it's a tribute, not a theft

I’ve been following the controversy around Kaavya Viswanathan’s book with muted interest. Muted because, quite honestly, she doesn’t merit the attention she’s gotten from the beginning. And I mean, the very beginning. A half-million dollar advance for a seventeen-year-old’s literary opus from Little, Brown? It’s so cynical a marketing ploy it stinks to high heaven. You can’t blame Viswanathan for thinking it had something to do with her, when in fact it was a little like a kiddie pornographer sweet-talking a minor into posing for him, flashing her some twenties and telling her he’s gonna make her a star.

Of course it’s not Viswanathan’s fault, entirely. It is very much her editor’s and Little, Brown’s. It is the fault of a book industry which is styling itself after the Cola Wars. If Random House comes out with a coming of age story that sells like hotcakes, well, Little, Brown is gonna stick as close to the formula as possible, since, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Coke, Pepsi? Big Mac, Whopper? Ford, Chrysler? What’s the difference?

What’s happening in publishing today is simply what’s been going on in the clothing, automotive, fast food, and entertainment industries for decades. Sometimes a line is crossed, but more often than not, the crossing of the line inches the line itself a little further toward the ethical margins. For example, Little, Brown is pulling the book, but plans a re-release, capitalizing on all the press it’s getting, with a “revised” edition, the lifted passages scrambled so as not to look quite as plagiarized. The author retains her good name, and her advance, and everything’s back to normal, and everyone wins! Can’t wait for the sequel!

Viswanathan’s advance was obscene, no question about it, but it was also part of a ploy to sell the book. This is the Hollywood approach to selling the product, and again, while it violates something for those of us who look to literature for something more than mere consumption, it was more or less inevitable, given the way things are.

I mean, consider the history of hip-hop. I was at the gym the other day and they were playing one of those satellite R&B/hip-hop-lite stations, and I swear every song was based on a ripped-off riff from some eighties pop song, the most comical number of the day that day was one based wholly on the well-known riff from John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane”.

So, remember: there is no sin, and no shame, in loving a book so much you end up plagiarizing it. It’s a tribute, not a theft!


Bushie's latest little outburst

"I'm the decider!" the President blurted out, when asked about calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.

When pressed, he added: "You're not the boss of me!"

After which he stuck out his tongue at reporters, climbed on his Big Wheel, and tore out of the room, running over the foot of a journalist from CNN and almost knocking over a reporter from the New York Times.

His Chief of Staff apologized for the outburst.

"He has not had his afternoon nap," he explained, hurrying from the room after the President. "He hasn't even gotten his num-num."

"Considering the num-num," a White House Spokesman told reporters afterwards, "he's actually been very well-behaved."


The Tribulations (but not yet trials) of Saint George

I was just watching the news on the local ABC affiliate (channel 4), and the anchorwoman was talking to George Stephanopoulos about Mr. Bush's latest shenanigans, specifically the revelation by Scooter Libby that the President authorized Libby's leaks.

Stephanopoulos called it "a big blow against the President."

The anchor called it "a big distraction."

This is how pussied-out the press is. First of all, they treat it like it's no biggie that the President broke the law, again, and that he then repeatedly and brazenly lied about it in public. Character? Anybody?

Secondly, if it is "a blow against the president" it is the president himself who threw the punch. As for the scandal (should it become one--and, yes, it should become one) being a "big distraction": what is it a "distraction" from, exactly? This is the modus operandi of this administration. This so-called "distraction" is the very thing that all the lies and prevarications are distraction from.

Later it was reported that "Washington" is considering airstrikes against Iran. It would not surprise me in the least if, hurting in the polls, the President and Congress resorted to a little shock-n-awe to rally the troops and whip up hysterical support for the party.


Spam: the Novel

I have a confession to make. I know, now that Madonna’s done it everyone’s doing it. But, here goes: I love spam. I never open it, but I love those spam names it comes under. Whatever algorithm they’re using to generate those names I must have it. In fact, I’ve decided to write a novel in which all the characters’ names come from spams I’ve received over the years. It’ll be a picaresque, of course, which will allow for a maximum of characters, since my list of names is getting longer every day.

