Category Archives: vanities and veritas

Comparative Studies in the Psycho-Politicality of Blogging


The distinguished black academic Henry Louis Gates found himself  “boyed” by a cop in his own home, recently, as many of us now know. An interesting (and distressingly typical) response, of “white” males, to the story… even the “liberals”… is to opine that Gates was unwise in (presumably) back-talking authority. Ed Champion, a blogger famous for calling people he doesn’t agree with “douchebags”, intervened (as he has with me before) in a comment thread debate, on the Gates affair, by accusing me of “trolling”. The thread in its entirety (as of 11:34 CET) as follows:

[…] Those Who Resist the End of Racial Profiling […]

Bat of Moon on July 22nd, 2009 4:23 pm

I was shocked by some of the comments to a Gates post on the LAT’s Jacket Copy book blog. There’s definitely an attitude out there that Gates deserved his treatment because he talked back to a cop, wasn’t deferential — didn’t bow and tug his forelock, I ’spose. The cluelessness is shocking. (And “clueless” is the most charitable word I can come up with for it.)


Andy on July 22nd, 2009 4:36 pm

There’s a more nuanced look, that draws a similar conclusion, here:

It is, I think, a dumb idea to provoke a cop.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 5:13 am

“It is, I think, a dumb idea to provoke a cop.”

It’s pretty dumb to fuck with the Klan, or neo-Nazis, too. People should definitely learn to be more docile in the face of potentially lethal authority wherever it is encountered. Gates should have said “yes sir, no sir!” in his own house while being bullied by a glorified security guard: that’s a no-brainer. It’s obvious that Gates’ body language and speech patterns are those of a hardened criminal and that the centurions therefore had no reason whatsoever to *not* jump to the conclusion that they were dealing with a felonious black-skinned niggra. Kudos to our quick-thinking troops.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 1:15 pm

Well, I’ll leave it to you and Ed to behave belligerently toward “potentially lethal authority,” Steven. It’s not an endorsement of the actions of the police, or of their tacit policies, to suggest that the sane posture to take toward aggressive and armed men with the legal authority to use force is not necessarily the principled one. Sorry, there’s no quicker way to get a cop to put his hands on you than to tell him not to put his hands on you. And any further resistance is a chargeable offense, period, fair or unfair. You don’t have to be a University Professor at Harvard to know that there are better places to take your rage and better ways to seek redress.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 2:23 pm

Andy, if no one’s brave enough to call the heavily-armed centurions on their ever-spreading attitude that “disrespecting” them is in and of itself a crime, how will the behavior stop? I think you (and the police) have forgotten what it is the police are supposed to do: protect the legally innocent from abuse… not expose them to it.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 4:03 pm

I haven’t forgotten anything, Steven. Like I said, if you want to “call” the responding officer on his behavior, that’s your choice. You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling. I don’t quite understand the principle you’re defending. It’s too abstract for me. When a civilian is ordered to do something by a cop, or two cops, or more, the civilian has absolutely no leverage, irrespective of whether the civilian is in the right or not. It’s asking for humiliation, at best, beating and arrest at worst. You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right. I don’t agree with it, it’s absolutely Orwellian, but that’s how it is, and that’s how it’s been since long before concepts like “Miranda warnings” and “probable cause” were admitted via the thin slit through which things gain entry to cops’ consciousness.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 6:43 pm

“You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling.”

Well, people have been fire-hosed or billy-clubbed, by the police, for sitting at segregated lunch counters or swimming pools, too. It’s a mistake to assume those days are entirely over.

“You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right.”

Uh, no, Andy. No.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 9:58 pm

Good for you, Steven. Go for it.


DrMabuse on July 23rd, 2009 10:08 pm

Steven: You are trolling here. Knock it off. This is not the kind of bullshit I want to have on my blog. Andy has the right to his opinion. There’s no reason to badger him like this.


Steven Augustine on July 24th, 2009 3:20 am

Of course, Ed. Because you’re so gentle, circumspect, and never, yourself, pursue an argument. If only I had the class to follow your example. Next time someone disagrees with me, rather than respond (please note the absence of ad hominems in ALL of my comments), I’ll just forget my point and write “LOL”. Because nothing really matters, anyway. You’re just *pretending* to be passionate in your beliefs; you’re only passionate about your ego, obviously. I get it now.

Don’t bother banning me, you phony. Hope your fantasy as a “crusading journalist” pays off. LOL.


Is it really “trolling” to call attention to the faulty (and chilling) reasoning in Andy’s statement that “You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right” ?

I’ve been referred to as a “troll”, or otherwise ripped into, by Ed and his followers before.  I wonder if anyone without a chip on his/her shoulder, or a hidden agenda, can read the comment thread above and find anything (before my valedictory remark; yes, I was irritated) that would qualify as “trolling”? Is any form of contentious response, or dissent, to be labeled “trolling”, now?I take the time to leave intelligent, carefully-considered comments; I only comment on issues I  A) feel strongly about and B) know enough about, in the first place, to comment usefully. I was under the impression that the definition of a “troll” is a commenter who attacks/disrupts/slanders for disruption’s own sake. Well, it’s a protean word. Ed Champion isn’t a “troll” for calling dozens of people “douchebag/retard/dipshit”… but I’m a “troll” for sticking up for the notion of Civil Rights in a comment thread appended to Ed Champion’s posting on… Civil Rights.

