In Person

What the New Whitney Museum Says About the New New York City

[caption id="attachment_75830" align="aligncenter" width="570"] By Barbara Kruger.[/caption] Princess Di died on Aug. 31, 1997. I’ll never forget the date -- not because I care about the royal family, but because on that day I left my old home in North Carolina, drove 577 miles and moved in with my girlfriend on West 14th Street in New York City’s meatpacking district. My new neighborhood was, to say the least, funky -- with sides of beef drooling blood onto the sidewalks, with homeless people camped down by the Hudson River, with hookers working the shadows, and leather boys sporting in clubs called the Anvil and Man Hole. The neighborhood, a little grease stain flanked by Greenwich Village and Chelsea, was also home to a lot of artists and fellow writers. There was no way to know that I had arrived in a neighborhood that was on the cusp of a massive makeover. Within two years of my arrival, our apartment building got sold, our rent got doubled, and we got bounced. We wound up in a loft in a former doll factory next to a garbage transfer station in Brooklyn. This was during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign to scrub the city clean, just before he passed the baton to Michael Bloomberg, who spent the next dozen years finishing the job. A little less than two decades after gentrification pushed me out, I returned to the meatpacking district to attend the press opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened to the public on May 1. What I learned at the press opening had little to do with art or architecture, and everything to do with what the new Whitney Museum says about the new New York City. It isn’t pretty. To get the facts out of the way, the new Whitney was designed by Renzo Piano at a cost of $422 million, and it will cost you $22 to get inside to look at the Hoppers, the Warhols, the Lichtensteins, the Basquiats, and the hundreds of other staples from the permanent collection that make up the impressive inaugural show, “America Is Hard to See.” Admission is now $25 at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Like most of the good stuff in New York today, art is not intended for the hoi polloi. Renzo Piano is a prolific designer of museums -- he did the terrific and very different Pompidou Center in Paris and the Menil Collection in Houston, to name just two -- and critics have compared his new building to a ship, a factory, even a hospital. I see an eager-to-please, not-unattractive jumble of blue glass blocks that would have looked laughably out of place in the late 1990s but now fits in with the nearby work of other starchitects -- especially Frank Gehry’s twisty glass IAC Building a few blocks upriver, and Richard Meier’s glass apartment towers a few blocks downriver. It also fits in with the trendy restaurants and the shops selling Apple computers and designer clothing. Needless to say, the Anvil and Man Hole have decamped. [caption id="attachment_75832" align="aligncenter" width="570"] By Jean Michel Basquiat.[/caption] The new Whitney was built because Marcel Breuer’s perfectly serviceable building uptown was no longer considered good enough, big enough, hip enough, new enough, or downtown enough. Just shy of its 50th birthday, the uptown building was abandoned like an outdated wife and leased to the Metropolitan Museum. So in addition to being expensive, the new Whitney is unnecessary, a luxury item in a city awash with rich people and their luxury items, a wickedly telling monument to contemporary New York’s get-rich-or-get-out ethos. In that sense, it’s the perfect expression of its moment. Even its location is telling. Not only does it sit where homeless people and hookers and leather boys and artists used to roam, it sits at the foot of the new High Line elevated park, one of the city’s most powerful tourist magnets, right up there with Times Square and Soho and The Lion King, and Shake Shack. More than 50 million tourists visit New York City every year, and it seems that every last one of them makes a point of contributing to the gridlock on the High Line. This was not lost on Renzo Piano. There’s a floor-to-ceiling window on the fifth floor of the new Whitney that gazes down at the High Line, echoing a window on the High Line at 17th Street that allows tourists to gaze down at the cars whizzing up 10th Avenue. New York City used to be a gnarly, dicey, unpredictable spectacle; now it’s a defanged, tourist-friendly spectator sport. The new Whitney and the High Line are going to make perfect neighbors. [caption id="attachment_75833" align="aligncenter" width="570"] One of the new Whitney’s elevators, with artwork by Richard Artschwager.[/caption] With its commodious gallery spaces, its outdoor terraces and vistas, its interior spaces for screenings and performance, its library, gift shop, restaurant, and café -- not to mention its killer collection of American art -- the new Whitney is sure to be a success. As an art lover, I have to wish the museum well, though in a bittersweet way. Writing in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl gave the building a largely favorable review before finally acknowledging that such a bauble comes at a cost that has nothing to do with its $422 million price tag. It’s part of the engine that is making New York City increasingly untenable for the creative people who used to make the city spin. Now money makes the city spin. “The new Whitney won’t do anything to ameliorate the crisis brought about by the crushing cost of living,” Schjeldahl wrote, “which exiles young artists, writers and other creative types to increasingly distant parts of the city, if not out of it altogether. (The museum will actually worsen the problem in its immediate vicinity near the High Line.)” I can’t imagine it getting any worse. A few weeks before the new Whitney opened I was shopping in the nearby Chelsea Market, where I used to shop regularly when I lived in the neighborhood. I avoid the place now, especially on weekends, because it’s clogged with tourists who will take pictures of absolutely anything, especially themselves. On this day I saw a woman taking pictures of...apples. This was too much. I had to ask. “Excuse me,” I said. “Where are you from?” “Norway,” she said, snapping away. “Don’t you have apples in Norway?” “Yes, but ours are not this colorful.” I had a hunch even before I visited the new Whitney that the meatpacking district -- that New York City -- is long gone. Now I’m sure of it. Me, I’m moving to Berlin.
In Person