Our protagonist: the hapless Mazo Aben. His sidekick and sometime philosopher: Loughnane Tumulty, an escaped Saudi slave. Mazo’s unattainable lady love: Fanizza Medosch. His rival for her attentions: the devilish Kamrowski (not to be confused with the artist by that name, or Victor Komarovsky in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—he was played by Rod Steiger in the movie—although there are postmodern shades of the latter’s lecherousness in our Kamrowski). His evil sidekicks, Lickert and Kwit, have no scruples, and will do anything to accomplish his purposes, which, we will learn late in the narrative, are even more sinister than Mazo, or we, could have imagined.

Of the nearly impossibly long list of minor characters: Madam Pereyra Gusmar and her troupe of Merrie Whores, the proverbial Whore With a Heart of Gold, Mojica Morefield, chief among them. Of her charges, the most tragic is Topness Pauly, the tubercular whore, whose only dream is to become a stage actress, despite buck teeth, bad skin, and a terrible stutter (no one has the heart to tell her).

She dies in the arms of her “agent,” the drunkard and wastrel Greinke Kalkbrenner, after contracting syphilis from him in exchange for giving him consumption. Distraught and coughing up blood, the drunken Greinke carries the lifeless body of “Me Li’l Toppy,” as he affectionately called her, through the rainy cobblestone streets of Moznett, wailing, “Why? Why, Lordy, why?! Take me! Take me!” while the townspeople throw empty bottles and rubbish and hurl epithets like “syphilitic dog” and “slutty little consumptive” at them.

And as if in answer to Greinke’s question, as Providence would have it, stumbling blindly through the streets he (literally) bumps into the hot-tempered Nobleman Duenes Starcevic, Fifth Duke of Gafna Capral on the Sea of Idler Dawn, dropping the girl’s corpse at his feet, splashing his Sergio Grasso Bergamo Field boots with muck and slime from the gutter. Starcevic demands a duel that very day, in which poor Greinke, who has never handled a gun, is, of course, shot dead. But not before accidentally shooting out the good eye of Duke Starcevic’s Second, the exotic Yuri Kunishige, whose business in the Occident is shrouded in mystery until, having been blinded and seeking solace, he ends up in the boudoir of Mojica Morefield, who coaxes out his secret mission, which involves a certain Mazo Aben…


I was going for a kind of arty, cryptic cover up above, by the way--like, if you saw it on the remainders table at Barnes & Noble you might be like, "Spam? Why are there ruby slippers on the cover? Guess I'll have to read it and find out!" But there are certainly other possibilities. Among them, something sober, 19th centuryish:

I love how Penguin puts just any old thing, practically, on their covers, just as long as it looks venerable. Here, Bouguereau has the advantage of being both venerable and gloriously sleezy at the same time.

Or you could go with a more contemporary look, to snag those ironic pomo litty types, with a less cryptic but more provocative cover illustration, like this lovely Lucien Freud (one of my personal faves):

Any Freud is a sure conversation-starter. This is the perfect cover for a ride on public transit or an airplane trip, if you're looking to attract a little unwanted attention!

But the only sure-fire way to guarantee success, as everyone knows, is The Seal:


hard Times on the frontlines

We tolerate banality in soldiers. Not only tolerate it, but expect it. That's the message I'm getting from The New York Times. TimesSelect, their online subscription site, invited four members of the U.S. military (but no Iraqis yet) to write about their daily lives. We have considerable nostalgia as a people for "our boys over there," and it really should be no surprise that TimesSelect did not ask any female soldiers to contribute, because in our nostalgic version there were no girls "over there". But there is a point at which nostalgia becomes an obscenity to the present and an insult to the past. And “Frontlines” is it.

What made the World Wars, and Vietnam, even, wars out of which great writing came was, in large part, I think, universal conscription. It spiced up the gene pool a bit, if you catch my meaning. It allowed for mixed emotions about war, and insights about the struggle for life and limb, instead of clichés and utter banalities about man’s oldest profession like First Lt. Lee Kelley's "things I miss" list. Among them: Being near his children. Eating a home-cooked meal. Fresh milk. Movie theaters. A nice, clean private bathroom with a porcelain toilet. Fast Food. Sex. A bathtub. His car. Highspeed internet. Sex. His dogs. Alcohol. Cable TV. Did he mention Sex?

Sex actually shows up three times on his list. With who, we don't know. "Wife" didn't make the list. It’s just the kids, the dog, the car, TV, and sex. Presumably there is a mother of his children, but nowhere is she mentioned by name, job-title, or even function.