In contrast to my nasty experience of Ed’s apparent Bipolarity, I participated in a comment thread at Shapely Prose on the same topic. As a BOC (blogger of color), I first left a brief, supportive comment. Part of that comment seemed to be dismissed by another commenter and I left a longer, very carefully worded response. It is, after all, a subject close to me; I spent the first thirty years of my life adjusting to North American racism. Checking back on the thread a few hours later, I found that there’d been no response to my longer comment, and I thought: the irony’s too much! In a comment thread of (mostly) white females discussing a black man’s run-in with racism, I’m being ignored! I commented to that effect.

Rather than being banned for “trolling”, I got, instead, a half-a-dozen sincere apologies. An astonishing first in my ten years as a tiny voice of literary dissent/politically-critical thinking on the Net. More importantly, by addressing my complaint, the commenters made it clear to me that it wasn’t as simple as my POV being ignored/marginalized/anathematized… there were all kinds of other dynamics at work (or play).

Which I never would have known if we hadn’t all discussed the issue. In detail, even.

Following is the tail-end of the Shapely Prose “This is what happens to black men in America” comment thread, starting with the very moving (to my mind) apologies; the point being that these women weren’t even in the “wrong”,  but took the time to respond with more than a STFU. I then enjoyed the luxury of discussing the topic in depth with brainy types who weren’t invested in owning the topic. Was the level of discourse higher than the one at Ed Champion’s literary tractor pull? By orders of magnitude.

A rare pleasure:

  1. Steven Augustine, I’m sorry. I appreciated your comments, but about 99% of my comments on the second half of this thread have been trying to keep people from going down the rabbit hole, as opposed to expressing gratitude for the people saying smart things and adding value to the discussion. And of course, we did, in fact, go down the fucking rabbit hole since your last comment.

    So yeah, the whole thing about how white women discussing white women tends to silence the voices of POC? Exhibit A, folks.

  2. But… some of my best friends are white women!

  3. Well certainly, the history of race relations in Europe is just all around different than in the U.S. I think it makes sense that your experience there is very different, and that the kinds of racism you experienced might have been easier for you to live with than what you dealt with in the U.S. I don’t think it takes away from how others have experience racism in Europe for you to point that out, either (but neither does it erase their experiences).

  4. I had an interesting conversation with my s/o last night on this topic. He said that he had read an autobiography on cops and why they become cops. The author (and I apologise for the lack of specifics) said that cops essentially see themselves as hunters, not enforcers of justice. They are hunters, and they catch their prey. The book said that the cops do, for instance, wait on the Florida line and pull over any Latinos driving the speed limit, because they consider it basically as easy hunting for drug traffickers. Regardless of the fact that the majority of the people they pull over have nothing to do with the drug trade.

    Is it any wonder that, having been raised in a culture where a POC is considered “prey” by armed figures of authority, that there would spring a natural suspicion and/or hostility towards the “hunters”? The most obvious evidence of institutional racism is when innocent until proven guilty is suspended at the most basic level, but only for a select few, and only based on the color of their skin.

    Some people want to leap at one or two anectdotal examples of fair play, just so they can have the privilege of not thinking about it. But hey, so what if that particular and personal panacea is just an illusion? As long as you can sleep at night, right?

  5. Steven, I’ve actually been giving a lot of thought to your comment about visceral disgust. It was a real eye-opener to me mostly because it reminded me of how people react with disgust to fatness. I think there may be a whole different set of complicated baggage attached to racial disgust that has roots in shame and fear more so than fatphobia. Do you suppose that (white american) shame and fear is why you don’t sense the visceral hatred in your part of europe?

  6. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:13 pm Said:

    Steven I hope you didn’t think I was dismissing what you were saying with my post. Volcanista’s last post reminded me that I was assuming certain things didn’t need to be said when they did. So what I was thinking in my head and what I should have said was ‘Hmm yeah, I guess his experience would be different. Most European countries outlawed slavery 150 years before we did. They essentially defined the descendants of African slavery as humans before we did.’
    But, I honed in on the comments about Turks and Arabs because, well truthfully, as an academic I get tired of hearing my colleagues talk about how much more superior Europe is… so I have a personal grudge against the whole continent of Europe. And I’m also knee deep in post colonialist literature. So I’m not trying to dismiss you or ignore you. I just have a bone to pick with Europe. 🙂

  7. fillyjonk, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:16 pm Said:

    Yikes, I was just so relieved Steven wasn’t a troll that I figured we could let the interesting and substantive parts of his comment stand on their own. Sorry for making you feel neglected, there, Steven. It’s Good Kid syndrome — you get ignored for being informed and polite while everyone scrambles to contain the chaos that bad kids can create.

  8. A Sarah, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:19 pm Said:

    Yeesh, Steven, you’re totally right. I’m sorry too.

  9. Definitely a first to get not one but a gazillion apologies in a thread like this. Deeply appreciated. I’m not high-maintenance or anything but I was starting to feel about Twilight-Zone-ishly invisible there (like: am I dead?)! Laugh

    And, of course I wasn’t saying that there’s no racism in Europe. But, for example, my friend P., a British lawyer of Nigerian descent, told me that he was actually *terrified*, for the first time, being black, during his first State-side visit: it felt as though the police had a mandate to execute him for the slightest offence. He never felt that in the UK, as bad as things are there

  10. Caitlin, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:41 pm Said:

    Steven Augustine, if it helps, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that when someone who isn’t white is talking about racism I need to shut the fuck up and listen. It’s not often that I manage that in any other arena, but I’m getting better in this one ;). So I paid a lot of attention to your comment, but I didn’t have anything useful to say back that didn’t sound like “Yes! And here is how I feel about that as Nice White Lady! You’re welcome.”

