The Barren Governess: The James Wood Snafu

update HERE

James Wood, noted literary and film critic, has, apparently, written an email critical of comments I’ve made about his critical approach (Mr. Wood’s email is appended to following document):

“I also see no reason to doubt that the email is genuine.”

With all due respect (and being somewhat involved) I see at least two:

1) Are we to believe that Wood is naive enough to have been duped by a relatively unknown Litblogger into scoring points against another relatively unknown Litblogger in a petty *flame war*? Does Wood, with no small fund of credibility at stake, go dashing into flamewars, or wherever bloggers have the temerity to disagree with him (in otherwise courtly language, I might add) , fighting battles for Litbloggers running blogs boasting content on a level he’d otherwise sneer at? Strains credulity.

Occam’s Razor would indicate a hoax, though I’m far from claiming that James Wood is not human enough to have done something pointless.

2) The tone and quality of the letter itself: is this document really the work of (arguably) America’s foremost literary critic? Michiko K., sure: I could see her writing something like this (before an added pass or two through the vernacularizer). But *James Wood*?

Before I go into that email, here are the two comments (unedited) I posted on Nigel Beale’s blog, when I still believed it was a casual blog and not a creepy space rigged for unintentionally amusing revenge:



(Thanks for the heads-up about this post; I was right on the verge of foreswearing blog-comment-jousting for a few days to get some work done and there’s a good chance I would have missed this until it showed up the next time I self-Googled-larf).

So…you quote Uncle Jimmy thus:

“Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on,” but no, fiction is real only “when its readers validate (my italics) its reality.”

First off, Wood’s use of the word “reality” is meaningless (and therefore useless). Even if I’m in a coma and imagining all this and you’re a blue donkey in a rakish cap, Nigel, that’s “reality”-based, as it flows from my mind which is as real as anything else in the universe. Is there *anything* that can be imagined that doesn’t refer to “reality” in some way? Are “unreal” thoughts even possible?

Therefore, please, can you (or Uncle Jimmy), establish a meaningful distinction between that which is “real”, and that which is not? Of course you can’t (and, if you can, you win a prize, since Nietzsche couldn’t do it and neither could Plato). So, out goes Uncle Jimmy’s decorative argument (he’s good at those).

I’ll have to trust brainy old hands at novel-writing, such as DeLillo, Updike and Kundera, to know exactly how far to go in framing a character’s “reality” (and thereby delighting the keyed-to-it reader in doing so) over the opinion of a clever little critic who’s managed, thus far, to write one mediocre novel. If Wood has superior knowledge of the novel’s proper “reality”-range and general mechanics, why couldn’t he put it to practical use and write a masterpiece of a novel?

But common-sense questions like that are glossed over, because there’s not quite enough razzle-dazzle in using common-sense, is there?

—second comment (submitted within a few minutes of the first)–


Uncle Jimmy tries to explain why Wolfe’s use of the Wood-prescribed character-appropriate-stream-of-consciousness-voice doesn’t work when Wolfe tries it: ‘Everyone is scrawled with the same inner graffiti,’ he says, rendering Wolfe’s characters flat, indistinguishable from each other…” And that’s utter nonsense.

I’m no Wolfe advocate (I find his novels, as you know, too much like what everyone would be writing if they obeyed Uncle Jimmy), but Wood either hasn’t read more than ten pages of a Wolfe novel (try “Man in Full”) , or he’s indulging in a little bad-faith, theory-supporting truth-twisting, because one thing Wolfe does *well* is character-particularizing. “Charlie Croker” and “Peepgas” and “Roger Too-White” and “Conrad”, et al, are vividly constructed, with a craft-fair-doll-maker’s attention to detail.

Which is the heart and limitation of Wolfe’s minor art (minor art is useful, too, of course: consider porcelain-making vs Cubism):  his novels “say” pretty much what they appear to be saying at first glance by generating characters it’s very difficult to misunderstand doing things it’s very difficult to misinterpret. Hard to imagine re-reading a Wolfe novel (after chucking it in the airport waste bin) because you “get it” the first time through.