And the last item on the list is very poignant, of course: freedom.

And it is poignant in a way, because we are all human, and we can all understand what it's like to be away from home, away from porcelain toilets, cable TV, and home pussy (‘cuz, as one freak I used to know used to say “ain't no pussy like home pussy”). But in a way it's pure cliché-laden bathos. It shows what some people want from this war, and wanting these things is the wrong reason to go to war. Sorry.

What adds to the theatricality (I hesitate to say phoniness, but if we are talking about a sort of childishly heightened sense of self-consciousness, there is that, too)—what adds to this are posts by folks back home in the comments section of the blog. The pandering and super-sized saccharine sentimentality of the entire project is most in evidence here, of course. This is a kind of liturgical exercise. A call and response. But it reeks of cheap sentimentality, too.

“Come home safe. Thanks for being there.” “Bless you and the troops. Get home safely.” “I’m crying so hard. Come home safely.” “your words stick like glue to my heart.”

What is understandable is a desire for service to a higher cause among soldiers and a desire for heroes back home, but this war makes a mockery of both. You either recognize that straight-up, or participate in the farce. Nothing you will say, as a soldier, will ring true without the recognition of that truth.

Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay, who has been home for a month or so, writes: “People have been constantly asking me…what it’s like to be home after being ‘there.’… If I were to answer with complete honesty (which I have a bad habit of doing) then the one word I’d use to describe how I now feel is homesick. Yes, homesick. Those who’ve been ‘there,’ meaning Iraq, would probably get it.” The truth is, those who have been to summer camp would probably get it. This is another cliché, another banality, that frankly does not justify all the effort that went into coming up with it. But the premise of Fay’s blog is that no one who has not been there can possibly understand what the soldiers are going through, and can therefore not comment with any authority on the war. But these are two utterly different things.

The purpose of war is not for the warriors to have something to bond over. That was Ghengis Khan and Attila the Hun. Or Crips and Bloods. It's the Mafia. Wholesone, corn-fed Americans: if you're looking to bond, join an intramural basketball team that isn’t costing America 150 million dollars a day, resulting in the loss of countless lives, and increasing the likelihood of terrorism immeasurably. Please.

The title of Fay’s latest post is “The Next ‘Best Generation,’” which clearly alludes to what Peter Jennings labeled the World War II generation, i.e., “The Greatest Generation,” and implies a comparison between the two that is not, despite what some would like to think, the least bit obvious. Any generation of men from anywhere can fight wars. Most have, in fact. This alone is commonplace.

In response to Fay’s post, among the usual schlock (“Roshan” writes: “We are embroiled in a task we must not lose, but the public… patience is ebbing badly exactly when we cannot afford to lose patience... Keep well, stay strong and know you are loved and admired by your fellow citizens.”), is a comment from an actual member of “The Greatest Generation” that’s worth quoting in full:
As an old soldier, combat parachute infantryman who lost a leg in Vietnam when commanding in the 101st Abn Division, I can empathize with the Iraq “heroes”. But I can not think about their “war” without recalling my years in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. And I recall experiences they never had…
living in a foxhole
going without a hot meal for ten days
worrying about enemy artilley and enemy aircraft
taking three days to get back to a MASH after wounds
not getting mail for two weeks and not ever talking to my home by phone
not even seeing a woman for months
losing friends who were captured and stayed as POWs
having the home front in the USA ashamed of me
getting $10 for monthly combat pay…not $750
getting nothing, not $100,000 for losing my leg
no rest every night with TV and maybe pool or ping pong to keep me happy until I slept in a cot with blankets
with so much more casualty in my commands that I can not write about it
Maybe that is why “war” and “heroes” are strange words for me.
Col (Ret) Mel Garten..CIB w/2 stars, MPcht Bdge with two stars for combat jumps
There is, finally, something supremely ironic, if not a little grotesque, in what has become an essentially mercenary army serving private and corporate interests, starting wars without provocation at great cost to the nation and great profit to said private parties, co-opting a nation’s patriotism.

I'm not so sure that universal conscription would not make us more cautious in the future. It would certainly not allow us the luxury of so easily sentimentalizing it.

the work we won't do

The argument, oft-repeated by Bush and his drones, that illegal workers must be "granted amnesty" because they "do the jobs Americans won't" is despicable. This is, again, not about workers, or their humane treatment. It's about a class of people in America who don't want to pay living wages for labor.