  11. Steven, that quick through-the-looking-glass snapshot of your British friend’s experience here is … I don’t know how to express it. I won’t say it opened my eyes, because I’m not notably oblivious, but I think it was its brevity that just flashed another kind of light here.

  12. Caitlin, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:55 pm Said:

    Also, this

    it felt as though the police had a mandate to execute him for the slightest offence.

    is fucking terrifying.

  13. And continuing the comment-leapfrog with Caitlin ;), I agree with her comment that appears just above mine at 8:41.

  14. Anwen-with-an-N, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:02 pm Said:

    Steven Augustine, if it helps, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that when someone who isn’t white is talking about racism I need to shut the fuck up and listen.


    Thanks Steven, your comments were really interesting.

    When I went on school trips to France, Germany and Italy, [about 10-13 years ago] as part of groups who were in the first instance around 15/16 and mainly black/Asian [Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi] and in the second and third instances around 17/18 and still a fairly high proportion of students who were of colour, there was a very different feeling in Germany as opposed to the other two countries, partly I suppose because the French and Italian trips were to relatively rural towns as opposed to Hamburg and Berlin.

    In France, except when we went on a day trip to Paris there was a strong feeling that wherever we went we (and specifically the black girls) were being watched in a suspicious sort of way. In Italy I was stopped, along with two girls (one black, one Chinese) and told that, I shit you not, “you look like a Benetton advert!” I mean, you know, points for trying, I guess, but jeez. In Germany, I honestly don’t remember a single incident (and the group I was with was at least as politically inclined as either of the previous ones, so it’s not like it would have gone unsaid…)

  15. A story: a very old friend of mine was in a middle class, two-job family; she owned a house in a nice neighborhood, with her husband, and it was with them that I stayed on a trip to the States in ‘95. She had a prosperous pet-watching business. One evening she asked if I could help the next morning by taking a few of the chores on… which would involve letting myself into about half a dozen houses, at the crack of dawn, in a tony (98%-white) neighborhood in order to feed pets while the owners were vacationing in Tuscany (or wherever).

    Well, exploiting their hospitality as I was, I felt like a total shit saying “no” to the request. And she accepted my “no” but told me I was totally wrong (and paranoid/hypersensitive/behind the times, etc). She assured me that people just weren’t like that any more… certainly not the NPR-listeners in that lakeside enclave. And it was terribly frustrating for me that I could *not* convince her of the rationality of my concerns. And to this day (they now live on a splendid 50 acres in a fairytale house about an hour’s drive from a “liberal” city), she probably still thinks I’m a paranoid.

    Unbridgeable gulf? Sometimes feels that way. I won’t even go into my recent experience of trying to explain my ambivalence towards the figure of Michael Jackson to white friends… (laugh)

  16. Anwen-with-an-N:

    “In Germany, I honestly don’t remember a single incident (and the group I was with was at least as politically inclined as either of the previous ones, so it’s not like it would have gone unsaid…)…”

    Well, that’s the irony, isn’t it? They’re on their best behavior now… after what happened last century. Not that they’re Post Racial, or anything, but I kind of like the fact that, for the Germans, plenty of “whites” are other “races”, too. And they actually often consider Persians (for example) superior to Germans.

    Another tale of my friend P. He walked into a Berlin bakery soon after the inauguration and the guy behind the counter goes, loudly, “Hello, Mr. President!”

    Still, it’s better than being Tasered.

  17. Alright, time to put my daughter to bed. Again: thanks, all.


  18. Gillian, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:17 pm Said:

    If only the mainstream media weren’t so goddamned predictable. You gotta love the Boston Globe. With newspapers dying a quick death, they’re keen to jump on this story and milk it for all it’s worth. I especially love the coded language in this opening paragraph.

    “BOSTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama plunged his presidency into a charged racial debate and set off a firestorm in one of America’s most liberal bastions by siding with a black Harvard scholar who accuses police of racism.”

    It must be nice for the average white person to not have to think about race. How squirmy it must make them when some radical POC brings it up to make them feel all uncomfortable about their privilege. Didn’t you know, that’s what we POCs live for?


  19. On the other hand, I learned about several non-white grad students having a very, very hard time getting apartments in Hamburg. I know, anecdata and all that, and I can’t remember if any of the students were black (these were classmates of a good friend of mine, not people I knew). The impression I got from those stories was that racism was much less overt in many arenas, but it did crop up very obviously in certain situations. (Of course, I’ve also heard stories about non-German European whites being unable to get jobs in Germany, and non-French European whites unable to get jobs in France, etc. etc., so some of that is clearly not just race. There is some crazy nationalism shit there, too.)

  20. Emma B, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:23 pm Said:

    From very limited experience with European racism (a year abroad in France), I noticed that as an outsider, it was often difficult for me to visually identify someone as being of a minority ethnicity. People of southern European and Maghrebi or Middle Eastern heritage often have similar features and hair/skin coloration (which is totally logical given that we’re talking about areas separated by no more than a couple hundred miles, with historical population overlap). Of course, there are French people of African heritage, who are obviously black, but the absolute numbers are much smaller than of Maghrebi heritage.

