If you're not already familiar with Anita Dalton's self-styled studies of "odd books" and assorted cultural curiosities, you have a couple of options.
The first option is to schedule a week off work and stock up on time-release Adderall in order to catch up. Most—though not all—of Anita's voluminous counter-disciplinary criticism and commentary has been dutifully archived on her excellent Odd Things Considered site, which, in its various iterations, has become something of a hot spot for intrepid bibliophiles. Dive in and be careful not to get lost in the rabbit holes that dot the terrain.
Or, if you prefer the shorter (but still wonderfully long) route, your second option is to snatch up a copy of Anita's new book, TL;DR—The Best of Odd Things Considered. Published by Nine-Banded Books (hello) earlier this year, this thick-as-a-brick compendium features "directors cut" versions of many—though not all—of Anita's most provocative and personally invested deep-dive book discussions, along with lots of spankin' new content that you won't find online no matter how hard you look. In addition to a curated sampling of her obsessively wrought "dogpatch" lit-crit, TL;DR includes a sampling of Anita's occasional forays into film criticism as well as several essays well worth reading. It's a heady concoction of light and dark, eros and thanatos, highbrow and lowbrow, all tuned to the temper of a Texan text-addict whose cultivated tastes may offer a "strange permission" to explore words and ideas beyond your comfort zone.
Since Anita began her hobby/career as an odd book blogger around the same time I kicked of my own life adventure as a fringe publisher, it was probably inevitable that our paths would cross. The following interview was conducted via email in February 2018.
CHIP SMITH: You write about a wide range of subjects, but I think it’s fair to say that you’re best known as a book blogger. Just out of curiosity, do you remember the first time you felt compelled, if that’s the right word, to record your thoughts about a book? Do you find that writing about what you read affects the way you engage with literature? Does it make you more attentive? More critical?
ANITA DALTON: LiveJournal was the first place I wrote about books and did so knowing an audience would be reading my work. I then created a site with a book blog that eventually morphed into I Read Odd Books, which morphed into Odd Things Considered. So I guess sometime in the mid-oughts I became a book blogger.
I interact with books now as a book blogger the way I did before I began writing discussions online. I was very lucky to have had excellent high school teachers and college professors who taught me how to read critically and write reasonably well, though I am certain most of them would see my current style and talk to me sternly about word conservation and overuse of f-bombs. Through writing papers for classes, I began to read texts very closely, and that habit became the norm for my reading habits outside of class. Since becoming an adult I’ve always read compulsively and thoroughly but I think the only way that being a book blogger impacts the way I interact with books is in regards to books that don’t inspire either a positive or negative note with me. Were it not for the blog, I might be tempted to skim books that don’t inspire clear positive or negative reactions.
Maybe the NYT Book Review has trademarked this question, but I’ll ask anyway: What’s on your nightstand? Anything you plan to discuss on OTC?
I feel like I need to send pictures to illustrate my answer to this question because I tend to exaggerate some of my obsessive traits for comedic value so sometimes it may be hard to know when I am being serious. Inside my bedside table, on it and around it I have somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred books that make up my bedside reading.
The most immediate reading is represented in the stack on the table facing outward toward the camera. The Case Worker by George Konrad, Leaves from the Smorgasbord by Hank Kirton, The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie by Stewart Home, Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou, and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin are all potential fodder for OTC. SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas and the books about Ted Kaczynski are for the book I am working on where I study and analyze famous and infamous manifestos. I hope to read Other Minds very soon because I became fascinated with with octopuses through some articles I read online about their interesting habits and surprisingly deep inner lives. And The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up may seem like irony but I love organizational porn.
Your niche is “odd books” or “odd things” more generally. While most of your essays begin with a brief statement about why a particular book or subject falls into the “odd pile,” I don’t think you ever set forth the precise criteria. So what makes something “odd”? Is it like Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” test for obscenity? Or do you have a general theory of “oddness” in mind when you make the call? And for that matter, what’s not odd?