From the Internet to the Ivy League: Fanfiction in the Classroom

It’s starting to feel like spring the morning that the Dinky, the shuttle that runs between Princeton Junction and Princeton University, deposits us on the edge of campus. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, but the students milling past us are ambitiously channeling summer, bare arms and legs, flip flops and black and orange athletic gear. We’ve cut the timing a bit close, so my friend and I are frantically checking every single map on the path to East Pyne Hall, the site of our 12:30 class, English 222. The official course title is “Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock” -- essentially, a class I’d have given anything for as an undergrad. To some extent, fanfiction has always had a place in the English classroom. The history of literature is one of reworking and retelling stories, especially prior to our modern conception of authorship. Popular media narratives often portray fan fiction -- using someone else’s books, TV shows, films, or real-life personas, among other things, as the starting point for original fiction -- as cringe-worthy scenes of sentimentality and/or sex between superheroes or vampires or all five members of a certain floppy-haired boy band. I and plenty of others have worked to ground the historically marginalized practice in “literary” precedent -- favorite examples of authors explicitly refashioning others’ works include Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both of which I first studied in a classroom. But fanfiction as we conceive of it today isn’t quite the same as Rhys tilting the focus of Jane Eyre to the “madwoman in the attic.” Modern fanfic practices are communal, with roots in mid-20th century sci-fi magazines. They’ve grown up through paper zines and collating parties to message boards and digital archives, fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Tumblr and Wattpad. There are broad conventions that link the millions of people reading and writing fanfiction today (the vast majority of whom are wholly uncompensated for their hours of labor, enormous fanfic-to-traditional publishing deals like 50 Shades of Grey and After aside). Transformative fans share a language -- tropes and kink memes and rec lists and OTPs -- and in any given corner of fandom, stories talk to one another in fascinating ways. Fandom has a growing place in higher education: fan studies, a several-decades-old interdisciplinary field that focuses on fans and their practices, often sits within media studies or the social sciences. I had the privilege of attending the Fan Studies Network conference in London last autumn, where I heard a lot of interesting papers about people who really love stuff and the complicated ways they engage with that stuff. Fan scholars study fanfiction, certainly, but often with a focus on the communities that create it. Fanfiction as literature -- reading and potentially critiquing living, (usually) amateur authors and the way they talk back to pop culture’s texts -- is a relatively new prospect in the literature department. But as a former English major who furtively split her adolescent reading between Victorian novels and Harry Potter slashfic, reading fanfiction for credit would’ve been a dream come true. My friend and I make it to the lecture hall just in time, and as we take our seats, the professor, Anne Jamison, makes introductions. She’s wearing a pair of leggings printed with the wallpaper from the living room of 221B Baker Street from the BBC's Sherlock, complete with that yellow smiley face; I covet them deeply. I met Anne online, in the Sherlock fandom a little over a year ago, while I was trying to make sense of the furor surrounding Series 3. I read her book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, flipped out over it, and interviewed her for a piece I wrote owning up to my fannish investment in the show. We met in-person in England last summer, and now I had the luck to be back across the Atlantic the semester she’d be visiting Princeton from the University of Utah. Even better, the semester she’d be teaching a class on fanfiction. “I first got interested in online fan culture because of teaching,” Jamison told me. “I was fascinated by the kinds of in-depth close readings and debates I saw fans of Buffy doing online, and they seemed to find it fun. I wanted my students to think being smart and critical could be fun, so I paid attention.” If you’ve ever spent an afternoon writing a 2,000-word close reading (in fandom, you’d call it a “meta”) of a TV show “for fun,” you definitely understand. The boards led Jamison to fanfiction, and she was struck by the ways that fic writers were engaging with the source material. “I’m eager for students to see creative work and critical work as interrelated,” she said. “I incorporated creative assignments in literature and theory classes long before I’d ever heard of fanfiction, so it was very natural to include fanfiction as part of curriculum.” The cynical side of me expected to hear that a fanfiction class in an Ivy League English department would’ve been met with criticism from the old guard -- walking down the halls of my college English department a decade ago, you’d regularly hear a typewriter clacking away, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t being used to pen fanfic. But she hasn’t encountered professional backlash at Princeton or back home in Utah. “I'm sure there are people who think that but they haven’t told me about it -- not my colleagues,” she said. “I get more pushback on YA and, frankly, on Victorian women’s poetry than I do on fanfic. Nothing can match the snideness with which male scholars of modernism tend to regard Victorian poetry by women.” But she stressed that she’s a tenured professor, a luxury that some fan studies scholars, many of whom are independent, aren’t afforded. “It gives me a kind of intellectual and professional freedom that is quickly disappearing.” Jamison isn’t teaching this particular session of English 222: the guest lecturer is Dr. Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, a fan studies scholar who has come up from Virginia to talk about her area of expertise, transnational fandom, in which she asks questions like, “What happens when people from one place or culture become fans of something from another -- especially if that thing already has a robust local fan culture?” I see these inquires daily on her Tumblr with the tag “transnational fandom FTW” -- Morimoto is another Sherlock friend and I’ve spent the past year relying on her for nuanced global perspectives of the show, and of fandom and cultural consumption more broadly. There’s no one else on the Internet I’d turn to to analyze Benedict Cumberbatch in a kimono, which is about as high a compliment as I can bestow. Morimoto grounds this particular lesson in the personal, describing moving from the U.S. to Hong Kong at a young age and being exposed to Western pop culture through the lens of East Asian media. She’s set the class critical texts as well as some fanfiction, specifically a crossover that puts Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung in the fictionalized world of the Japanese story Onmyouji. After the lecture the students split and attend discussion sessions -- precepts, in Princeton lingo -- and the conversation ranges from revisiting last week’s topic (bronies) to the new reading and issues surrounding clashing cultural perspectives in fandom. Jamison skillfully manages the exchange, pushing in the right places and sitting back in others. Later she tells me, “It is a very diverse class in all kinds of ways -- from ethnic background to major to level of prior fanfic experience, from people who grew up in Harry Potter fandom to people who had never read a fic before. So far everyone has found something to interest them or is doing a great job faking it.” On the day that my friend and I sit in, no one seems to be faking it, because the level of interest is clearly on display: the students are spirited and engaged, and it’s heartening to hear everyone talk about fandom and fanfiction the way they’d talk about broad themes in literature, or about any one traditionally published novel. But fanfiction is not a traditionally published novel, and bringing it into the classroom offers up some new and challenging prospects. To understand these challenges, it helps to know a bit about the dynamics that have governed a lot of fanfiction communities over the past few decades, particularly as they became increasingly visible online. In the early days of online fandom, rights holders -- the authors and corporations that owned the characters people were playing with -- had a lot less understanding of (and patience for) fanfiction: Harry Potter fic archives, for example, were getting cease-and-desist letters from Warner Brothers for copyright infringement. Many authors were careful to brand their stories with legal(ish) disclaimers, something like, “This work is for fun, not for profit, and I own none of these characters.” This conversation has shifted drastically in the past five years: many media corporations encourage fandom -- after all, fans are a guaranteed enthusiastic audience for your product -- but the monetization of some fan works has made the whole prospect trickier, usually hashed out on a case-by-case basis. Stephenie Meyer has sanctioned E. L. James, but plenty of writers, notably George R. R. Martin and Anne Rice, still speak out strongly against fanfiction. (Or Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, who has sort of confusingly compared fanfiction to such things as “someone selling your children into white slavery” and “seducing” her husband.) Because of legal concerns and the broader negative perceptions of the practice, the vast majority of fanfic writers use pseudonyms. I have read stories of people losing jobs when bosses discovered they wrote fanfiction; in Fic, a contributor describes her interest in Twilight fanfiction being used against her in divorce proceedings. The modern web is a less pseudonymous place than it was even five years ago, and some of this has bled over into online fandom, but pseudonyms still reign. Fanfiction is becoming increasingly exposed in the mainstream media, from the deeply positive -- Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, for example -- to the deeply negative, like far too many instances of celebrities being asked to read fanfiction for comic effect. Every bad article written at the expense of “rabid” fangirls puts fans on the defensive, and rightly so. But it can make fanfiction writers, who write for fun and not for profit, protective of their practices and their privacy -- something that’s virtually impossible to achieve when publicly posted on the web. No fanfiction writer wants to be mocked. But do any of them want to be taught in a university classroom? Common practice allows for fanfiction writers to ask for positive feedback only -- “no flames, please” or “no concrit,” short for constructive criticism. But an academic setting is often a critical space. Jamison has thought a lot about this question: where she once asked fanfic writers for permission to teach their work, she usually doesn't now, though she continues to give students strict guidelines for behavior towards these stories in the context of the class. “Part of the reason I stopped asking was because of strong feelings I have about what it means to enter the public sphere,” she told me. “And publish something -- whether for money or not. I think the professional-amateur divide is important, but I don’t think amateur status absolves you from all accountability or public comment.” Her syllabi are carefully crafted -- “I have never worked so hard on a syllabus,” she says -- and she tries to stick to widely-known source material or works that can stand alone: much of the trick of fanfiction is getting the connections between the original and the remix, and without context, not all works hold up. Fandom is not necessarily populated with people angry or uncomfortable having their works taught: many of the authors Jamison features tell her they’re happy to wind up on her syllabus. But there are plenty of people within fandom who believe fanfiction has no place in the classroom at all: to remove a work from its “intended” context and divorce it from a largely unwritten set of rules is a violation for many fan writers. A few weeks into the semester, another university-level fanfiction class sent shock waves through some corners of fandom -- in many peoples’ view, it violated these rules. This class was 3,000 miles away, at the University of California Berkeley, in a student-run pass/fail course that initially asked participants to read fanfiction from a wide variety of sources and then leave constructive criticism -- even when it wasn’t asked for or welcome. The course was brought to broader attention by a fic writer named waldorph, one of the authors featured on the syllabus, when she noticed that her Star Trek story was receiving comments she later described as “bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms.” Waldorph wrote a Tumblr post and it spread rapidly -- many people were outraged that these stories were being engaged with this way. “Fandom writes for fandom,” she told me later. “We write for ourselves and our friends, and I certainly don't think to myself ‘how will this be reviewed by a litcrit class?’ when I hit ‘post’ on AO3...The reality is that the way fandom gets interacted with is changing. The best we can do is be kind to each other and support each other when something like being required reading happens.” The fallout from the revelation was swift and quickly spiraled away from the point of origin. Some authors didn’t mind being on the syllabus, but some certainly did. And one unique facet of fan fiction -- that students were commenting on these stories, thereby directly interacting with authors (who are regularly in conversation with their readers) -- underscored a major source of tension. “Instead of me being in a situation where I become tangentially aware that my works are being used/quoted/whatever and me just laughing and shrugging it off,” she said, “they were coming into my space and interacting directly with me.” The students running and participating in this course were mostly fans themselves, but they didn’t adhere to the “no concrit” rule that waldorph and many other fan writers live by. “My philosophy in navigating fandom is: ‘don’t be a dick,’” she said. “Don't leave a nasty comment, just back-button out. If you can’t be kind about something you've read, don't engage with it, and certainly don’t make that person feel bad about the thing they worked on.” For the professors teaching fanfiction and fandom, sorting out these boundaries presents an enormous professional and ideological challenge, but they resist an “us versus them” kind of dichotomy, something waldorph also worked against as she analyzed the situation. The Internet is built on confirmation bias: it is easier to see the like-minded than not, especially in a place like fandom, which can often serve as a retreat from the stresses of daily life or a place to make genuine connections based on shared interest alone. But it’s not a monolith, and that often gets lost in the discourse. “Fandom encompasses a real diversity of cultures,” Morimoto told me. “Cultures of social class, of gender, of sexuality, cultures of race, of language, of role...I think we do fandom a disservice by a singular emphasis on community.” Jamison echoed this idea when I asked her about the Berkeley course. “I think it is important to acknowledge that those were student instructors who were active in fandom and based on their experiences in fandom, they thought what they were doing was in keeping with fandom practice, from what I understand. There is no one ‘fandom.’” Sometimes it’s hard for me, a long-time fanfiction reader who’s never been brave enough to post her own fix -- and I have written thousands of words over the years -- to wrap my head around the idea of fanfiction being a closed community that can’t stomach criticism. The broader Internet can be a scary place to send out your words. When my colleagues and I publish articles on the web, with open comment threads beneath them and links to Twitter accounts where anyone can direct attacks, we wade into the mire -- but then, we do so with full knowledge of that mire. And I haven’t been brave enough to post that fic -- fandom, our connections to the characters and stories we really, really love, can feel so personal. Fiction is deeply personal, too. I want to protect fanfiction from unwanted outside attention -- and I want to sing its praises to the world. In the vast sea of fanfiction, much of it obviously varying in quality, there is some extraordinary writing happening, stuff that belongs in a university classroom, side by side with the classics. It’s a genre that works in new and interesting ways, and it deserves to be studied in loving detail. Mainstream attention of fanfiction isn’t going to go away -- and it’s quickly ceasing to be a punch line, something I could never have predicted even five years ago. It will be taught and studied in future classrooms across the country -- the only question is how. Image Credit: Flickr/kaffeeringe
In Person