    Do you think that the “viseral disgust” common to American racism might have something to do with how easy it is to peg someone as being Other?

  21. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:24 pm Said:

    I wanted to re-post this link for emphasis. Minerva posted it above and it went under the radar. It’s this project that’s been around for about 10 years. It tests people’s unconscious decision making in regards to identity and its very eye opening. It turns out I prefer Arab and Jews to white folks, have no preference for Asians or whites, and a moderate preference for whites over blacks- that’s changed for me since 2000 which was the last time I took it. It used to be a slight preference for whites over blacks. I don’t think its an accident that in 2000 I had been living with African Americans in the dorms and the last ten years have been in a pretty segregated city and a very white grad program.

    The point is that people can see the way in which the cop might have made the kinds of snap judgments that he did with Professor Gates. And in the privacy of your own home you can see some of the things that may be operating in your own perception of the world.

  22. Emma B:

    (we’ll see if my daughter stays asleep…)

    “Do you think that the “visceral disgust” common to American racism might have something to do with how easy it is to peg someone as being Other?”

    Oh, without a doubt. After centuries of blacks being livestock, essentially, in North America, there’s no way that the physical reality of so-called blackness will be accepted, on all levels of the psyche, across the board there, as truly “human”, any time soon.

    Whatever the attitudes of the strangers I interact with, superficially, in Europe (even the skinheads), they don’t seem to have a problem *looking at me*. Whereas, in North America, in even the best circumstances, being black feels like having a weird birthmark. There’s the aura (subtle or not) of embarrassment and taboo attached to it. And this is a heavy thing to experience every single day… I didn’t really notice it until it had stopped.

  23. (In case anyone is confused: my avatar is a joke; my favorite photo of a close, 34-year-old friend at the age of five. It could be worse: I have a black friend who refuses to give up her Homer Simpson avatar)

  24. fatsmartchick:

    (first I feel ostracized, now you can’t shut me up; I promise I’ll fade away soon):

    “The point is that people can see the way in which the cop might have made the kinds of snap judgments that he did with Professor Gates.”

    But if you look closely, you can see how reading H.L. Gates as any kind of criminal presence, or physical threat, goes beyond snap-judgment and slips into the realm of fantasy narrative. If Gates were huge and inarticulate and 20 years younger and dripping with gold chains, the profiling might still be rather unfair… but not entirely absurd. But H. L. Gates? He’d look like a harmless academic in his underwear. Where are all these fantastical layers of projection coming from?

  25. Oh no- did anyone get a load of this?

    Apparently the officer that arrested Professor Gates TEACHES DIVERSITY CLASSES TO THE POLICE DEPARTMENT.

    It is just like I said before- where on earth do the police get their information on diversity anyway if this kind of thing continues to happen?

  26. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 10:06 pm Said:

    I agree with you. If you’ll see from my posts above, I think the whole idea of Gates being seen as a criminal is nonsense.

    The study that Minerva linked to allows people to essentially see what they prefer among headshots of white and black faces. Then they have another that tests how much you associate dangerous weapons with black or white faces. It gets some people past that point of “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” or thinking racism is something people consciously, purposefully do and thus ‘I don’t have to examine what attitudes I have because I don’t use the n word.” The cool thing is that it also allows POC to test their own perceptions and even see some self-loathing tendencies that come from living in a racist society. There’s also a test on there for fatphobia. I prefer fat people to thin people. hmm.

  27. fatsmartchick:

    I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I have a lookist allergy to certain *dress styles*; I pre-judge the hell out of guys my age trying to dress in “with it” fashions (and wraparound sunglasses). But if they open their mouths and junk doesn’t fall out, I’m pretty sure I let the prejudice go.

    But my family/heritage is very, very mixed and I just don’t look at dark people or pale people and assume I know a thing about them. My range of friends is almost impossible… but I’ve constructed a fragile bubble of Post-Gender and Post-Race that I can only maintain by staying put. In many ways, it’s just a simulation.

    I don’t want my daughter to deal with that ugliness (she’s 3) but I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep her in a bubble about it.

  28. Stephen Augustine –

    As a Canadian and in a somewhat different racial culture – although not without racism, by any means, but with *differing* racisms – one of the things that hits me every time I venture into the states is that class and black/latino/white stratification seem really intertwined and obvious. The same can be said for Canadian society and our serious systemic oppression of the First Nations folks. I tend to see race and class intersect a lot.

    My impression was that Germany was a little less desperate on the lower economic rungs but I have no real sense of whether race and class are heavily intertwined with that. Have you felt a difference in class assumption in Germany?

  29. Sorry. STEVEN Augustine. Apologies. I PH’d you.

  30. Arwen:

    It’s my sense that race and class are *always* intertwined; especially if you substitute color for race where necessary (in places like Brazil or India). The difference between the US and Germany is, I think, again, down to the North American slave trade. And the whole people-as-cattle thing. You can’t treat people like literal cattle for longer than a place has been a country and suddenly start thinking of these “cattle” as people with the flip of a legislative switch. It just won’t happen. And so many of those antebellum tropes are still with us, in the form of popular entertainment… what’s a “gangsta rapper” but a modern embodiment of the Mandingo riff?