I’ve been through “Underworld” gods-knows-how-many times and the intellectual pleasure remains fresh *because* I haven’t nailed the thing down yet. Ditto “Sabbath’s Theater” and “Libra”and “Vineland” and so on.

Same with great movies: is Marcello, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a shallow arse, a trapped artist, a victim of or collaborator-in his subculture? Is the movie a paean to a certain kind of postwar, wistfully decadent beauty, or a savage attack on it? Is it about plenty or deprivation? I’ve seen it 30 times, probably, and will see it again. Versus some well-intentioned movie (with absolutely unambiguous themes and characters) like “Shine” or “Ray” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” for which once is enough, thanks.

I’m saying that Uncle Jimmy is a middlebrow theorist using highbrow language to communicate his theories, and, aesthetically, he’s sort of a “The Talented Mr. Ripley” kind of guy. He has no real idea what to make of Godard, Fellini, Cassavetes, Visconti,  Pasolini, et al (to extend the metaphor) and his *inability to grasp* the aesthetic becomes a (defensive) mission statement.

Wood’s disavowal of Wolfe is pretty funny, really, and an important forensic clue (a bit like, you know, closeted politicians who Gay-bash).

(I certainly hope I’ve given you your money’s worth, Nigel!)


Well, those were the comments. I’d like to draw the jury’s attention to A) the casual tone (ie, I was not writing an essay for a lit journal, I was leaving a profanity-free comment on a litblog) and, B) the importance of the “cinema metaphor” to the overall point of the comments (ie, not very) and, C) the importance of Wood’s use of the word “reality” in the quote my comments took exception to… and (as a treat), D) the amount of “ignorance” on display in my comments (we’ll come back to that one).


If that Augustine-excoriating email really was from James Wood (and not concocted by one of Nigel Beale’s more literate friends), it shows an amazing grasp of flamewar technology (while falling somewhat short on metrics of good-faith and reason): the first thing “Wood” does, in his “rebuttal”, is avoid the *heart* of my criticism and go right for what he must have considered my comment’s softspot: that jokey metaphor about his taste in film.

Clearly, the metaphor was *really* about his taste in literature, which I consider to veer a wee towards the conservative. I don’t give a damn whether James Wood has seen “120 Days of Sodom” 1,000 times and knows all the dialogue by heart and dresses for the occasion; what I was, rather obviously, expressing was my sense that novels that flout naturalistic effects (unnaturally), doing away with old-fashioned sops like “moral” along the way, seem to zoom right over his head (or between his legs). Again (and again and again): I cite his (imo) wrong-headed dismissal of DeLillo’s preternaturally witty, sobbingly-beautiful “Underworld” as an example of one gap in his literary sensors large enough to fly an 827-page masterpiece through.

I treasure “Underworld”, Wood doesn’t. Is one of us wrong? Sadly, no. Is one of us a(n)  (apparent) “square”…? Well…

When I pegged Wood for a “Talented Mr. Ripley” fan, I didn’t mean it literally (how the hell would I know, and why would I want to?): I was rendering visual my estimation of his literary taste-range (which I even have the plutonium balls to suggest was very possibly confirmed in his recent review of “Netherland” for the New Yorker).

“Wood” goes to extraordinary lengths (was he charging Nigel by the letter?) to attack my “ignorance” of his bona fides as a lover of cinema… pointlessly. But, again: that was the most convenient portal of entry (flamewar 101: flamewar is a war of attrition: never attack an argument’s strong points).

Whereas the crux of my argument was/is Wood’s use of the word “reality” (both in the quote I originally nutmegged on Nigel’s blog, and in general, in what I’ve read of his), Mr. “Wood” deals with *that* with a flamer’s aplomb:

“I don’t want to argue with Steven Augustine about reality, because that is a wilderness of mirrors…”

Ah. Well. Hmmm. Now that James Wood has gotten *that* out of the way, he can get to the shocking matter of my blog-type “ignorance” about his taste in films!

Inconvenient for me, of course, because that was the core of my point, no? His profligate use of the word “reality”.