Is the writing so superlative it leaves you breathless, or so terrible it makes you laugh or curse? Is the content deeply disturbing in some manner? Does the prose feel like it is speaking to you directly, as if the book were written with you in mind? Does the content try to teach you a strange idea or encourage contra mainstream reactions to known facts or history? Was the book written by a criminal, a recluse, a madman, a megalomaniac? Does the book deviate completely from what constitutes traditional plots and characterization? Were drugs involved in the writing of the book? Alcohol? Sexual addiction? Do you feel like you want to have a nervous breakdown after reading the book? Do you feel like someone finally understands your thoughts when you finish the book? All of that, some of that, small pieces of that, make a book odd, and that differs for everyone, but the extremity of the experience in writing and reading the book is generally what makes a book odd.
I have a habit of asking bookstore clerks to tell me the oddest book they have ever read, and seldom can they answer unless I give them qualifiers. Like tell me the oddest book you’ve read, and odd can mean most disturbing, most obscene, most violent, most unique in style, that which seems demented when you try to discuss it, and similar. Once I give those qualifiers the clerks can then hone in on something that went outside the experiences they had with other literature and I get wonderful answers. Asking book store employees about the books they found the oddest has lead me to some fascinating books, all so wholly different from each other that it seems hard to see how they could all fit under a single subheading for oddness. Among some of my best odd recommendations are:
- Erlend Loe’s sweetly compulsive look at existentialism in Naive. Super
- Philip Jose Farmer’s collection of short stories written as Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout
- Jan Bondeson’s entire body of work, dealing mainly with historical hoaxes, strange history and bizarre crimes
- Larry Clark’s photography book, Tulsa
- Tanith Lee’s Blood Opera Sequence
If all of the above are odd, and they are in some way, then odd is what you think it is. It would be far harder to make an argument that mainstream bestsellers are odd, but never say never.
I have a hard time defining what is not odd but for me most mainstream mystery and general fiction are not odd. I read lots of books from those genres but as much as I like and read cozy mysteries and Anne Tyler, they lack the extremity that makes something odd.
But, as I used to say often, mileage varies.
You know, I worked at a couple of bookshops when I was younger (a little over five years total) and I don’t think anyone ever asked me such a question—though I know it would have been a thrill. I do remember the feeling I would get when a customer would reveal enough to let me know that I might be dealing with a kindred spirit. Those were the moments when it felt less like a job—and now I suppose this reminds me of one of the anecdotes in your essay about Borders. It’s all treated so casually, but I think there’s something inescapably intimate about recommending a book to another person. There’s an element of trust, of vulnerability. And it usually involves discretion. What are your thoughts?
You know, I don’t think I had looked at it this way, thinking about the trust or vulnerability involved in sharing with a stranger book recommendations. But I can see how that would be the case and it now makes me wonder about the motivations for some rules I experienced working for large bookstores. Years ago I worked for a big name book store and we had strict rules about what we could recommend or even say when ringing up purchases. We couldn’t ask if the customer had read the first book of a series if we were ringing up the second book. We couldn’t comment that we loved the book they were buying, and if a customer specifically asked us for books in the same vein as a particular author—say the customer loved Stephen King and wanted books similar to King’s bestsellers—we were told to pull a copy of the author’s work from the shelves, see who had written blurbs of praise, and recommend those authors. Doing it that way sort of indemnified the store because the employees weren’t giving opinions. We were just reading off the back of the book cover.
I always just thought it was typical, bloodless corporate CYA procedures. Maybe not. Maybe it was because customers felt attacked if an employee praised their purchase one day but failed to the next. Was a lack of praise unstated contempt? Or maybe they were buying the book for a particularly degenerate relative and were offended we thought the book was for their enjoyment. Maybe these policies were to avoid the problems that come up when one thinks one has enough casual intellectual intimacy to comment upon books with a stranger when no such common ground actually exists.
Are the kids—and they are almost always kids these days—I ask about books terrified that I will mock them as lightweight if they recommend American Psycho, the book most often recommended to me when I ask about odd books at stores? Are they worried that I plan to humiliate them if they tell me that they don’t really read odd material? Or maybe management has told them not to recommend books outside of those employee review cards some stores set up? I do get a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks before I establish myself as a harmless maternal type with a website and not a secret shopper or blue-nosed harridan who will freak out if they mention a book with outre elements. I didn’t think that maybe I was putting these kids on the spot, that perhaps I was assuming an intimacy not yet established.