    Assimilation has always been the way for a subculture to ease its way out of these discriminations (no one considers the Irish or the Italians inferior or even non-white, in North America, any more). In the case of blacks, I think, assimilation is harder because of the sheer physical Otherness of being black. Even Asians, otherwise physically other to “whites”, have straight hair. Which could lead us to a discussion of hair-straightening in blacks (and Michael Jackson)…

    My theory is that the only hope is “reverse assimilation”… the rest of America getting a little browner, and curly-haired, as in Brazil, as lead by small vanguard of race-mixers. It’ll take a bit longer. And by then, of course, it’ll be something else: religion (as in Muslims) or class.

    I’ll go weirder here and say that it’s my theory that Negrophobia is a case of projection. The Nazis projected essentially German (or human) traits on the (German) Jews in a paroxysm of self-hatred and tried to wipe them out.

    I think it’s the same with Negrophobia in North America; I think whites, for the large part, live a fantasy life in which they identify themselves with impossible avatars of whiteness on movie screens, and find blacks repulsive by projecting their own rejected (human) traits on them. Blacks are looked-down-upon for being human (sweaty, sexual, smelly, violent, lazy, fat, etc) and whites think they’re Brangelina (sp?).

    Not all whites do this, of course; I’m talking about a Zeitgeist like, say, Bushism, in which it may only be the case that 52% of the people are doing it. But it’s enough to cause all the problems.

    Finding an enlightened thread like this one certainly helps to give me hope.

  31. fillyjonk, on July 24th, 2009 at 12:27 pm Said:

    I’ll go weirder here and say that it’s my theory that Negrophobia is a case of projection.

    It’s interesting that you say that whites are essentially asking blacks to accept their projected/abjected humanity. I would have interpreted it in basically the opposite way: as a literal scapegoating, transferring your sins and fears to (what you perceive as) an animal and then casting them out. Certainly that’s how I’ve interpreted Nazi xenophobia. I feel like the “animal” part is crucial there, since there’s a (symbolic or literal) sacrifice involved.

    Though I guess disagreeing over whether racism involves seeing people as “too human” or “too animal” is sort of moot… since humans are animals, and it sounds to me like when you talk about blacks being looked down on for “being human” you mean the particularly animal parts of it, which some people might want to abject in favor of a more… deified version of humanity, for lack of a better word.

    To get back to the main point of the thread, I’d put a finer point on your last graf: it’s not even that 52% of people are (necessarily) doing it; it’s that the culture is a priori racist (we’ve never had a zeitgeist where that isn’t the case) and only some percentage of people question and challenge that explicitly. Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.

  32. FJ:

    In total agreement. I think we can reconcile our last two comments if I clarify by saying that the abhorred “human” I’m referring to is the Animal reality, and that the etherealized version, up there on the screen in the form of Brangelina, is the Angelic that the viewer identifies with. It’s the difference, too, between the average “white” person’s vague notion of history as a Merchant and Ivory flick of pale sylphs flouncing around grand old English estates… and the reality of smelly, sometimes chancre-ridden humans taking dumps in lidded buckets kept in the wardrobes overnight. Laugh!

    As a child of the 1960s, I was well aware of white children taking pride in an imaginary patrimony that stretched all the way back to British actors mouthing plummy orations whilst posing in pristine togas in front of various landmarks of ancient Rome… while I was asked to imagine my great great great great great great grandparents squatting naked in bushes and ooh-ohh-ohhing like chimps. The mechanism of which is all just a fraction of the problem of racial self-image, and projection, we witness in a cop’s inability to treat HL Gates with “white” respect.

    “Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.”

    Right. On.

buttercup, on July 24th, 2009 at 3:39 pm Said:

“Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.”

That’s about the most apt thing I’ve heard all week. It deserves to be stitched into a sampler, made into a bumper sticker, printed on a tee shirt, and written by skywriters all over the world.

celeloriel, on July 24th, 2009 at 4:56 pm Said:

Thank you, Kate, for this excellent post.

And thank you, Shapelings, for an awesome discussion in the comments. (Steven Augustine, haven’t seen you ’round these parts before, but you rock, and your comments have been very, very interesting to me. Thank you.)

I’d comment more substantively, but everything I feel I ought to say has already been said. 🙂


In other words, the Literary Internet isn’t all just complacent white guys throwing beer cans at the pesky gadflies. Nice.


Why Famous Writers Should Never Self-Google

 or: adventures in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum


Unlike Zadie Smith¹, I really was just “passing through the book pages” (of the Guardian’s blog section) yesterday. What I found was a blog article, by Robert McCrum, titled Sebald, Hughes and Smith: three modern greats.  I sneered, of course, but it was a sneer devoid of passion. Not that the picture posted under the blog heading, of Zadie Smith, looking measurably less ugly than J.L. Borges, wasn’t nice. It was nice. Not (for me) write-a-hyperbolic-headline-about-her nice, but nice enough.

I scanned the comment thread and came to something by the writer Oscar MacSweeny. His comment (now deleted) was something to the effect that McCrum’s calling Zadie Smith a “modern great” was beyond the pale unless McCrum was “screwing her”, in which case the hyperbole would be understandable. To which I chipped in with the fatal qualifier (now semi-deleted), “…or would like to,” along with a sarcastic bit about some other commenter’s notion that Sebald is “boring” and Hughes is unread “outside the English language” (and therefore of no consequence), though Zadie is tops.

