2011. This year brought some amazing fiction — Alan Heathcock’s dark, beautiful short story collection Volt, and the brilliant novels Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and, especially, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas. I was happy to read two wonderful essay collections, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, and You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone (who, like Fried, is also a gifted humorist). And the books The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean were shining examples of flawless nonfiction. And finally, this was the year that I promised myself I would catch up on the classics I’ve missed, and read Bleak House.

I did not. Here’s to 2012.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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