I never worried about sharing my opinions on books when asked because I assumed that if anyone asked for my two cents then they wanted an honest answer. I did, luckily, have enough common sense to pick up on enough visual cues to be able to narrow down any recommendations I gave when I sold books. But when I think about the times when I had that sort of bookseller-book buyer trust and intimacy, it was seldom about sharing my tastes. It was more about the customer finally feeling free enough to ask me questions without fear. I also worked at a used bookstore that is now a national chain, and we’d get so many people coming in to get copies of twelve-step program books. They had their own little section at the bottom of the self-help shelves but they were easily missed. Several of us noted we were the people those customers most often asked for help finding the books—one was an older dude who looked like he’d been through some shit (he was just an overworked dad with two demanding jobs), one was an Austin hippie prototype who looked like the sort of woman who’d be able to tell you about your past lives while baking some vegan brownies, and me, the pudgy woman with ridiculous glasses who was, at the time, using a brightly colored cane after ankle surgery. It’s like they scanned the store for the person most likely to be kind or understanding about them needing a guide to direct them out of the darkest part of their lives and we visually fit the bill.
And then those who without comment found the titles they needed—dealing with impotence, recovering from disordered eating, dealing with divorce, life after bankruptcy— and brought them to the counter and prayed the clerk had enough discretion not to bring attention to their purchases… In my times in the stores I never really had the need or cause to lay myself bare with customers through recommendations. It was generally the customer trusting that we would not judge them.
Something I suspect most of your readers will have noticed is that you seldom describe what you do as “criticism.” Rather than “book reviews,” you write “book discussions.” What’s the distinction?
For years I called my entries about books “reviews.” Then in 2011 I discussed Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto, 2083, and the discussion went semi-viral. People who actually read it shared it on sites like MetaFilter and Reddit and it was described as me reviewing 2083, which made perfect sense because I do review books as much as I discuss them. But the end result was that people who didn’t bother to read my work saw the word “review” and came to the conclusion that I was analyzing 2083 as a literary work, akin to writing a review of the latest best-seller for The New York Review of Books. The derision was immediate and scathing, with sarcastic recommendations that I review Mein Kampf when I was finished with Breivik. It was then I started referring to what I write as discussions rather than reviews. Though I may actually end up discussing the literary merits of manifestos—I’m still in the note-taking stage of the book I’m working on about manifestos, so maybe I will look at the wordsmithing in mass murderer manifestos. Never say never.
Still, this has been a helpful distinction even when I am technically “reviewing” a book. As the years went by, my looks at books got longer and more detailed, more personal. Even when I am rating the merit of a book, I am also discussing it in such detail that generally calling it a discussion is accurate. Plus I always sort of hope that people will come and discuss the books with me. Reviews don’t often invite lively back and forth.
It’s funny because, you know, Mein Kampf actually was prominently reviewed in the ’30s and ’40s, famously by Mencken and Orwell—though I guess Orwell’s take was more of a “discussion.” Anyway, I’m glad you brought up the Breivik text because as thick as TL;DR is, we both know it was going to be a lot bigger—until we decided to cordon off your monograph-length discussion of 2083 to sort of reincorporate into this other project, where you focus on manifestos and other writings by desperate and violent individuals. Do you want to say anything further about what readers can expect? I realize you’re just getting started.
I can talk about manifestos all day. The book analyzing certain manifestos is still very much in a nascent stage. It’s going to be fun to see what common threads I see through screeds and manifestos written by radically different people for radically different purposes. What will Valerie Solanas and Carl Panzram have in common? Did Arthur Bremer and Anders Behring Breivik, both alleged schizophrenics depending on who you ask, create texts that will show similar mental pathologies? Will I be distressed when I see some of my own ideas channeled through Ted Kaczynski’s anti-tech screed? And if I do analyze these works in the manner I often analyze books, seeking out the places where I experience common ground, will I then discuss these works like I discussed Clown Girl or The Plight House? Will I consider these works outsider literature, criminal artifacts, or records of mental illness? Can they be all three?