One incisive participant, a thing called “Greenball”, who then got the coveted pat-on-the-head from a tetchy Guardian Unlimited functionary who wields her modicum of power firmly, wrote:

“And shame on Steven Augustine for writing such offensive things. And shame on Oscar. You small pathetic men. I think it’s outrageous that the Guardian allow this kind of personal abuse in the name of journalism.”

Is a personal opinion “journalism”? Are comment threads comprised of “journalism” or personal opinion? Are all personal opinions, by decree, to be for the  “good” things and against the “bad” things consensus decides?

Was Oscar’s comment, accusing McCrum of positive sexism (or Luvism), a form of negative sexism? Only if said comment could only have been used “against” a particular gender. Was my addition, a comment on the possible spot where Robert McCrum’s possible libido intersects with his possible literary judgment, negative sexism? Again: only if I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have quipped exactly the same way about some blogger’s hyperbolic estimation of the value of Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre.

I mention Franzen because of the controversy I remember about the glamour photo his publisher used for the jacket of early printings of The Corrections. The photo was a sexed-up (photoshopped?) confection that made Franzen look not just better than he had ever appeared to in real life (presumably), but better than most actors depicting crusading hot lawyers on primetime American television. The complaint (but why complain?) being that the book’s rapturous reception was, in large part, extra-literary. Imputations of wave upon wave of fainting Franzenmaniacs at book-signings and so forth.

Clearly, a subtle sub-theme of this longish comment of mine is the Faustian pact that younger, cuter writers enter into with the Beelzebuboid PR wings of their publishers, though the logical conclusions of that implied essay (about petards and elevation) are too obvious to belabor here. So, back to my plea to famous writers (who, surely, are compensated in advance for the pain) to either, A) resist the self-Google demon or B) respond not snippily to what they subsequently find…

Mr. Franzen has taken quite  a “beating”, in the years since that photo flap faded, from “print” and “blog” critics alike. The criticisms are sometimes expressed with immoderate diction, as private opinions often are and public opinions sometimes are and political and/or corporate speech is very, very rarely. An important question emerges: is there a place for immoderate diction in this world?

Sarah Crown, some kind of higher functionary of the GU’s online business (the business of generating web traffic, no matter the content), claims not. She writes (emphasis mine):

“I’ll certainly be asking the moderators to remove the remarks from MrStevenAugustine and iamoscarmacsweeny. Absolutely no place for them on here (or anywhere, for that matter). Sorry they weren’t spotted sooner.”

So, now we know: there’s no place on Earth, and no possible situation, in which it’s proper to imply (or opine outright) that X commenter adores Y writer for any other than literary reasons. Especially if the extra-literary reasons are romantic/sexual and the adored writer is a woman. Because placing a woman’s name in a sentence or paragraph that also contains a reference to sex, no matter the gist of the sentence, is “sexist”, by default? One supposes. Here’s an experiment:

“Robert McCrum, ranking Jonathan Franzen’s work on a level with Rod McKuen’s and Robert Ludlum’s is only forgivable if you’re screwing him (or them)!”

Is that better? It feels less “sexist”.  But it’s still immoderate diction. The question remains: is banning immoderate diction a triumph of PC culture (that high-strung web of proscription and taboo, thickened and thriving during an arguably illiberal, anti-intellectual, crypto-fascist convulsion of the “West”)? Immoderate diction is banned unless the “good” are using it, of course: I’m quite sure it’s okay to refer to Oscar and me as “louts” and “idiots” and “bedwetters” and  “small pathetic  men”. I’ve just checked the etiquette book and it says, on page one, that it is².

Even Zadie Smith, having stumbled upon Oscar MacSweeny’s personal (if indirect) opinion of her work’s merit (and my quip appended to Oscar’s opinion), did not like it. She wrote, among other things (emphasis mine):

¹Hello. This is zadie smith. I know this is pointless, but I was just passing through the book pages, and found this thread and wanted to add two things…

(etc., etc., until)

3. Oscar and Steve Augustine: everyone is free to dislike whichever book they dislike. But read what you’ve written, below, again. Is this what women novelists are to expect? Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?

26 Jan 09, 9:03pm (about 7 hours ago)


“…unless you’re screwing her.”

Or would like to?”

This question prefacing Oscar MacSweeny’s/Steven Augustine’s evil work (Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?) is rhetorical. But what if the answer is “yes”?

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the answer is.

Which would mean that Zadie Smith’s wounded sanctimony, while still humanly reasonable, is rhetorically invalidated. The only fair thing from Zadie Smith, Sarah Crown and the hysterical bluenoses who enliven the thread with their dimwittish celebrity arse-kissing, at this point, is an apology to Oscar MacSweeny and Steven Augustine… and a generously inscribed copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty to both of us.

Actually, forget the book.




²What’s it like being lambasted savagely by a near-idiot not even known to exist before the onslaught? A little like having one’s leg humped by a muddy Spaniel growling fiercely as it humps. Here are my favorite rude comments from the irony-proof  decorum-enforcers on that thread:


1. Greenball

27 Jan 09, 1:58pm

Steven Augustine, your behaviour is truly shocking. You talk about people “screwing”, or wanting to, Miss Smith, and when she rightly expresses offence, you tell her that’s just like Franzen being compared to Svevo. That is so ignorant and aggressive I can scarcely believe it.