Viva Las Vegas: On Getting an MFA in Sin City

The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle”. “Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!” I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100 percent facetious: I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler. And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker. I think about it often. The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall, it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake. In Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me. There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist -- or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I'll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the 19th draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed. I met my girlfriend in the MFA program, and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean if you want to,” she’d say. Next time, it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce. They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50 percent chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo. So we became regulars at the El Cortez -- an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers and made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds. Channeling the ghost of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers), we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker. It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went. So why do it? As a graduate assistant, I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts. I won’t wade too far into that except to say that though I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can), for me, it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down. In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O'Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt. Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work. It’s as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill. Then take the long view. I’ll probably need 10 years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on 11. “Bad beats” -- those gambling losses that should have been wins -- can always be written-off as research anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor? In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them. Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: It takes money to make money, so the rich get richer. I prefer craps, where players win or lose together; “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house -- that oligarchy upstairs. In his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.” He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. Although marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.” He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in 30 days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Teaching on a campus where 75 percent of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out. A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles like a slot machine. Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school, so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance. When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices (well, not overindulging anyway). I will say this, though: You learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon, which is good. In writing, as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a winning streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more. The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well. Image Credit: Pixabay.
In Person

Tend to the Wounded: Dispatches from Kyiv

1. Kyiv – 18-20 February 2015 Mikhail Bulgakov opens White Guard -- his semi-autobiographical novel about the Turbin family and their experiences in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) -- with a brief description of the winter night sky: “…highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds' star, eventide Venus; and Mars - quivering, red.” The first time I read it, perhaps 20 years ago, I groaned at the labored Prince of Peace vs. God of War metaphor. Written in the stars, no less. Ugh. Another Russian drama queen. It happens less often nowadays, but it turns out that in the right circumstances I can still be an ass -- Prince of Peace vs. God of War is about damn right. It was last year over these three days that 105 Ukrainians died when a political protest taking place about a half-mile from Bulgakov’s Kyiv home went medieval -- that is, if you’re comfortable with broadening the received definition of ‘medieval’ to include turning fire-hoses on crowds in -10˚C temperatures, family-packs of Molotov cocktails, and sniper fire. This is the first time I’ve been in a hot war zone, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’m too old for this shit. Bulgakov volunteered for it, and then watched as the Chekhovian gentility his family enjoyed was crushed between strident Bolshevism and myopic Nationalism. For that, I can forgive him his bathetic imagery. I can also see (better late than never) how the picture works well as a fulcrum for this novel of war and its horrors, of loyalty and its limits. I can forgive him because history seems to be repeating itself here in Kyiv, and he called it in White Guard. Desperate for peace, yet no end of war. He’s tricky about it. Tricky like Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, which, for about 200 pages, has you thinking you’re reading a standard detective thriller, and then suddenly you’re not, at all. That level of tricky. That species of tricky. Bulgakov teases with some noirish Kyiv urbanscapes, irritates with some tedious description of military equipment, and charms with samovars and Orthodoxy and tea on the veranda. And all the while he’s sneaking up behind you with a two-by-four, because what he’s really been talking about this whole time is collapse. Outlining the inevitable failure of those who resist conscious engagement of the world; prophesying the certainty that men will make war, sometimes assembling randomly on the same ground twice in a century; and above all, offering a nuanced critique of the tendency to cloister ourselves when confronted with an unexpectedly complex world. The novel conveys his sense of loss, of befuddlement, while managing to issue a clear challenge to the smug imperturbability -- and culpability -- borne by privilege in times of cultural collapse. Where The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog subvert with satire, you see it coming, but with the guileless White Guard you don’t. Joseph Stalin, sentimental fool, and perhaps grasping the value of a writer who could express so beautifully the futility of resistance, let Bulgakov live. Traveling to Kyiv? White Guard is an indispensible vade mecum for the lit-minded tourist moving through streets and yards once again soaked in blood, and hoping for a glimpse into the city’s ancient heart. 2. November 1, 2013 An old soviet joke. Guy goes to a fortune teller: “For ten years you won’t have enough to eat, your friends will betray you, and your life will be a web of lies,” she says. “Ten years?” he groans. “Then what?” “You get used to it.” Post-Soviet life is badly lit but you get used to it. I’m in a second floor interior room of a publicly-funded medical facility near the center of Kyiv. There’s just enough light in here to reveal some hulking thing in the shadows that swallow the opposite wall. I’m not alone. A woman is issuing clipped instructions in a voice more smoke than sound, like something out of a Soviet film from the “let’s-all-slit-our-wrists-but-let’s-get-blind-drunk-first” school. The whisperer alternates as clinic radiologist and apparent doppelganger of Margarita Terekhova, the actress who illuminates Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo. She’s also probably too young to have seen the film. Will this generation be the one? Or will they emerge from this as jaded as their elders? In his (1993) debut novel The Year of the Frog, Slovak writer Martin Šimečka depicts the airless existence of a young man in communist Czechoslovakia. A dissident father’s political essays have left his son, a long-distance runner, blacklisted from university. His prospects truncated, the boy endures soul-numbing humiliation as he searches for a response to his censure preferable to that of simple resignation. If dignity in identity exists, then the question is not whether to resist a tyrant, but how and for how long. What impresses most about the people who undergird Ukraine’s “Revolution in Dignity” is that they, like Šimečka’s protagonist, are in this for the long run. She extends a tiny birdboned hand and I surrender my overcoat and belt. She hangs them on a hook that she can see but I cannot. Then my shirt, which she drapes across the back of a chair. It shimmers in the soft focus of the half-light. She takes me by the elbow and leads me toward the shadows. Shirtless and out of options except to follow. I’m breathing through a straw. We stop near the hulking thing -- some kind of metal booth on a six-inch platform. She helps me step up and inside and tells me to cross my arms above my head. Her cool hand on my back, she urges me to lean forward onto a metal sheet, which I -- freed of any thoughts of resistance -- do. She’s off toward her booth, closing a door, punching a button. An analog of her voice pulses over an ancient speaker in an invitation to corruption -- "breathe deep, hold, do not move" -- followed by an electric hiss and a thud. The voice comes back on to tell me we are done here. I take comfort in “we,” somewhat less in “here.” She thumbs one switch in a bank of four and the room goes dark. 3. February 18, 2014 I live on Podil, a thousand-year-old Kyiv neighborhood squeezed between low hills and the right bank of the Dnieper River. In 1811, a fire rid the quarter of its wooden structures, and the place was rebuilt in brick and stone by Russian Empire architects with a thing for proscenium arches, fluted pilasters, and mascarons. It is robust and residential, a mix of significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and flush with small business. The bug-eyed shock of Western European news reports on “Ukraine’s Fascist Problem” strike us as particularly unreflective -- tendentious, and not at all helpful. The area is proving largely impervious to gentrification: no doubt the result of our fascist problem. It takes a brisk 20 minutes from my flat, uphill and down, to reach the fighting on Maidan. It’s late, after 11, and I am walking in a silent drizzle down an otherwise deserted Pritisko-Mykilska Street, trying hard to recall the century. I stop in front of the Florivska Convent, named for Florus and Laurus - saints and stonemasons. The sisters ran a hospital here for the better part of three centuries, and busloads of health pilgrims from Moscow still arrive each week. In summer the rose gardens dazzle. Eyeballing the distances, from this spot a right fielder with a good arm could hit the abbey, swivel left to pick off St. Nicholas Church at one end of the street, and then back right to target Our Lady of Pirogoscha bookending the other. Around another corner curves St. Andrew’s Descent – Andreyevsky Spusk to locals – and the home of White Guard, where Mikhail Bulgakov spent half his life. 4. November 1, 2013 The radiologist takes me to her cabinet and offers me tea. While we wait for the electric kettle she holds up my film to the desk lamp and stares. She wags a finger at a smudge she sees there and sits to write out her diagnosis in duplicate, longhand. It’s something you notice -- the immaculate penmanship. No heart-topped i’s or schoolgirl loops: this is Klingon cursive. That and the near sacral insistence on handwritten documentation. It starts early, this insistence. Arts or sciences, crisp classroom dictation and flawless transcription are tried and true staples of (post-)Soviet pedagogy. In Ukraine’s education system -- so utterly shattered and for so long -- flawless calligraphy provides cheap validation that some standards are immutable. On some days there is more solace than despair in the thought that Kyiv of 2015 is not so far removed from Kiev of 1918. Not that long ago, and with computers on every desk, the tellers at the branch where I do my banking still also wrote out each transaction by hand. “Handwritten is more reliable” they tell me. So near the Bulgakov home, who can argue. In his engrossing Love and Garbage, Czech writer Ivan Klima writes about the inevitable cultural stagnation that follows the sanguinity of an uprising. His is the story of a Prague writer-cum-street sweeper discredited by the totalitarian regime, yet determined to pursue that which most engages him -- life itself. The loneliness and alienation are palpable as Klima guides us on a lover’s tour of Prague, urging us to consider: “When does a person become what he otherwise only pretends to be?” What are the limits of a disengaged conscience? What is the true nature -- and genesis -- of coercion? An older woman in a lab coat knocks and enters as we sip our tea. She’s carrying a tray of large, white onions, cut in half. She sets a half-onion on the desk and leaves, closing the door behind herself. 5. February 20, 2015 Andreyevsky Spusk is a cobblestoned switchback rising along the contours of the hill – witness to the truth that beauty in ancient cities is not a consequence of design, but of resistance to it. Stones come loose, yards overgrown, random, tumbling watercourses following a heavy rain, and light from a streetlamp curving through fog in a way that quantum physics rejects but the 19-century insists on. The street is beautiful in the way that a thing can be only at advanced age -- after history has weighed in and done its worst. Noises carry surprisingly well down its length. An arguing couple walking downhill on an otherwise quiet night are sound long before they’re light. I follow the curve up, and just past the Bulgakov home on the sweep of the wind comes the sound of drums, atavistic, insistent, from Maidan. 6. December 18, 2014 We learn that Oleh Lysheha died last night. One of the good ones -- a sculptor, playwright, and the nation’s finest lyric poet. He enjoyed going barefoot in the city. James Brasfield’s translation in The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha with its spare Ukrainian–English antiphony is something of a minor miracle. 7. November 1, 2013 She clips one copy of her report about my slushy left lung to the enormous x-ray and slides it over to me. The other she drops onto a pile on the corner of her desk. She is 25 -- probably -- freckled, almond-eyed, with a Slavic jawline evolved for a Paris runway. Inside a bulky sweater and lab coat she is also tiny. I’m two of her. 8. January-February 2014 Protestors erecting Mad Max barricades control Kyiv’s Independence and European Squares: Maidan. Mounds of burning car tires endlessly replenished provide a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus, Mars, and now Vulcan. Small squads of priests vested in penitential black approach the riot lines at regular intervals to pray. Regular orchestrated volleys of gunfire come through the smoke from the police side. Casualties begin to mount. The American Embassy issues its advisory to stay clear. I’m back at the clinic for an all-clear. Kyivites by the hundreds, including my radiologist, tend to the wounded in field hospitals on Maidan. Image Credits: Flickr/Ivan Bandura; Sasha Maksymenko; Jordi Bernabeu Farrús.
In Person