There is a certain amount of entertainment value in such texts. I can’t help but find Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto funny at times because her extremity of belief is somewhat humorous. And I found sections of Breivik’s manifesto funny, in a grim way, as I realized the parallels between his mass murder blueprint and game design documents for role-playing or first-person shooter games. I hope I will be able to balance the humor some of these manifestos convey with the anger and fear they provoke. Writing this book will be a test of my capacity to control my own bombastic reactions (to an extent) and it will be an interesting exercise in seeing the humanity in texts that seldom are afforded a reaction that is not steeped in pure intellectualism or vehement denial.
You’ve often characterized your relationship with books as “obsessive” and in this interview you’ve already described yourself as a “compulsive reader.” I think many people, myself included, will understand and even identify with this kind of language applied to the reading life. But when you divorce it from the context we take in stride, there’s no getting around the fact that such terms come loaded with negative connotations. In other domains, obsession and compulsion are indicative of mental disorder, or possibly criminal intent. What do you make of this? Is it just a bit of playful hyperbole? Or is there something else going on?
I think that because I live in my own head, so much more than I live in the real world, that I’ve come to use obsessive and compulsive terminology without any sort of real stigma or intended reference to the actual condition, even though in my own usage what causes the stigma is still there, part of the joke but still recognized as potentially negative. I sit on the OCD spectrum and before I hit upon a really good medication combo that treats the OCD and the bulk of the depression I’m prone to, I was given to cleanliness and contamination obsessions and cleaned compulsively. I also had intrusive worrying thoughts about loved ones and would engage in specific behaviors I knew were irrational but made me feel like I could keep those I loved safe if I acted out those behaviors. But even with medication that helps blunt the worst of it all, I think about books a lot. Not to say all the time, and who’s to say I spend too much time thinking about books, but I do have books on the brain a lot, and I really like the compulsive element of book ownership—getting the books I want, arranging them in categories, cleaning, rearranging, obtaining new shelves, rearranging some more, cataloging, and on and on. I’m actually a little edgy right now because I haven’t yet done my annual book rearranging where I clean all our books and make sure they are all organized properly. I know there is dust on some of the book edges and it’s bothering me. Literally thinking about this right now makes me want to load up Mr. OTC in the car and go get some new bookcases so I can begin my yearly book-shift.
In a way you can see the book compulsivity becoming more obvious as OTC went on. There is indeed something obsessive involved in the desire to dissect books so finely and something compulsive in wanting to convey the results of that dissection in such depth and at such length. And because this is my medicated brain and my particular life, I can see the humor in both the wacky crazy cat/book lady trope and the darker unmedicated reality of being unable to be calm until all my clothes are hanging color-coded in my closet and even my socks are ironed.
When we were editing TL:DR, I was amused to notice so many references to medications and diagnostics—you sort of want to have a PDR and DSM on hand as you read! Given that your personal relationship with books comes with this gently neurotic edge, I can’t help but wonder whether that carries over now that you have a book of your own. And since you’re known for closely “dissecting” the work of others, what was it like to revisit and edit your own writing for the anthology?
Oh yeah, this whole process has been an exercise in neurosis, some of it not so mild. In fact, I think my author copies have arrived and I can’t make myself open the boxes yet. I may make Mr. OTC do it when he get home. I am unsure why I am reluctant to open the boxes because I am pretty excited to see the books and just sort of revel in being a published author but there’s this sense of dread—like I’ll open the book and see a typo we missed on the first page of text. So the boxes will sit by the door until an adult comes to help me open them.
Editing my book was a sobering experience. I’ve said many times on OTC that no author can really edit their own work. You’re too used to how your own mind works. You skip over errors because you know what you want to say and the order you want to say it and your brain doesn’t let you see the text as it is—you see it as you mean it. Actual editors will catch errors in other people’s texts that they don’t see in their own, or at least that is how it works with me. So when you pointed out that I mix verb tenses a lot, I finally saw it and wanted to die from embarrassment. I dithered over commas and decided I didn’t want to follow the convention of Oxford commas and now regret it and won’t ever do it again. I use the phrase “mining the vein” and similar variants too much. I overuse the word “clearly” to the point of distraction, if not nausea. Seeing my own work through the eyes of an editor was humbling because it seemed like it was riddled with errors. I felt and still feel a little panic because I am probably still mixing verb tenses and screwing up some hyphen conventions. Also at the end I was convinced I never wanted to read some of those entries ever again. It’s interesting how sick of your own work you can become when you are looking at it so closely and critically. That feeling of claustrophobia combined with the sense that I am a terrible writer is fading now. A bit.