“James Wood” doesn’t want to “argue” with Steven Augustine about Wood’s inaccurate estimation of Tom Wolfe’s ability to craft characters, either, obviously, but that’s small beer.

Again, here’s Wood on “reality”:

“Everything flows from the real including the beautiful deformations of the real; it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy dream and so on,” but no, fiction is real only “when its readers validate its reality.”

It’s Samurai-bold of Mr. “Wood” to try getting away with sweeping my quibble with his use of the word “reality” under the rug. And to invoke Vladimir “When I hear the word Reality I reach for my fountainpen” Nabokov in the same “reality”-asseverative email, piling irony upon irony, is giddy-making stuff.

When he (or someone) circles back to the matter of “reality”, later in the email, it’s not to address my criticism of the above (twice-cited) quote.

When “Wood” writes (in this email), “Decomposition like this happens to any long -lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s — or critic’s, or reader’s — task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced,”…

…This is nicely put, but it hinges on the same sort of phantom crux (unless the “irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity” are standardized, from mind to mind, or measurable as pi) that his (for me) offending riff about “reality” does. The rather obvious flaw such a gilded argument dazzles us out of noticing is its presumption that everyone being exposed to this “long-lived” style, has the same degree of wear-and-tear on his/her readerly cherry; the same long log of literary experiences; the same mandarin burden of education to overcome in the gleaning of readerly pleasure.

Wood (or “Wood”) is a master of building rhetorical Alhambras like these on philosophical soap bubbles such as the word “reality”.

I’ve never stared, gaga, at a lavalamp in my life, but whenever Wood mints proscriptions about how far a novelist is allowed to wander from “reality” before the silvery cord of the reader’s attention/credulity/infatuation snaps, I’m forced to put on my worst Cam-side, Russian accent and demand, “Whose reality?” (or, “Who’s reality?”)

Is it “ignorant” of me to express this opinion? I haven’t read *all* of Wood (that’d be a peculiar thing to do, being that I’m neither a fan, nor immortal) but I have read, closely, whatever of his that I have bothered to comment on.

If I know little about Wood, Wood knows *nothing* of me (beyond the damning clue that I don’t hold *his* judgment of the books I treasure over mine) so his wounded plea, “It’s the ignorance I so dislike, sanctioned by that online free-for-all in which quick judgments, based on the thinnest acquaintanceship with the subject’s work, can be prodigally posted,” has rather a hollow ring to it, and a boomeranging echo: what *does* he know of me, or what I’ve read of what he’s written? Is Mr. Wood claiming clairvoyance as a second talent?

His signal flare of a salvo against “Hysterical Realism” (that word again) was my (contemporaneous) introduction to his work; I found it just in some bits and absurd in others and largely irritating.

I’ve read, dunno, two dozen essays, reviews, interviews and profiles? (If Wood is offering to hire me to write a carefully-researched, corrective overview, we can discuss the terms; otherwise, I think my various comments, over the years, are not the worst a Wood fan-or-critic could’ve stumbled upon. Actually, there’s one comment, in particular, I thought was rather good… taking him to task for his apparent lack of a viable sense of humor…perhaps I can provide the link later?)

Anyway: that’s rather a precious pose for a critic to strike, I’d say, if “Wood” (or Wood) is claiming that I’m “ignorant” (in more than the literal sense) because I haven’t read *all* of his work, and have no right to express strong opinions on what I *have* read until I purchase the lot (which may be a brilliant marketing technique…)

If he did, in fact, write all that.

Stranger things, as we know too well, have happened. The email was a disturbing graft of the imperious on the vulnerable, if he *did* author it.  I’m still not sure if I’d be delighted if it were authentic.