Murder Goes to Prep School: A Conversation About Tana French’s The Secret Place

Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French's work in general.  Janet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they're not strictly a series, each new book's detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing. The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the "this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I'm going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is" trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls' boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects. French has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I'm a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder. I guess I'm not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book? Edan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you--at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French's trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, "little crunch of a grin" and  "the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet." Although I hadn't gotten bored of French's mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn't hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran's professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen's first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls' perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, which we've discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!)  The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations. I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that's good. Unfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don't like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don't feel three-dimensional.  They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn't fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness. Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn't give this book a female victim. I'm glad that The Secret Place doesn't have a True Detective problem--you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that's what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts? Janet: I hadn't drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That's really fascinating, and I think it's why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what's going on in both character's heads — how they're reading the other person, how they're adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book. I agree with you that Joanne's gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly's group in starker relief. But is "deepened and strengthened" even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt's A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book? Edan: You're right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: "And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda's gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my  banged-up fists along with my enemy's blood." That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran's weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives--what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear...)  By the time the book gets to Holly's final interrogation, though, I wasn't that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn't as effective. As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion...but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne's circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be. The supernatural stuff delighted but didn't totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations...but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean--there's their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there's Chris's ghost. I couldn't connect them--did I miss something?  It felt muddled...but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book. Let's talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms...and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap?  Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim--who is found covered in flowers, I might add. Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don't have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn't trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens. Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French's detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we'll get into that in French's next book). The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer. It's also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen's, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book? Edan: I'm also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot--not only to the book's own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right. I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, "Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends' secret places."  It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also...a girl's private parts.  I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina. This theory of why Antoinette couldn't crack the case is intriguing--is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn't adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn't like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects. Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French's novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!
In Person

Cultural Exchange

In 2011, I spent three weeks alone in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducting research for my undergraduate thesis. During that time, I rented an apartment belonging to a family friend’s former nanny. Like most Russians, the nanny was out of town for the season, but her pregnant daughter Nastya lived in the adjoining apartment with her husband Tolik. Although they must have had work, they seemed to be home, like me, at odd hours of the day. Occasionally I would return from the library to find Tolik smoking a furtive cigarette out of the open living room window, or huge vats of fruit boiling, unattended, on the stove. This meant Nastya was making jam, which I would later eat in tiny stolen spoonfuls from the excess jars she stored in her mother’s fridge. I had hoped Nastya and Tolik would provide a social counterbalance to my asocial days of reading and translating, but the couple adhered to a strict policy of benign neglect. After days without a real conversation, the icons hanging in my bedroom began to take on sympathetic expressions as I vented my research-related frustrations aloud. I was relieved when Nastya and Tolik came over, late one Monday night, to invite me on a daytrip to Finland. They were planning to scope out cheap land for a dacha, Russia’s unpretentious version of the summer home. Naturally, I accepted.  We piled into their well-aged, light blue sedan around 9am on a Wednesday. Tolik drove, Nastya sat in the passenger seat, and I got in the back, which felt cramped even for me who, at 5’2”, was last considered tall in the fifth grade. After stopping for cash at a nearby ATM (for bribes at the border?), we were off. Immediately Tolik bombarded me with questions: Does everyone in America own a gun? Do you have black friends? What’s your grandmother’s pension? What sort of car do you drive? I began to wonder if he had been keeping a list since I arrived. To most of them I pled ignorance (“I don’t know” being one of my favorite Russian phrases), or demurred, “New York City isn’t really America.” Tolik either ran through all the questions on his list, or grew weary of my diplomatic answers, because eventually he turned up the Russian pop on the radio and relaxed into the drive. I did not relax. I worried about my lungs (the car smelt strongly of diesel) and my teeth (might the engine’s vibrations cause one to chip?), while wistfully eying the poetry book I had brought (if only I had thought of ear plugs...) Trees stood a few feet from the road on both sides; there was nothing to look at but forest, and it all looked the same. Maybe, I thought, I should have stayed home. As we approached the border crossing, Tolik pulled onto the shoulder and turned the music down. “Do you have your passport?” I held it out to him, visa page open. It was, I realized, a single-entry visa, meaning once I left Russia, I wasn’t allowed to come back. “Put it away,” he told me. Then, “Don’t say anything.” He smiled before turning back onto the road. The guard booths advanced. Visions of Russian prison danced in my head. Tolik rolled down his window and began speaking to the guard like they were old friends from school. Within two minutes, they had waved us into Finland without asking to see so much as a driver’s license. Tolik and Nastya did not appear to have a destination in mind: they were actively scanning the landscape through their windows, hoping, I imagined, to spot the perfect plot for their dacha, illuminated by a ray of sunlight or ringed, perhaps, with daisies. What they were looking for, it turned out, was water. Tolik hooked a left down a gravel road on the far side of a large lake. It led us to a large decrepit building that looked as if it had once served as an asylum. While Tolik and Nastya searched for a woman to interrogate about the area, I wandered off to photograph a Jeep decaying in the forest.  On the way back, we stopped at Vyborg to see an ancient Swedish fortress. As is often the case in Northern Russia, the day, which had started off blue as a Picasso painting, had turned cold and grey. Only a few minutes after we left the car, the clouds burst open.  “Run!” Nastya shrieked. We were soaked and breathless when we finally reached the museum. Nastya twisted her hair and laughed as a thin stream of water fell to the floor. Tolik bought us all coffees from a vending machine. We drank them standing up. Then, since the rain had abated, we decided to climb the tower. In the 15 minutes it took to scale the steep, winding stairs, the sun had come out and a rainbow had formed. Tolik insisted on taking several photos of me in front of it, all of which he proclaimed “beautiful,” although, when I looked at them later, I found my eyes were closed in all but two of the pictures. The drive back was long and miserable. By the time we got home, around 6pm, I was irritable and hungry enough to regret giving up a day of solitude for one transcendent moment in the rain. But something changed after that. Nastya told me to help myself to her jam. Tolik would offer me a cigarette whenever he came in to smoke even though each time I politely declined. The rain had washed some invisible boundary away. The following December I got an email from them, wishing me a happy new year. “If you’re planning to come to St. Petersburg in the New Year, stop by for tea,” they wrote, before signing off, “Your Russian friends.” Images courtesy the author
In Person