For what it’s worth, I think most good writers have a similar experience. It’s a bit like when you repeat a word (say, “cabbage”) until it begins to sound foreign. But don’t you think this difficulty is part of what makes corporeal books valuable in an age of frenetic digital writing? I mean, I tend to speed-read so much online content, but I still engage with books very differently. It’s as if the world slows down. Maybe it’s just a generational quirk or a bias that comes through editing, but I really think there’s something about the printed form—in part, that it signals a degree of refinement; in part, that demands more investment from the reader. I suppose you and I can easily stand accused of being sentimental about books, but it’s not entirely irrational or “precious,” is it? Or is it? Beyond the romance that we know too well, do books as such matter in a world of ones and zeros?
Knowing my work is going to be printed in a book, in a static form that once printed will be out of my control, is very sobering. Thoughtful, erudite, and well-written work gets posted online and in blogs daily but that sense that you can, at any time, go back to the document and change it if you find errors or change your mind, is very reassuring. It means you don’t have to nail it the first go around. You can toss your ideas out there and see if your opinions are altered by time or interaction with those who read your work. It lacks the formal finality of books printed on paper or sold as static electronic documents, and my writing reflects that lack of finality.
I don’t know if I realized how direct, confessional, and theatrical my writing on OTC had become until I read it outside the context of my site. The ridiculous asides, my frequent use of profanity, speaking to an audience that I may never know but can still be considered a known-quantity because of the familiarity that online communications seem to offer, begin to read differently when you know the book will no longer be exclusively “yours” once someone pays to own a copy. There is a sense of direct ownership of my work that I feel when I control it and I do feel that the work ceases to be mine and mine alone when others pay for it. So if the work is to be shared among creator and those who purchase the creation, I feel I owe readers of books more than I do when I am writing exclusively for my own amusement.
It may be sentimentality that fuels the idea that a book has more sanctity than electronic blogging. I don’t know if I had really considered it until you asked this question but there is something to it, I think. I don’t get annoyed when I find errors in online writing. Online writing by its very nature seems very extemporaneous to me, and therefore has less of a burden to be as close to perfect as possible. The vast majority of online content meant for entertainment is not paid content. All those book bloggers, writers of fan fiction, electronic diarists and similar are writing for free—some of them may have minor promotional contracts and may get some pittance for running ads or having affiliate links but mostly online content is still produced because someone somewhere enjoys sharing their ideas online.
I had some fears about simply reproducing content from my site into book form because I want my book to offer value for the money people pay for it. That is why I am so glad you suggested adding the “Further Reading” sections and encouraged me to explore Peter Sotos’ reaction to Ian Brady’s tantrum regarding The Gates of Janus. If people are going to pay money for this book, it had to be more than just my discussions made into a book. Those discussions needed to be cleaner, there needed to be some new content, and there needed to be a way to replace the reader interaction with audience that seems a part of my book discussions. Months of editing, “Further Reading,” and my reaction to Sotos’ “Bait” covered those bases. Or at least I hope they did, because there are now printed copies of the book in readers’ hands, in front of them to show hard work and good faith.
That may be, at the end, the reason books are sentimental objects for some of us. There is the notion that the author and publisher toiled to make sure the content was pristine and well-edited, and that the end result will stand as a testament to that work for as long as the binding holds the pages together. The impermanent nature of online writing makes it easier to write quickly and not worry too much if you missed a homophone substitution here and there. You can always fix it later. Books are there as a visible and tangible artifact of passion and skill and if you miss the mark there is little you can do after the book is printed.
It’s actually sort of terrifying. Because I know I interact with books closely, reading them far more carefully than I do online writing, as you mention. The sort of errors I make online cease being acceptable when in print in a book.