Mr. Wood’s apparent email:

I don’t want to argue with Steven Augustine about reality, because that is a wilderness of mirrors, but it might be sensible to try to counter his absurd idea that I am a “Mr Ripley” or “Beautiful Mind” kind of guy rather than a Fellini or Cassavetes kind of guy. It’s the ignorance I so dislike, sanctioned by that online free-for-all in which quick judgments, based on the thinnest acquaintanceship with the subject’s work, can be prodigally posted. Augustine may not know that one of my early pieces (1996) for “The New Republic “was an attack on a film called “Leaving Las Vegas,” starring Nicolas Cage, which seemed to me the worst kind of sentimental kitsch dressed up as art film sophistication. (Cage spends a lot of time swigging gin from a bottle, while standing in the shower — this to show that he is… an ALCOHOLIC. Sting provides a weepy soundtrack, as I remember.) I used the favored Nabokovian term “poshlost” to attack the film, and explicitly lamented that there were not more real avant-gardists like John Cassavetes now around! David Denby, who had liked the Cage film, wrote to TNR to defend it.

In “How Fiction Works,” there is exactly one reference to one filmmaker: it is an adulatory reference to Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” (in the chapter on character, paragraph # 63). In the chapter on realism at the end of that book, there appear two paragraphs, 115 and 116. I am talking about how realism has become

“a kind of invisible rule book, whereby we no longer notice its artificialities. One reason for this is economic. Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that this brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again. That is why the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of Le Carre or P.D.James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques.

The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away most of what made those writers truly alive. And of course, the most economically privileged genre of this kind of largely lifeless ‘realism’ is commercial cinema, through which most people nowadays receive their idea of what constitutes a ‘realistic’ narrative.”

By commercial cinema, I precisely mean something like “The Talented Mr Ripley” or “Shine,” or films that people try to palm off as indie-ish, like “Little Miss Sunshine, ” or “Juno.”
In the next graf, I go on to say:

“Decomposition like this happens to any long -lived and successful style, surely; so the writer’s — or critic’s, or reader’s — task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced.”

It is perfectly possible to agree with Roland Barthes that realism is a set of codes and conventions (for all writing is a set of such codes, after all) and
still try to defend that element in fiction — what I call “lifeness” — that eludes the nerveless grip of code. This is a defence both of that evanescence called ‘reality’ and of the artifice that makes it — and makes it up — and there is no contradiction in this doubleness: we read fiction with two eyes, as it were, one world-directed and one text-directed.

The review I just wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s superb novel,”Netherland,” in “The New Yorker,” praises the novel both for its deep and wise interest in life and lives, and for its high degree of artifice and style. That doubleness is entirely in keeping with my attacks on people like Tom Wolfe, John Irving, the more formulaic elements of John Updike, and so on, and in keeping with my praise, in essays and reviews, of writers like Cormac McCarthy (when he is not trying to write a genre thriller like “No Country for Old Men”), Saul Bellow, Roberto Bolano, Muriel Spark, Jose Saramago, W.G. Sebald, Philip Roth, Alan Hollinghurst, Milan Kundera, Norman Rush, V.S. Naipaul, Edward P. Jones, Michel Houellebecq, Anne Enright, David Means, Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee, Bohumil Hrabal, Harold Brodkey (I was an early and pretty isolated English champion of Brodkey’s), not to mention earlier writers like Henry Green, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Knut Hamsun, J.F. Powers, and many others.

Most of these essays are collected, in two books, and may easily be consulted before being tempted to comment on them.One may not agree with that critical project, but to claim that it simply yearns for the innocent days of 19th-century realism, or that it is really a fifth columnist’s attempt to glorify the babyish writing of a Tom Wolfe, is simply not to have read a word I have ever written, however fast the eyeballs have been scanning various literary websites, with their alluring ‘excerpts’ from some recent review or essay of mine.

****selected further comments on James Wood****

Kundera’s “The Curtain”, as a whole, is a must-read, from a seasoned practitioner of the Art. There’s certainly a qualitative difference between knowledge-in-doing and extrapolated knowledge via careful observation (especially when that which is under observation is neither object nor action; something which only “exists”, uniquely, in every observer’s mind, and therefore exceedingly difficult to describe with broad authority).

It’s immediately after the closing sentence of the book’s “Die Weltliteratur” chapter that Kundera brings us the wisdom of the “most prestigious French critic of his time”, a finger-wagging admonition to Gustave Flaubert to “console and give ease to the reader” by a “picture of goodness”… a familiar trope from the long history of proscriptive aid on offer from critic to novelist. We can assume that M. Sainte-Beuve was only trying to be helpful, of course, but, long after both gentlemen are dead, do we regret that M. Sainte-Beuve didn’t have a stronger influence on Flaubert’s art?