You’re a Wizard, Julia: Getting to Know 20-Time Jeopardy! Champion Julia Collins

When I met last week with Julia Collins, who recently completed the second-longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history, we spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to figure out if we’d met before. She and I were in the same class at Wellesley College (2005! Go green class!) and went through the you-seem-vaguely-familiar ropes for a while (“Do you know Lizy?” “Yeah I know Joy and Lizy, I was Melissa’s roommate.” “Ohhhhh.”) After her first win, on April 21, a mutual friend of ours from Wellesley posted the video on Facebook, which means that, yeah, I was rooting for Julia before it was cool. She won 20 games in all, second only to Ken Jennings’s 74-game-streak, and by the time her elimination in her 21st game aired on June 2, she was a Jeopardy! celebrity. The media had taken to her — or to the chance to use the term “winningest woman” as often as they could — and fans of the show loved her. “I’m such a Julia fan!” my mom texted me after her 17th win. Earlier in the year Arthur Chu, who studied game theory before appearing on the show, drew ire for an 11-game winning streak that some considered aggressive or “unsportsmanlike,” and Julia was something of a palette cleanser for his detractors. Poised and congenial, Julia nonetheless dominated her 20 games, going into Final Jeopardy with more than double the closest contestant’s score most of the time. As Alex Trebek said during the introduction to her 21st game, “We have a wonderfully delightful, friendly champion in Julia Collins. Until she gets into a game, then she becomes relentless.” Julia told me that her success is due to a wide knowledge base, a good memory, the ability to not get rattled, and a knack with the buzzer, but that “I don’t have anything new strategically to bring to the conversation. You don’t need to know everything to win, you just need to know enough.” Julia took Jeopardy!'s annual online qualifying test last January, and went to live auditions in Detroit last July. In December, the show called and told her they were flying her to California in mid-January to tape episodes that would air in April, giving her a little more than a month to prepare. As a long-time fan of the show, she knew to bulk up her knowledge of space, opera, and seasonal topics — in this case Easter, Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, the anniversary of Lexington & Concord, etc. She also checked The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare out of the library to review each play’s plot, characters, and most famous quotes. “A high school level knowledge of most things is what you need,” she told me, extolling breadth over depth of knowledge for success in Jeopardy!. I asked her what difference she thought her preparation made in her wins, and she estimated only about 5 or 10 percent of the questions she answered correctly were from her studying. “It made a difference but not a huge difference, but it might have been enough.” Besides preparing for the questions, Julia had to fill out a contestant questionnaire — used to determine what Trebek will talk to you about in the mini-interview after the first commercial break — including questions like “What’s the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to you?” and “Tell us about a travel adventure that you’ve had.” Julia noted how hard it is to come up with things that will be pithy and interesting that you can summarize in one or two sentences. “As someone noted online,” she said, “it seemed like I hit the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly.” “I quickly learned,” she continued, “that when Alex asks you something you say yes and you move the conversation forward. Disagreeing with him will just make you look stupid, which is something I made the mistake of doing. He was like, ‘Well why didn’t you try out for the college and high school tournaments?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think they were happening,’ and he was like, ‘I think they were.’ As awkward as it was on TV it was much more awkward in person.” Upcoming contestants are also told to bring three outfits with them to the tapings, and Julia really shone in this department with what Jezebel called “an A+ monochromatic sweater game.” It was revealed to this reporter that Julia’s sweater of choice is the J.Crew Tippi, which she owns in at least 5 colors and a few matching cardigans. She amassed this collection during her time traveling as a business consultant, and found them to be perfect for the Jeopardy studio. “They don’t wrinkle,” she enthused, “They’re warm but not too warm.” She also rotated in one or two pieces from Banana Republic, which is what she was wearing when she was eliminated. Draw your own conclusions. Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, two days a week. On each taping day a group of 12 or 13 contestants arrive at 8 in the morning for rehearsal, make-up, pictures with Trebek, and to go over their interview topics with the producers before taping a week’s worth of shows. The two new contestants for each game are chosen randomly right before it’s taped, and the remaining contestants watch from the audience until they’re chosen for a game. This means that the contestants in a Friday show have, in this case, seen Julia steamroll through eight other contestants before it’s their turn, which Julia admits adds an “intimidation factor.” Because Julia’s first appearance was on a Monday show, it also means that she won her first $100,000 in one day. Julia traveled to California three separate times in January and February to tape her 21 appearances against 42 other contestants. I asked Julia at what point during the pre-show these poor souls typically found out they’d be facing a juggernaut of a returning champion. “Right at the beginning,” she said, almost apologetically, “it was really awkward.” Most Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune contestants stay in a hotel near the studio, and a shuttle comes in the morning to collect them. On the day that Julia would tape her 6th-10th shows, she remembers listening to the other contestants on the ride over talk about how excited and nervous they were and wondering what the day would be like. “I didn’t want to ruin the moment,” she said, keeping mum until they got to the studio and the producers introduced her to the other contestants as the returning champion. “Julia!” they said, “tell them how much you’ve won!” Julia lives in Wilmette, just north of Chicago, and when she was home in between tapings she would continue her prep work, although she was confident she was on the right track. “After five games I came home and was reading about Jeopardy! strategy and I was like, ‘This is stupid, why change what I’m already doing?’ I studied some more, but why mess with what’s working?” Her 21st game, she said, “just kind of didn’t go my way. It was a close game but I’d won other games that were close. It’s not like I saw the categories and thought, ‘This spells my doom.’” The game started as most of them did, with Julia taking an early lead and then leaping ahead in Double Jeopardy, even betting all her money on a Daily Double, which she almost never did. At one point about halfway through the second round she was about $1,000 ahead of both contestants. Then she missed her second Daily Double, and Brian, the contestant on the far right, went on a streak. They traded the lead a few times and Brian retook it on the final question, putting him $1600 ahead going into Final Jeopardy. “The big difference was that I’d never gone into Final Jeopardy in second place before,” Julia said, “and I knew he would bet to win." Brian is an investment manager from Massachusetts, and Julia remembers learning that during the pre-show and thinking “this is not somebody who’s gonna be nervous about risk-taking. I knew he would bet to win.” The category was “Oscar-winning writers.” Recognizing her position, Julia bet all her money, something she’d never done before, and Brian bet to beat her if she did. The clue was: “Winning for 1999, this New England writer is the last person to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel.” The answer was John Irving with Cider House Rules. “I just didn’t know it. I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve read other John Irving books but not that one. I didn’t know it and nothing was going to make me come up with it.” Julia guessed Michael Chabon and lost her $11,000, Brian wrote down John Irving for the win. When Trebek reads Brian’s correct answer, you can hear Julia sigh, a sigh echoed in front of television screens across the nation. [If you’d like to have your heart broken by that sigh, you can watch it and all of Julia’s Jeopardy appearance on the Julia Collins YouTube channel, which she does not operate herself.] There are a few questions that haunt her — a Daily Double about Beethoven came to mind — but not the ones that she just didn’t know, so in a way it’s better that she went out on a question that stumped her rather than one she should have remembered, or one she knew but didn’t have the money to win. After taping her 21st game she came back to Wilmette and had about 2 months to wait until she was on the air. She went on a five-week trip to Paris and London, which couldn’t avoid raising a few eyebrows. “All my friends were like, ‘Does this mean you won Jeopardy!?’ and I was like ‘Shhhhh.’” When her episodes starting airing in April she set up the Twitter account @JeopardyJulia and live-tweeted most games with insider info like “Alex mentioned afterward that he suggested the writers add “Southern state” to the #FinalJeopardy clue” or “The name changed from Siam to Thailand in July, 1939... I guess after the encyclopedia came out. #DailyDouble #OverthoughtIt.” She left her consulting job before competing on Jeopardy!, and due to her success on the show isn’t in a rush to find something new. She mentions that she’s open to a career change and I wondered if she, like Ken Jennings and Arthur Chu before her, would consider using her Jeopardy status in new projects (Chu is now a Daily Beast contributor and Jennings is basically a professional Jeopardy champion). “I’m kind of exploring some possibilities, seeing what’s out there,” she said. “People say find what you love and do it for the rest of your life. Well, I found it and now I’m done. I’d like to see if there are new opportunities that come out of this.” I asked her if she’d had any idea, or hope, that she’d go so far in Jeopardy!. “Before I went out I had three trains of thought about it,” she said. The first was just that she’d do well, enjoy herself, and leave with dignity. The second was that she’d really love to win one game, and be able to call herself a Jeopardy! champion. But “when you let your imagination run free,” she said, “everyone wonders if they’ll be the next Ken Jennings. It’s like if you’re an 11-year-old kid and you’re like ‘I’m going to get a letter form Hogwarts because I’m a wizard like Harry Potter.’”
In Person