Though I just had the misfortune to look at your blog [ ] and I can see why you’d hate Smith. She has talent and success. You have nothing.

Sarah Crown, I see you said 4 hours ago you’d remove the offending posts. I suggest that you do before Miss Smith is sensible enough to contact her lawyers.

McCrumb, let’s indeed get some things straight. You wrote a stupid, ignorant piece in which you dangled Miss Smith over a moat and then pretended to be surprised when the crocodiles began taking pieces out of her. You haven’t the grace to then apologise, but instead grudgingly (even sardonically?) write that obviously, it’s all your fault. Well, yes, it is. It is an exceptionally stupid posting.

2. Naid

27 Jan 09, 2:11pm

McCrum – talk about hanging someone out to dry. Where’s your spine, man?

I like your choice of sebald and hughes. not read smith.

stevenaugustine, you’re a bed wetter of the highest order. if you don’t like something, have the balls to say so. “Gender assymetrical jape” aside (are you a writer? i’d give up. you’re cringeworthy), please spare us all your weasling words, they’re beneath you.

so many nasty snivellers on these pages. guardian readers make me despair..

to be fair, you are doubtless mostly a bunch of sub-editors and blog writers []  suffering rejected articles and novels.. still, no excuse.

3. Bruno62

27 Jan 09, 6:49pm

To MrStevenAugustine

I told you before to stop writing because everything you write is boring and now I see you did not hear my advice []. How can you be so low to insult the The Most Talented and Gifted Writer Zadie Smith? How many books did you publish and how much money did you earn with them? Zadie Smith, 3 books and literary star, this is too much to your liver, n’est pas? Today, Mr..(you dont deserve too much) Steve, our world became miserable with internet, because when you have no talent at all, you write a blog [] because it seems to ease your resentment and frustation. If you are gentleman, if you are really a british gentleman, you should apologise to Miss Smith. But if you are a member of the Muridae Family, stay in hole. Bruno da Silva, Switzerland



BONUS TRACK (a favorite, astonishingly rational comment of mine, deleted from the thread):



On the contrary – I’ve reported that comment too. Tut.”

I counted at least five (not the least of which being “bedwetter”… you’d think my wife or 3 year old daughter would’ve told me!). All quips (as dangerous as quips can be) aside: suggestion…leave them *all* as they are because they are merely *opinions* and a comment thread is supposedly comprised of things like that. Even the odd ranklers.


Alarming, old chum, I disagree with your characterization of Oscar’s original remark (and my quipped addition) as “schoolboy childish”. Anything but, I’d have thought: it’s wee children who think everything is all about white smiles, yellow duckies and chocolate bunnies. Oscar’s (clearly frustrated) remark struck me as that of a cynical adult’s disgust with the world. What’s “childish” about that? I’m hoping there’s room left, in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum, for grownups to be frank now and then… even if it makes the bunnies cry.

A Concerned Reader Writes



The person who write the website shoud stop writing.

It’s boring und really a shit. I’d rather read Jonathan Safran Foer.

-Bruno da Silva

Indignation: A Sort of Review

A sickening strain of unearned smugness runs rampant on the Litblogs. This we know and accept. Still, when Mark Sarvas posted his review of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” (a review the best sentence within which could not come continent-close, in terms of beauty, or intellectual force, to the weakest sentence in “Indignation”; a review with a glaring factual error indicative of the tiresome possibility that Mark skimmed or skipped the final fourth of the book, if not the whole thing), I felt compelled to post a comment.


(Sidebar: Am I a prickly, opinionated arse-nozzle with no interest in playing nice, or in jiving and handjobbing my way to the, erm, “top”? Certainly.)  


It wasn’t just the poor quality of Mark’s delusionally gloating review that irritated me, or the fact that Roth deserves much more respect, after approximately half a century of constant work of such an undeviatingly high standard that he can’t possibly have had any kind of a life while producing it: it was the dimwitted, anti-Philip Roth commentary on Sarvas’s site, inspired by his review (and similar reviews, on various Litblogs run by ruthless literary super-geniuses around the Internet), that riled me.


So, having just read “Indignation” (with great pleasure), I posted a comment which lasted on Mark’s blog about 12 hours before he saw fit to delete it (following, by the way, a brief email exchange in which Mark implied that we were no longer necessarily secret imaginary friends). Fair enough: it’s Mark’s kingdom to rule as he sees fit.


My riled, profanity-free comment went (verbatim):


“Indignation” is a brilliant treatise on dissent (and the timeless dangers of non-conformism) delivered in a tragic little parable keyed perfectly (with the dramatic precision of anything by Sophocles) to this our own little fascist-lite era. Roth shows how Herd Law trumps mere truth and logic every time.


Yes, sure: riffs, memes, props and gags resurface from earlier works, but to infer from these resonances that Roth is therefore (and not even consciously!) repeating himself is a lazy, self-serving reading of a text that deserves respect on its own terms.


“Indignation” is a gem-pretty miniature, like “Everyman” and “The Dying Animal” (my least favorite of these three, btw); that readers keep harping on the “Jewishness” or “Sex” and “Death” in these three books illustrates how *easy* it is to miss the finer points when it serves our purposes to do so. Roth is a subtle, tricky, impeccably clarified writer. Read, and re-read, carefully.