Even conservatives see through the ruse. Mark Krikorian, at the National Review writes:

If the supply of foreign workers were to dry up (say, through actually enforcing the immigration law, for starters), employers would respond to this new, tighter, labor market in two ways. One, they would offer higher wages, increased benefits, and improved working conditions, so as to recruit and retain people from the remaining pool of workers. At the same time, the same employers would look for ways to eliminate some of the jobs they now are having trouble filling. The result would be a new equilibrium, with blue-collar workers making somewhat better money, but each one of those workers being more productive.
I don't think rounding up the millions of illegals everywhere in the nation is the answer. It would be hugely expensive, first of all. And with the government's demonstrated incompetence in these types of operations, totally unfeasible. But I don’t think they did themselves any favors in the PR department with their demonstrations. They looked more like revelers at Mardi Gras. And especially here in New England, that doesn't go over. If you are protesting bad policy you should go about it gravely, not treat it like a drag festival. I don't think it's a stretch to say that it seems to most legal citizens of the Commonwealth that illegals should behave meekly, particularly when they are petitioning the government of a state in which they illegally reside.

When one of the local television news programs covered a demonstration that took place at the State House on Tuesday, they highlighted a big, busty young chica shaking her junk for the camera. She was in a puffy pink coat, with a tight, tight t-shirt with the words "Social Director" emblazoned on it working the risers like a lap dancer on crystal in the cheap seats at a Sox game. It was enough to make any true Yankee's blood go even colder than it already is naturally.

When one "immigrant activist" was asked if she had a message for true Yankee and (I think) all-around nice guy Tom Reilly, candidate for governor, who didn't show up (the only gubernatorial candidate who did was his rival for the Democratic nomination Deval Patrick), she said: "The people do not know. When they don't see him here, they do not read the paper and monitor what his actions are."

They don't read the papers. Another good advertisement for immigrants, isn't it? And did I miss something here? Don't you have to be a citizen of the United States to vote in the Commonwealth's elections? Presumably legal immigrants who belong to communities with lots of illegal immigrants will only vote for candidates who acknowledge them, or something.

Whatever you think of immigrants individually or as a group, I think the assumptions upon which this administration's immigration policy is based are disgusting. Their mantra "the jobs Americans won't do" demonstrates an attitude antithetical to real American values, and shows, once again, what phonies and usurpers these GOP slobs are.

As for higher consumer costs, it's a tricky issue, I don't deny it. I'm not an economist. Higher wages for menial work are apparently invariably passed on to the customer. This could result, as I understand it, in consumers buying fewer of the goods or services proffered, resulting in loss of menial jobs in the sectors in question.

Taxpayers are already bearing the health costs of illegals, essentially subsidizing many companies' operating costs. Still, anyone who tells you that undocumented workers without language skills aren't ultimately costing companies money is a fool. They may be saving in wages and benefits, but quality of service, accuracy, and ultimately productivity all suffer. Which is to say nothing of how corrosive our current attitudes towards work and workers is on our vaunted moral values. I mean, just how low are we willing to go for low, low prices?

You don't have to be an economist to see that companies who hire illegals do so to avoid paying even the paltry minimum wage. Consumers feel squeezed, being constantly told that a living wage means higher prices on goods and services (many of which are already grossly inflated), and the circular argument becomes something like: if we pay the poor sods a living wage, the prices of everything will go up, and minimum-wage workers will just be back where they started, unable to make a living off a living wage. And this justifies the patently immoral choice to do nothing at all.

We make choices as a society. We seem to have chosen a society in which a certain caste of people do the jobs another caste of people consider beneath them. Rather than strive to provide a measure of dignity to work and to honor the dignity of workers with a living wage, we advocate the importation of laborers to do the dirty work we won't do for cheap. We openly acknowledge that our "lifestyle" is dependent on laborers who we knowingly pay wages far below a minimum wage that is already nowhere in the neighborhood of a living wage. The situation is shameful. The assumptions upon which the solution is based are shameful, but have become so commonplace that the President can not only speak as he has about the issue openly, but he can use as a slogan for a policy he views as compassionate this shameful mantra "the jobs Americans won't do".

The work Americans don't want to do is on their morals. And that's where work is most desperately needed.