(I was once informed, as evidence of the critic’s relative importance, that Samuel Johnson had lived long beyond his era in influence; to which I’d say: Mr. Johnson is not famous, chiefly, for the justice of particular critiques, whatever he thought of them at the time. )

Is it unfair to compare literary critics to barren governesses who scowl, roll their eyes, and snatch at the sleeves of their charges? In many cases, yes. A literary critic who *illuminates* the text under consideration (placing it in a context with its antecedents, for example), and does so in a way that’s a pleasure to read, is most welcome. A critic who measures the distance between a text’s apparent goal and its actual accomplishment, on the text’s own terms (in good faith) can be very interesting (whether or not we agree).

A literary critic who takes on the role of sermonizing cleric, or hanging judge, dismissing writers/ oeuvres/ styles whole, baffles us. What is the critic’s goal, in such cases? To persuade the readers who have already enjoyed the work of said writer to repent of their pleasure? To persuade said writer (despite long success, in some cases) to become a different sort of writer? To persuade an entire school of writing (even in such cases as the school is concocted by the critic) to conform to righter modes of expression? Or is such activity the possible symptom of a critic suffering from divided purposes… or the poison of overweening ambition?

There is no “perfect” work of Art; there is no “objective” form of Art criticism: neither end of that continuum is a Science. Even the finest criticism is glorified opinion of an entirely unstable nature, and even the most detailed taxonomy is not, by default, a body of knowledge (since anyone can describe anything in any terms they please).

Approaching a text, a reader (critic and non-critic both) brings his/her psychology to the table; her/his affinities and prejudices. A truly useful critic of fiction must be *open* to the work at hand; must be ready to “like” it… this is why, although the most shreddingly negative critiques are more fun, it’s the generally positive reviews that will prove to be most illuminating. “Liking” a novel, a critic is more likely to “get it”. A novel is a subtle emanation. To be even slightly closed to its effort is to miss a certain amount; even all of it, possibly. And then we’re in the territory of “bad faith”.

Negative reviews of *particular books* can be useful, if they steer a reader, who trusts the opinion of the reviewer, away from wasting time and money on that book; especially if that reviewer “gets” that writer and merely finds the latest effort(s) lacking. Fair enough.

Excoriating a writer/ oeuvre/ style, in even the most scholarly terms, is fine between friends, or in the form of intellectual debate, but as a “service” to those interested in literature, it’s less than useful: it’s bizarre (or simply careerist?).

I don’t, as a rule, like Westerns. I could write a scholarly, 15,000 word, anti-Western treatise. And to what end? Such broadly proscriptive “criticism” misapprehends, in a cardinal way, the purpose of novel writing; the purpose of novel *reading*. As an unknown I’m silly to do so; as a famous critic, I’d be slaying imaginary dragons for an audience who *fears*, or resents, imaginary dragons. Fine, as a performance; as entertainment. But as an addition to the overall bulk of Western knowledge? No.

Further, it astounds me that anyone can be so uninterested in (or ignorant about) human nature as *not* to see a Salieri Effect at play in some of the notable gems of the form, however dressed up, in flowing robes, they may be.

I wrote, in an email, once, to someone who was less than receptive to my wit (larf) at the time: “It dawned on me long ago that the overall practise of literature is less a repository of ideas than a web of affinities.”

I stand by that observation.


Bearing in mind that even the finest literary criticism is lapidary opinion, I’m always amazed/amused/horrified/baffled (depending on the time of day) at the way in which Wood’s writings are capable of shutting down the critical faculties of his diehard fans. I suppose it’s the ecstasy of abnegation we seek in most religions.