While some of your essays focus on well-known books and authors, I think a big reason people look to your site is that you shine a light on writers and genres that receive scant critical attention—and I’m not just referring to texts by criminals and terrorists! Some names that might not have crossed my radar were it not for OTC include Jet McDonald, Grace Krilanovich, Jason Hrivnak, Jon Konrath, Sam Pink, Amelia Gray, Supervert, Brian Whitney, and I could go on. What draws you to books that are otherwise consigned to obscurity? Have your intrepid reading habits brought your attention to writers who especially deserve a wider readership? And what do you make of the state of mainstream book culture, where so many writers, to say nothing of entire literary movements, are ignored?
I’m not so much drawn to odd books as it is that I actively pursue them. The “inspired by your wishlist” and “people who bought this also bought that” features on Amazon are a great boon to weird book obsessives and I spend a lot of time in used bookstores looking for unexpected gems. But mostly I seek them out and eventually I find them. Sometimes I will accidentally buy a book that seems normal but turns out to be odd—that’s always a great thing to have happen. But the best way for me to find odd books is to fall into Internet rabbit holes. Most recently I stumbled into Pizzagate rabbit holes, and spent hours upon hours investigating suggested searches that Amber Tamblyn included in her book, Dark Sparkler. Rabbit holes have provided me with some of my best odd books.
I don’t know how much I have changed the landscape for some of my favorite odd writers. Jason Hrivnak in particular should be far better known than he is. So should Hank Kirton and Ann Sterzinger. And man, Jet McDonald’s book Automatic Safe Dog is just one of the best books I’ve read. I really hope my discussions help these writers in some way. It never stops thrilling me when someone says they purchased a book by a lesser-known author after reading about it on OTC. But ultimately I think I am mostly preaching to the choir—people interested in fringe topics are far more likely to be reading OTC than more mainstream readers and such people were going to find unusual books eventually. Perhaps I speed the process up a bit.
The book industry is no different than any other industry in the USA. We’ve created an economy wherein little matters except making money during the current quarter, and the impact decisions made during this quarter make on upcoming quarters be damned. Make the money now, even if it kills the goose that lays all the golden eggs. Because the American economy is so dependent on immediate profit in the short term, a long plan is impossible, which means that those who make business decisions will always prefer that which has immediate, quantifiable appeal. Publishers and booksellers take fewer chances because the bean counters tell them there is no sense in it.
We may be on the cusp of this changing, or at least I hope it’s changing. Big box stores are faltering. WalMart is suffering for sure. In terms of books, Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble is on the ropes. In the absence of those monoliths what will take their place? If the book landscape becomes dominated by Amazon and smaller brick and mortar retailers, you may find more interesting titles available in the future. Amazon, for all it’s flaws, has been a boon to small and independent publishers, who can get their foot in the door of a major bookseller in a way that was impossible 15 years ago. I personally am able to access so much weirdness at a second’s notice because of Amazon. And if smaller stores take over the book foot traffic game, they won’t be held to the same “profit today, fuck tomorrow” model that has destroyed so many companies over the last decade, from books to clothing retail to gaming to groceries. In such an environment, purchasers will be willing to try the unusual, or at least will have some incentive to give smaller names a chance because they won’t have to justify their decisions every few months to boards of directors who may not have much interest literature at all. If bookstores can wrench the decision-making away from corporate decision makers who don’t understand books and readers as a whole (grocery executives were running Borders when it finally died, who could ever have foreseen that being a problem), the book landscape may become totally different.
When I set about writing my publisher’s foreword to TL;DR, I thought I would feel obliged to offer some kind of explanation for the fact that a number of titles published by Nine-Banded Books are featured in its pages. I ended up relegating the whole business to a footnote, and emphatically without apology. I do understand that the appearance may invite criticism, especially since the relevant book discussions are generally positive, but the truth is I am very happy to see critical discussion of “my” catalog, and it hardly seems like bad form when I consider the incestuous machinations of higher tier book culture. I suppose I could be rationalizing. Do you have anything to say about the Nine-Banded elephant in the room?
It’s only an elephant if you’re new to the zoo. There is far more transparency in how Nine-Banded Books approached releasing this compendium than you will ever see in how big publishers get big names discussed in big journals. I had been writing for years before you discovered my site, Nine-Banded Books titles make up a very small percentage of the books discussed on OTC, and I’ve panned books 9BB has published. I don’t care if others see this endeavor as some sort of quid pro quo.