Seeing the Birds Through the Trees

1. I thought the world would look different at 7:30am. I had Thoreauvian visions of untainted nature, Dillardesque hopes for remote reflection, Emersonian fancies of transcendent scenery. Instead, Prospect Park was just Prospect Park, albeit sleepier. I didn’t find a transformed world by waking up at such an ungodly Saturday hour, but I did find the group of birders I would spend the morning with. (Bless their hearts, birders are very identifiable, with their conspicuous binoculars, chunky boots, tan vests, and ball caps or fishing hats.) Thoreauvian? Dillardesque? Emersonian? My apologies. Birding has turned me into a romantic and made me prone to hyperoble. It’s also given me very high expectations. I blame Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, for this. In the title essay of his collection Farther Away, he writes, “I understood the difference between [David Foster Wallace’s] unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” He even regretfully wonders if, had he started birdwatching sooner, it would have saved his marriage. I am new to birdwatching, and I came to it obliquely, via a research divergence. But one cannot just lean casually into the feather fray. You must be immersive. So suddenly I heard myself saying, “I need these Eagle Optic binoculars. I need Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification. I need to watch The Central Park Effect documentary and read John James Audubon’s collected writings.” Then, before I knew it, I was perusing the Prospect Park Bird Sightings blog, studying up on patterns, habitats, and behaviors on the subway, and lacing up my L.L. Bean Boots for my first birding adventure. “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision,” J.A. Baker writes in The Peregrine. I too never gave birds their due. Before my interest in birding was piqued, my observed natural world was so small it could fit inside a terrarium. My knowledge of birds was little more than the scattering of black “v’s” behind the bubble clouds of my childhood drawings, the seagulls hovering on the beach when I dropped a Dorito, and the city pigeons disarming me with their boldness. I could identify a robin, a blue jay, and the other obvious culprits, but beyond that, I didn't have the eyes to see something that deserved a name, a genus, or a journal entry. My ignorance was so pervasive that as a child, I frequently asked for the name of the black birds that murmured through the sky and sat on phone lines. I never got an answer. These birds were anonymous yet ubiquitous. No name, no distinctive traits, barely even a shape. To me, they simply existed as shadows of the idea of a bir-dah. My learning curve was as steep as Bambi’s. Birds were just flying, pecking, perching creatures, uniform and unassertive upon my consciousness, the monks of the skies. And this is why I embarked on birding: to watch the richness of these feathered creatures unfurl like the beauty of a monk’s interior life. Birds “know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” J.A. Baker continues. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse we can never reach.” 2. February 2, 2014. I hit the fields. My new binoculars stowed in my backpack, my birding journal scribbled with a few preliminary notes, and I was ready for my inaugural adventure. I biked into Prospect Park with only a vague idea of where to go, and I was still a little mystified about how one actually finds birds. I had been reading a lot about the ins and outs of identification, but how one sees them in the first place was apparently too obvious for any birder to mention, though I wouldn’t have minded having my intelligence insulted. I pulled off onto a path that led to some water. As I walked, I told myself to just keep looking up. I gazed into the naked trees, vacant and dull. Maybe winter birding was going to be harder than I thought. I had imagined finding a cloistered log that I could perch on while waiting for various species to peek out or fly by. But even in February, Prospect Park had a lot of foot traffic and even more fences and muddy lawn restorations, limiting me to the broader, paved paths. Lesson #1: Birding means walking. As I looked at the map, deciding where to go, I heard something. A bird, clearly, but what kind? Was it visible? I looked up for motion, colors, rustling, anything, but I could only see bare branches. So I leaned my bike against the fence, pulled out my binoculars, and held them to my face. I haphazardly directed them towards the birdsong, high up in the tops of the trees. Bam! A red mark filled my vision. I was looking at a bird! Somehow, I had managed to set my gaze directly on a stunning specimen: a red-bellied woodpecker. Of course I had no idea at the time what I was looking at, but I was captivated, breathless, awed. Through the binoculars, I felt like I could touch the woodpecker’s blazing head, as it ducked in and out of a hole. This bird had all the proper pomp fit for my birding inauguration. I was so excited I could have watched it for days, but I noticed another person was standing beside me. I lowered my binoculars. "See anything?" the woman asked. "Yes! Some sort of woodpecker!" I exclaimed and pointed. "I have no idea what kind." "Oh, that’s a red-bellied woodpecker." I saw the woman had her own pair of binoculars around her neck. “Are you a birder?” I asked. She nodded. "It’s my first time out!" I was still giddy, and eager to get back to watching my newfound love. "This is the first bird I’ve ever seen through binoculars!" I couldn’t get the exclamations points out of my voice. I was ready to go back to watching the woodpecker, but Kathy wanted to keep talking. She was giving me tips on where to go in the park, different clubs, the use of Twitter. "Have you seen any birds today?" I asked. "Yes, but just the usual ones." "Like what?" She rattled off a long list, and none of them sounded usual at all. “I’d be happy to see any of those! It’s all new for me.” We chatted some more until she went on her way. I turned back to the tree and held up my binoculars, but alas, the woodpecker had moved on too. But I was grateful. The first time I lifted my binoculars to my face, I not only saw an exquisite creature, but I got a taste of the warm community of birders. I strolled for the rest of the afternoon until my toes went numb, but my list -- birders are all about lists! -- acquired 12 new birds, some familiar, some not, but they all looked exotic under my newly attentive eyes. 3. When Annie Dillard watched a free-falling mockingbird spread its wings just shy of the ground, she reflected: “The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Even in Brooklyn, the world’s virtues are everywhere on display, but I had only flippantly and irresponsibly engaged with them, noting pigeons and sparrows, but ignoring the 300 of North America’s 700 bird species that were migrating through New York City each year. “The obligation of a human being is to attentiveness,” I’ve heard Marilynne Robinson say. “Life is always a matter of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus,” Christian Wiman writes. I had a lot to learn about life from birding. 4. April 14, 2014. Finally, it flitted through my lens. The rare visitor to Prospect Park had had groupies from all over the borough seeking it, but by the time I arrived at the special locale, there was just one other birder. The Yellow-Throated Warbler was tiny, and preferred the highest boughs; its motion was gleeful. I tried to follow the acrobatics, lowering my binoculars when it disappeared and raising them quickly when it reappeared. I had only seconds at a time to marvel at its glimmering throat a misplaced crown. I temporarily trained my eyes to only see the warbler, but my internal voice distracted me: “You’re so lucky someone tipped you off!”; “Your first rare bird!”; “Log this now!”; “Take it in!” I tried to listen to the last directive most of all. The warbler stunned me. Watching it was exhilarating. Witnessing its beauty felt like a bracing privilege. Then, just like that, it vanished. I waited around, hoping it would return, but it didn’t (to the dismay of a couple who had just arrived). Finally, I continued on my way, feeling nourished, expanded, light. If before I hadn’t been fully convinced by this new hobby, after that I was hooked. I strolled for another hour or so, looking for my next hit of beauty, each one so fleeting that it couldn't be hoarded but demanded constant pursuit. 5. The irony of picking up a hobby that requires attentiveness is that it’s distracting. One weekend, while I was playing catch, the feathery shadows and birdsongs pulled my attention up to the left and right like a marionette. And now when I’m outside with friends, I find myself struggling to focus on the conversation. Rather than being present, I reach for my binoculars. By learning birdwatching, I might have actually made my initial challenge to learn attentiveness ever harder since I’ve filled my multi-tasking arsenal with one more diversion. And I’ve put myself at a higher risk for a social anxiety that has acquired its own acronym FOMO: the fear of missing out. Every nice May day that I haven’t chased the jeweled Spring migrants fills me with regret. The failure to chase a Summer Tanager, because I’m too hungry and tired, pings me with sadness. “Bird-watching is an exercise in balance,” Jonathan Rosen writes in The Life of the Skies. It also requires prioritization and parameters. I quickly learned that there is a distinct hierarchy of birds. The rarer a bird, the more valuable. Basic economics. At first, it felt unjust to see a gorgeous blue jay or magnificent cardinal dismissed simply for being common, even though their colors and patterns are anything but. However, I think such partiality is part of sifting through abundance. Take the time to still notice the familiar, but chase what is scarce. There is so much beauty, once we finally look for it, that we would be toppled by it if we didn’t exercise some sort of scrutiny. Birdwatching isn’t all romance and sublimity, though. It can also be frustrating. Your feet get tired and sometimes, you just may not see anything. “It’s the writer’s life, really,” Jonathan Franzen says in The Central Park Effect. “Any artist’s life is failing, failing, failing, waiting around, thinking nothing will ever work again. All the interesting birds are gone. Nature’s falling apart. And then, suddenly you’re seeing a prothonotary warbler, and all of that is forgotten. There’s this moment when the world is okay.” I’m sure that is why birding felt so foreign to me. I’m not naturally inclined to persevere through failure. I think many of us miss out for this same reason. We are too busy inspecting our peers on Twitter and Facebook. We mope in our failures and miss out on our own lives. And this isn’t a 21st-century problem! As Florence Merriam, an American ornithologist and nature writer, observed in 1889: “We are so in the habit of focusing our spy-glasses on our human neighbors that it seems an easy matter to label them and their affairs, but when it comes to birds -- alas!, not only are there legions of kinds, but, to our bewildered fancy, they look and act exactly alike. Yet though our task seems hopeless at the outset, before we recognize the conjurer a new world of interest and beauty has opened before us.” When I went on my first communal birding trip with the Brooklyn Bird Club at 7:30am, I wanted to step right into a new world, but I had to walk to find it. As we traced the park by following its boughs instead of its paths, Prospect Park was finally turned upside down. It transformed it into the otherworld I was hoping to enter upon arrival. Transcendence is not about when you look, but how. After a few hours of walking, and over 20 new additions to my list, the Park was as unfamiliar to me as a street aglow with Christmas lights. Its trees were decked with doodads: a great blue heron, a pine warbler, a blue-headed vireo, a downy woodpecker, and more. And so for a brief moment, my worries and woes were held at bay. Right there in my urban backyard, the world had been made new for me because amid such lavish Thoreauvian, Dillardesque, and Emersonian displays, I had learned to see the birds through the trees. Image Credit: Flickr/Derek Keats
In Person, The Future of the Book