Wood comes out with a book of essays, called, not “Thoughts on Fiction” or “How Does Fiction Work?” but “How Fiction Works”… fairly confident from a fellow with one so-so (and touchingly schematic) novel in his fiction bibliography. Common sense (an undervalued commodity among intellectuals, as we know) indicates the need for skepticism.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy Wood’s work, which can always be trusted to entertain, and often educate us, and sometimes even honor his charter to provide a good-faith reading of the text. I only wish he’d stop trying to be James Clerk Maxwell, or Gregor Mendel, or a Martin Luther as gene-spliced with either of the other two: it doesn’t work. Despite that, I’ll pick up his latest, at some point, and enjoy quite a bit of it, no doubt.

Here’s a good example of Wood’s wobbly logic, and his willingness to fudge an argument to flatter his prejudices (or, worse, retro-engineer an argument from a preferred conclusion), from a recent interview with Birnbaum:

“JW: And I said it was one of those jokes that I never, ever find funny. One of the sheep-shagging jokes. And I say to her, ‘Why is it that bestiality jokes are never funny?’ And the joke by the way was something like this: A man goes into a Scottish bar—I mean it’s not an unfunny joke—there is a guy in a kilt who is drinking heavily at the bar. And he is clearly distressed. The stranger says to the man in the kilt, ‘Why are you drinking so many whiskeys? What’s wrong?’ And he says, ‘See that pier out there? I built that. I built that pier with my own hands, and they don’t call me McKenzie the Pier Builder. See that boat out there? I built that boat with my own hands. They don’t call me McKenzie the Boat Builder. And this very inn that we are sitting in, this tavern, I built it, stone by stone. But they don’t call me McKenzie the Tavern Builder. And yet you mess around once with a sheep and….’ It’s not unfunny. It’s pretty funny. But I said to my wife, ‘Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?’ And she rightly said, ‘They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.’ So they are actually fantastical. In a way this feeds into the hysterical realism thing. ”

Fadging the proposition as a metaphor for the Wood-concocted school of “Hysterical Realism”, he argues that the failure of bestiality jokes to make us laugh is categorical. Early on, Wood admits the joke is “…not unfunny. It’s pretty funny”… and proceeds to explain why it’s not “really” funny. As we all know, of course, “pretty funny” and “really funny” aren’t far enough apart on the spectrum of mirth to insulate Wood from a possible contradiction there. Is this type of joke funny, or not? If it’s funny at all (i.e., if “Hysterical Realism” succeeds, ever), the argument is already rather lame.

From there, Wood goes on to tell the joke in question… poorly enough to put his sense of humor under suspicion, at the very least, or to cause us to suspect that he needs, very much, for this joke to be unfunny, despite itself.

And what conclusion does Mr. Wood reach? For that, he consults with his wife (a practice that might go a long way towards explaining certain consistent flaws in Wood’s product), who informs us that bestiality jokes aren’t funny (hubby’s initial concession aside) because “They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.”

Which is demonstrable nonsense (ambiguity intentional). When I laugh at a joke about a penguin, a donkey and a Bush voter, it’s not because I’ve forgotten that penguins and donkeys can’t talk, rarely enter bars, and never, therefore, offer to buy low-IQ American Presidents drinks.

No one I know has ever met someone who actually had a parrot that caused a plumber to have a heart-attack, either; yet, the first time I heard that joke, I laughed. I’ve also laughed at jokes about martians, ghosts, God(s), talking fetuses, time-travelers, Linda McCartney (sorry), Napoleon, Julius Caesar… the list of the “unrealistic” goes on and on.

Bestiality jokes may well be an apt metaphor for “Hysterical Realism”, but not in a way that serves Wood’s purpose; quite the contrary. The above excerpt is a man telling us that he doesn’t like a certain kind of joke, although he’s not quite clear on “why”; he’s not even claiming such jokes aren’t funny, he only makes clear the fact that he doesn’t like them. Meanwhile, rather a lot of other people would disagree with him. Case closed.

An apt meta-metaphor, if you will.

I can only add to all that, that after all *my* years of reading, it strikes me that the difference between the great and the merely good, is, invariably wit… a sense of humor. The genius stuff has it, the other stuff doesn’t. Trouble is, one must *have* one in order to detect and appreciate it in others.


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