But is it any wonder that a small publisher willing to take a chance on unsung writers like Ann Sterzinger or controversial writers like Peter Sotos, would also be willing to take a chance on a verbose and self-indulgent look at fringe literature? I came across your radar because we were two branches of the same family who had yet to be introduced. Your interest in my work, and my interest in your work, is a natural fit and to avoid working together because of rules that govern the ways that large publishers interact with potential writers and reviewers serves masters not our own. It’s hard to care about any perceptions of conflicts of interest when you operate in a such a small, niche area that every interaction involves a friend of a friend. Let’s do what we want and not worry about the rules those far from our realm of influence think proper.
Are there books—odd or not—that have affected you in some profound way but that you prefer, for whatever reason, not to discuss in writing? Or for an audience? From your online writings—and certainly many of the essays in your anthology—I get the impression that everything’s on the table, that nothing is off limits. But I could be wrong.
I don’t mind talking about most of the specifics of my adult life, especially when I am shown myself in literature. When it comes to my objective life story, very little is off the table when I am discussing myself and only myself. It’s a different story when others are a part of the narrative. I asked Mr. OTC if he was okay with me sharing his role in my reaction to Jason Hrivnak’s The Plight House. Had he not felt comfortable with it, I would not have included his role in my recovery from addiction and a suicide attempt. Though I share some dark history in my reaction to Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, when I speak of the past I am telling stories that were told to me. All I know of my Irish great-grandmother came from my mother, and she shared those stories so often that they were a part of a known, common family history, even if other family members may remember parts of it differently. But even as I spoke about the complete mess of my own mother’s death, there’s not much about the ebb and flow of our relationship I will share.
My relationship with my mother was often shown to me in Fay Weldon’s writing, but I can’t see myself writing about the specifics of that relationship. My childhood was unpleasant and my relationship with my mother never truly recovered and we each have/had very different interpretations of why that was. She was a good mother, I was a good daughter, and now that she is gone that’s all I focus on. When I was younger I spoke of our relationship but writing about it now feels like betrayal to her and torture for me. It comes out, in spite of reluctance to speak about it, but it will never come out in a Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr sort of way. And aside from generalities about his basic character, I don’t like to talk about my father too much. I’ve been told he underwent a transformation after my mother divorced him and if that is true, I can’t imagine the family he created would want to know what he was like when I knew him.
But if you think about it, you can’t talk about yourself as a child without your parents appearing, even if they appear as little more than hazy connect-the-dot images. You can’t talk about addiction without in some way answering the unasked question of how you came to be a person for whom oblivion was preferable to reality. As much as I think I hold back, I tell more than I intend.
The autobiographical dimension of your writing is, to my mind, what most clearly distinguishes your approach to literary and cultural investigation. I know this is something you discuss in your introduction toTL;DR—and with specific reference to Fay Weldon’s influence—and in my foreword I suggest that it’s almost a kind of taboo, or at least something that critics are advised to avoid as a matter of decorum. The subject fascinates me not just because it’s so curiously divisive, but because the experience of reading really can be intensely personal, entailing “penumbras and emanations” (to borrow another phrase from the Court), and my reflexive thought is that it seems almost dishonest to withhold this aspect of the experience from the critical discussion that gets recorded. At the same time I can understand why some readers object to such an approach, since the results can be messy, distracting, even narcissistic. What I see in your writing is a deft balancing act, where the interplay between personal extrapolation and more disinterested analysis coheres to reveal a deeper appreciation, something that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. I guess you can bank off this however you wish, but I’m generally curious about how you manage to strike this balance. Is it something that arises instinctively, or is it part of a more deliberative process? Are there pitfalls to avoid? And what do you make of the strong feelings people have about this kind “auto-critical” discussion of books and culture?
Any balance I achieve between critical analysis and personal reaction with the text is generally accidental. Every now and then I will second guess myself and maybe tone my reaction down a bit but I seldom do that anymore because every discussion where I thought, “This is too much, I should not share this, my experiences are not important here,” but then decided to run with it anyway ended up being one of my better discussions.