The London Book Fair: Many Tote Bags but Few Industry Solutions

I have been at the London Book Fair for approximately eight minutes when I officially decide that I am not meant to be at the London Book Fair. Don’t worry: I haven’t snuck in or anything. Well, it is a little iffy — at the entrance, I manage to bypass some sort of elaborate form-filling-out process when they ask for my press card and I say, almost by way of a challenge, “I’m American?” as though Americans do not have press cards. (Obviously it’s just this particular irresponsible American who doesn’t have a press card.) Miraculously, the helpful woman behind the desk nods, takes my letter of intent, and whips off a press pass. I stride blithely into the main hall at Earls Court Exhibition Centre and stop short. It’s not the books — there are, admittedly, a lot of books, but I expected that. If anything, I expected way more books. Every stall has some sort of display of new titles, lined up and facing outward, and the big fancy stalls of the big fancy publishers have enormous images of dust jackets and headshots of celebrity authors lining their walls. There is a whole other enormous room, I learn later, and a corner of it is devoted to wholesalers and remainders and they’ve got plenty of books. I’m not exactly sure why, because I presume they have warehouses stocked with millions of them somewhere; a few-odd hundred on display strikes me as strange. But who knows — I don’t actually know much about book fairs. That much becomes abundantly clear. What’s most noticeable in the main hall are the little tables — hundreds (thousands?) of small square tables populated by groups of two or three, heads bent close together, scribbling in notebooks. (I have never seen so many notebooks in my life, at least not in the past five years.) The conversations all look so serious, and so intimate — though the collective sound of a thousand intimate conversations is deafening. I feel adrift amongst all of this, utterly out-of-my-depth, so when I see the escalator in the center of the hall, I make a beeline for it. But it’s the second level that seals my fate: row upon row of long rectangular tables, with the names of literary agents and agencies printed above each row, and hundreds of people sitting face-to-face in deep conversation. It looks like a massive speed-dating event, except everyone has a whole lot of papers strewn around them, and they appear to actually want to talk to each other. I walk up and down the rows too quickly — no, I don’t have an appointment! — and then I do the sort of quick retreat of the overly paranoid as I rush back towards the down escalator. I’d come to Earls Court to observe the book industry, and here it was, very “industry”-like — I am eventually given the full run-down, that the London Book Fair is specifically a rights fair, for things like international publishing rights to be orchestrated or, in the case of some of the big books of the week, for previously negotiated rights to be announced. There are author events, but not terribly many; this is primarily about business, for people who create and sell books, not for regular consumers. I’m in some sort of weird liminal space here: mostly a consumer, but a critic, of books and of the industry that makes them more broadly. Perhaps my sense of unease comes down to the fact that this isn’t the ideal place from which to do any of this criticism. The special guest is the Korean publishing industry, and they have a huge, slick set-up in the international section, sort of like what a first-class lounge at an airport looks like in my mind, all futuristic white furniture and elegant stemware. The Sultanate of Oman has a kind of Arabian castle structure; Russia’s got this really aggressive looming thing that looks like propaganda, written in red: READ.DEEP. READ.SMART. READ.MOSCOW. I feel like I am at Epcot, but there are no rides, not even educational ones. “This is an especially large fair, right?” I ask one man. He looks a little weary as he sighs and tells me that Frankfurt is by far the biggest, twice as long as this three-day affair. All around me, I see books as pure product, and it’s a little startling. In the café, my friend and I are flanked by people making business deals while they eat lunch. “We’ll take 3,000, then,” the man to our left says to his negotiating partner, and they both make neat marks in their notebooks. On the other side, a man swipes through something on an iPad, a children’s book, maybe, or some kind of interactive platform. (There are gaming people here, too, partly because digital storytelling is blurring the lines between traditional books and games.) The occasional appearance of an iPad — and eventually learning that in that second enormous room, there’s a whole area devoted to literally all things to do with technology, from Nook and Kindle and Kobo to metadata management platforms to print-on-demand and ebook production outsourcing services — reminds me that I’d come to the London Book Fair with a bit of an agenda: I want to figure out exactly what was going on with tech in the book industry. Because back in October, I’d attended a day-long conference in Oxford for young people in the publishing industry, once again as more of an observer than anything else. It was illuminating to look at books from somewhere other than my usual perch, but I was more than a little alarmed by the way most people were talking about digital things. “It’s time to admit that we have to adapt,” the general line went throughout the day, which I found, frankly, shocking: the time to admit such a thing must have been a decade ago, at least. I sat and fumed when one presenter urged publishers to “try to get on Facebook and Twitter.” (Pinterest and Tumblr? Too “experimental”.) At the end-of-day reception, I interrogated the circle of people sipping wine around me. “I get the sense,” I said slowly, “that you guys actively fear incorporating technology of any kind into your working lives.” I expected an argument, but people were nodding. One woman admitted to me, “I think that we’re all hoping someone else will come along and do that work for us.” This doesn’t make book publishing unique, by any means. But it’s strange for me, after most of the past decade embedded in the growing pains of magazines’ difficult transition to digital. The equation there seemed simpler, at least on the surface: old revenue models failed, new ones were tested, publications shuttered and others adapted — in the end, it’s all just another way to share the same information, the physical page or the tweet on a smartphone. I’m deeply biased when it comes to digital publishing, but then, I spent the past five years in a magazine department that regularly got as excited about digital design as print — perhaps more so, where design and great functionality intersected. (One of the biggest losers in the shift-to-digital magazine equation is, of course, me the writer, not me the digital production editor: when the models changed, they made room for more of our words for less of their money. But that’s another issue entirely.) With books, the endless debate about the medium, the cheap and dirty ebook versus the august printed page, always seemed to obscure the book publishing industry’s somewhat shaky revenue models to begin with: attempts at changing the industry, the bare-minimum embrace of technology, look like weak computerized bandages on older, deeper wounds. At the conference last fall, Amazon loomed like a specter over literally every panel and talk, but it wasn’t just anger and resentment — there was a sense of real regret, too, that a company could understand the digital realities of selling books so well and still appear to actually hate books themselves. (It’s worth noting, too, how both the LBF and the Oxford conference really hammered home what a tiny fraction of the book industry my colleagues and I interact with — publishing includes every type of book, far beyond literary fiction and what we broadly call “genre,” and there are travel books and books about dogs and sticker books and comic books and tie-in merchandise and whole enormous structures that only an industry analyst could really tackle. So it’s all well and good that I choose to buy my literary fiction at independent bookstores, but I am the tiniest fraction of a tiny fraction; there are millions of books that are being sold every year through channels that hurt writers and publishers, and, in the long run, readers, too.) Worrying about how we’re going to read books feels like more of a distraction than anything else, the debate of an industry that sees change as something to fear, and nothing more — and I’d kind of hoped we were moving past it. But in the weeks before the London Book Fair, Tim Waterstone, the founder of the eponymous bookstore chain — one of Britain’s largest, even as outlets continue to be shuttered — made news by smugly declaring that ebook revenues were dropping and that print books were returning to exclusive dominance. "I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I've known,” Waterstone told the Oxford Literary Festival. Later, he asserted that, “Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.” In The Guardian, Nick Harkaway managed to gently chide Waterstone with a relatively even-handed response. “Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist, because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. Ebooks are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we'll stop having this debate about paper vs. ebooks because it will no longer make a lot of sense.” The conversation that develops in the comments (I can’t believe I’m complimenting a Guardian comment thread here) is full of thoughtful, cogent points — and someone brings up Stephen Fry’s remark that, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I’d argue that Harkaway’s “quite shortly” should be right now — this debate makes zero sense to me, and I’m not some sort of technocrat — I do prefer reading a book on the printed page. (I read books both ways, simultaneously, and I mostly don’t think about it much. If a book is mailed to me or is sitting on a shelf in front of me, then paper; if I’m sent a digital galley or I don’t feel like leaving the house and need something ASAP, ebook it is.) But this old, sad debate talks about print and digital books as if they weren’t two sides of the same coin. Worry about book sales dropping more broadly, and start to think about the real ways that digital can reshape books. The sorts of things that were written and printed have always evolved with technological advances in printing and distribution. I want to hear more conversations about breaking structures as they exist now — the size and shape of works that get published, or connecting writers and readers in webs rather than long, bulky, top-down chains, or using technology to make the industry as efficient as possible — to free up everyone to simply publish the very best writers. It’s easy for me to say. And I don’t actually have any concrete ideas, just some sort of utopian vision of the future of publishing. At my second day at the LBF, I attend a panel on digital copyright, and they, too, see the problems and abstract solutions — but no clear way to implement them, at least not yet. At the “digital hub,” there are some dispiriting presentations, one of which appears to be a woman showing images of her imprint’s print and digital books, side by side, and that’s about it. But there are innovative gamblers from tech companies all over the world, too, pitching new ideas that work to break down the old structures. Some of them seem gimmicky, but some seem like things we might actually need. We just need to get everyone interested in considering breaking the mold a bit — shucking off Band-Aids for a shift in perspective. The biggest takeaway from the London Book Fair? The free tote bags. Yes, you heard it here first. There are pens, too, but the totes are where it’s at. I collect four on the first day, even though I own duplicates of two already — one from Granta, one from Foyles. It’s near the end of the second day that I see a spate of official LBF totes hanging on peoples’ shoulders — with my seasoned tote-bag eye, I can tell by their stiffness that they have just been removed from a box and distributed within the past half hour, maybe even less. I assault a woman carrying one in her hand, and she points me to the information desk. “It looks like there’s one left,” the woman there says, pointing to a rack maybe thirty feet away. “You might have to —” I break into a sprint. Image courtesy the author
In Person