The difference between my reading of “Indignation” and the negative reviews I’ve read of the book, thus far, seems to be that I picked it up *expecting* something good. Roth’s success rate in the minting of masterpieces affords me the luxury of giving him the benefit of the doubt when I open one of his books for the first time, and my good faith is usually repaid in spades. Just as Mr. Banville’s was (this time).


Roth’s work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (whose is?), however, like it or not, from a merely technical standpoint, he writes most everyone under the table (while making it look like casual work). We don’t have to “like” the Roth artifact to respect the brilliance of its design. And, at what point did Philip Roth become less knowledgeable about his job than every single one of these long-sufferingly hamfisted (and crypto-Oedipal) critiques?


Answer: never. 



Mark was insulted, obviously, and objected to being insulted. But I object to Mark’s insulting Mr. Philip Roth (just as I have objected in the past to his insulting Martin Amis, or James Wood’s insulting of any number of grandly talented writers, including Mr. Don DeLillo). Posting my comment (first at TEV, and now here), is the next best thing to telling him so to his face. Which I surely would, if he lived in Berlin (and with infinitely less agitation than he probably imagines).


“Indignation” sees Philip Roth in fine shape. If you’re a fan: read it. If not: abstain. For those undecided: it can’t much hurt to try this crafty little book out.


To read enjoyable-yet-painstaking reviews of “Indignation” more professional than either this or Mark Sarvas’s, go here:,0,311739.story



Meanwhile, Ted Gioia, at Blog Critics, skipped the last two chapters of the book (or the first page of the penultimate chapter, at the very least) in order to bring us the counterfactual news that “Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead protagonist.”


Not true: the book’s protag is not “dead”, but dying, whilst narrating his story.  Am I naive enough to believe that the average book reviewer actually reads a book carefully before writing the review? Of course not. But a lacerating “review” in the manner of Mr. Gioia’s is rendered absurd by any evidence of a slapdash reading. Even worse if the review is full of awkward, amateurish riffs such as, “I now wait for the President of the United States to figure in every Roth novel I read, much like Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies, even if (as in Lifeboat) it is only via a newspaper passing through the narrative.” This riff only works if Roth himself (the Auteur) has a cameo role in the considered text, obviously; otherwise the comparison is idiotic. Beyond that, the sentence (like much of Gioia’s review) isn’t even mediocre: it’s  talentlessly ugly. For more of the same:


Amusingly, Gioia wants to argue the point in the comments section:


“There is no mention on p. 225, or anywhere else in this novel, that the story is narrated while the protagonist is in a coma. Instead, we find:

Page 54: “dead as I am and have been for I don’t know how long.”
Page 200: “I knew without a doubt . . . would turn out to be the angel of death.”
Page 226: “Now he was well and truly dead.”


But when I tried to post the following response I was giving an “error [40] Banned word” message:



Page 225. The first two sentences of the  chapter read: “Here memory ceases. Syrette after syrette of morphine squirted into his arm had plunged Private Messner into a protracted state of deepest unconsciousness, though without suppressing his mental processes.”


Citing the line, from page 226, “Now he was well and truly dead,” confirms the point that Messner was narrating his story *pre-death*, until death well and truly put a stop to his narrative. When the new narrative voice makes its appearance on page 225, it is to announce that Messner is done telling the story, and to add a layer of exposition that Messner hasn’t revealed, due to denial or incapacity: his fate, location, and the horrific state of his body. When the new narrator takes over, Messner is finally dead. Before that point, the text makes clear (on page 225), he wasn’t dead. All of this information is available in the text.

Not only am I curious as to whether Ted Gioia knows what an unreliable narrator is; I’m curious as to which word, in my blocked comment (above), was banned. Was it “morphine”?




And, finally: what’s heartening about Carlin Romano’s ankle-nipping lunge at “Indignation”, over at the Philadelphia Inquirer (reproduced, following the link, at, is the proof it provides that smug, self-aggrandizing, half-arsed reviews aren’t peculiar to bloggers:


The comment I left (typo-corrected) in response to the above:


Heaven forbid that Carlin Romano should detect any themes in this novella beyond the banal autobiographical resonances easily available to the lightest reading (make that skimming) of it. A novella that features as its key set piece (the set piece in which the protag’s fierce precocity seals a doom foretold) a secularly Jewish freshman taking on the forbiddingly Wasp (paternal like Jupiter) dean of his 1950s-era college, with Bertrand Russell’s classic “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech… can’t possibly have any thematic depths greater than Shiksa sex farce, can it?


Romano admits, “As taut campus-novel narrative, “Indignation” is fast-paced, absorbing, disturbing.”


Roth is a very strange writer, one supposes, to be able to pull that off and still get such a sneering thumb’s down of a review. Romano then writes, “Roth makes Marcus’ feverish scrutiny of himself, his family and his new campus uniformly energetic, even funny. But figuring out how we’re meant to respond to the book as a whole is not easy….” as though that last bit isn’t, surely, the reader/reviewer’s sole responsibility?


Mr. Roth doesn’t need better reviews, one feels, but better, less hungry, reviewers.



POSTSCRIPT (from the Dept. of the Horse’s  Mouth):

PR: My intention is that he dies twice, as it were. When he’s under the morphine, he imagines he’s dead: he’s conscious of nothing around him, only his memory is active.

JM: And he feels like he’s in the afterlife.

PR: That’s right. He imagines he’s in the afterlife. Then he actually does die, and the memory shuts down. That was just my conceit.

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.