A History of Love (of Bookstores)

I have a long string of past loves, but they’re all bookstores. Depending on what you count, I’ve worked at 8-10 bookstores in the last 13 years. I mark time by which bookstore I was working in the way some people do by where they lived or who they were with, such that my bookstore resume starts to take the shape of a relationship history. Each one attracted me for different reasons, affected my life in different ways, and taught me different things. My first love: I was a car-hop at a drive-in restaurant all through high school (and the answer is no, I did not wear roller skates), but I was looking to smell like ketchup less of the time. When my dad took me to college to begin my freshman year, we drove through the town and I spied a bookstore from the van. “I want to work there,” I said, unknowingly voicing a wish that would change my life. I did, miraculously, get a job there (I’ve never since seen anyone with so little experience or skills get a bookstore job with the “I love to read” gambit, and I have seen scores try), and started work before I started classes. As with any first relationship, I was pretty clueless about it and they were accommodating. I hated talking to customers, I read books for class at the register, and I didn’t know who wrote The Corrections. The rebound: In true rebound fashion, my second bookstore could not have been more different than my first. The store was big, academic, so busy that I had knee problems, and staffed — as my coworker put it — almost entirely by “lazy smart kids.” We had all just graduated from Boston’s various prestigious colleges and didn’t feel like getting real jobs, so we hand-sold Cloud Atlas and talked about this new show Arrested Development and were generally the coolest. My favorite day at that store was when the power went out for a few hours but we didn’t close. We experienced booksellers manned the computer-less information desk, answering questions using only our amassed knowledge of books in print. It was like bookseller thunderdome, and I have to say that I killed it. As much as I loved my new bookstore, I was still hung up on my first love. When the fifth Harry Potter came out that summer, I told my boss I wasn’t available, and went to work the midnight release party at the place that still felt like home. My first serious relationship: I was only there for 3 months before another store wooed me away with the promise of something more serious — and we got serious really fast. I was hired as the assistant events director, but before long I was writing the newsletter, creating the window displays, and redesigning web pages. My life became inseparable from the bookstore. When my shift was over I would stay for upwards of an hour just talking to my coworkers, I was always there on my day off, and outside of my roommate my entire social life was the bookstore. Those were the golden years of my bookseller life. I eventually left to start grad school in Ireland, but a part of me always wonders if I should have stayed, if I didn’t realize how good I had it. Isn’t your first serious relationship always also the one that got away? The fancy man: When I moved to Dublin I got a job at my first chain bookstore. I knew I would never really love it, but after Boston it was nice to have something impersonal, uncomplicated. I got a uniform, long breaks, and low expectations. It had no character, I had no emotional involvement, the branch I worked in closed after I’d been there 4 months. My one-night stand: Listen. We all have things we’re not proud of. When I first moved to Dublin, I got called in for an interview at a charming one-room store that employed one person at a time. I had coffee with the manager and convinced him that working at his store would be a dream come true for both of us. When he called me a day later to offer me a job, I told him that I’d already committed to the fancy store. Four months later, when the fancy store closed, I rang his bell again. He mercifully offered me the job a second time, and I started work. On my lunch break that first day I visited another bookstore a few blocks away and hit it off with the assistant manager. I think you already know that my first day was also my last. I never asked him for that job a third time. We’re not in touch. The abusive relationship: Things didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped with the bookstore down the street. The store was managed bizarrely and in ways seemingly designed to be dehumanizing, but for all that the job paid implausibly well, and 2008 was a great time to be making euros. Plus, the draconian leadership fostered camaraderie among the staff, and I stayed for that (and the money). We stashed boxes of cookies in random corners of the store, hid in the children’s section to talk about 24, and went out together all the time. We were required to wear all black, and my fondest, most vivid memory of that staff was when we all went out after closing on one of the first warm days of spring. We stopped at an ATM on a busy pedestrian street and, surrounded by Dubliners busting out their shorts and sundresses and florals, the 10 of us stood in head-to-toe black waiting in line to get beer money. My Grecian fling: I’ve had some good times. After extricating myself from the bookstores in Dublin I spent 2 months in Greece, living in the back room of a bookstore in exchange for a few hours of work a day. I was there during the off season, and on any given week there were 2-5 of us splitting the already light responsibilities, which meant that some days all I did was go to the beach and read Proust. At night we would go to the market, cook dinner, and spend the evening drinking the island wine and playing Shakespearean mad libs. To paraphrase Rachel Green, “I think there was a bookstore. I know there was wine.” Working in bookstores always felt more like a lifestyle choice than a career path — it’s both why I loved it and why I moved on. But here I sit, sifting through a decades worth of complimentary bookmarks and memories like Grizabella the glamour cat, grateful for how lucky I was. Image via the author