I understand why some people dislike my approach to discussing books. If you are looking for an objective review of a book and you encounter one of my more emotionally bloody discussions, it’s easy to see me as a completely self-indulgent asshole. Conversely, if you have a deep emotional investment in a book or an author and you come across one of my more bombastic reactions and I hate what you love, it’s not unexpected that you will have a strong emotional reaction to my strong emotional reaction. I sort of like it when readers are very expressive in their negative reactions to my discussions because I respond to emotion—their emotion encourages me to rethink my perspective and see if I see any fractures in the foundation of my original reaction. I haven’t ever done a complete 180 on a book after someone took me to task aggressively but I have softened a bit on how I look at the work or the author. I have more respect for works I dislike if I know they inspire strong emotions in others.
Among some readers there is a puzzling hatred of the emotional response in anything. It’s an often masculine response meant to shame other men into feeling weak for expressing emotion or to try to embarrass or demean women who express emotion in their writing. It’s also a response used when there is little else with which to criticize someone who disagrees with you. If all your arguments are solid, then don’t be surprised when people argue about your tone. I find it amusing when people try to malign my writing by calling it over-emotional because that’s my shtick. If you go to a steakhouse, you really shouldn’t be put out if you see a lot of rare and bloody meat being consumed, and if you do voice disgust the management will not be inclined to listen to your objection to what’s on the menu.
Some academics dislike personal responses, and I seldom can find it in myself to respond to scholarly reactions to my work. I’ve received some politely stiff and restrained reactions from academicians and more scholarly readers and it’s nice but there’s not much to say to such responses. And that’s just my subjective response—on some level we need succinct, bloodless reactions to books because people read books for a variety of reasons that don’t involve reliving their pasts or experiencing catharsis. There are a lot of ways to discuss books and there are lots of people discussing books using different perspectives. It is a perfectly valid response to look at my long, personal reactions to books, decide it’s far too self-indulgent an approach, bordering on narcissistic, and move on to another blog. I try not to be a hothouse flower when it comes to criticism because if you dish it out you best take it back in kind. It’s more than okay to hate what I do. But it’s also okay for me not to care overmuch if some people don’t like how I write.
Most people who hate what I do don’t ever tell me. That’s the nature of the Internet, though you stand a better chance of hearing from people if they rabidly disagree with you in some manner. But because I discuss difficult texts, like those of Peter Sotos, controversial writers like Jim Goad, as well as conspiracy theory and true crime, the negative responses to what I do focus around the entries that are the most “fringe” in nature. The person who thinks my discussion of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is so bad it should be printed out then burned (just for example, no one has ever attacked that entry in such a manner) will likely never tell me this, but the person who thinks I got some small element of Ian Brady’s character traits wrong in my discussion of The Gates of Janus will leave a comment then send me several emails about it.
I think on some level that vitriolic and, at times, unhinged responses have made it too easy for me to overlook more self-contained responses because they seem less remarkable in comparison. The self is present in all reaction, even as we try to tell ourselves that limiting reaction to theory or schools of thought makes us more objective. All reaction to books is auto-critical. If you think it isn’t, it’s because you’ve redefined what you consider the self and how it manifests in your reaction. Using strict literary theory to critique books is just as revealing as me mentally bleeding all over the page—academia can be a means of organizing your thoughts but it can also be a form of self-cauterization.
Over the years, I’ve had people tell me that they began to read a difficult author or study an upsetting topic because they read about it on OTC and my personal response made the texts seem more accessible. My form of auto-criticism at times gives people permission to read that which the prevailing moral and literary consensus says are bad books about bad topics. I am neurotic and sort of weird in my mental tics but I’m also exceedingly normal. I’m a happily married middle-aged woman living in the suburbs. I have an Instagram full of pictures of my cats and various sewing and craft projects. I love shopping at Target and over-decorating at Christmas. I promise you want my gingerbread cookie recipe. I talk about cleaning the bathroom and I have a favorite checkout clerk at my local supermarket. As obsessive as I am about my books and the topics I explore, I show how very common and normal love of extreme topics can be.
So when someone as ordinary as I am confesses in her book discussions that she felt all kinds of politically incorrect emotions when she almost lost her house, that she became addicted to prescription drugs and nearly killed herself, that she thinks about various forms of sexual and violent extremities, it can be a strange permission for other people to approach the books in which she makes these confessions because the topics no longer seem so untouchable. My confessional reviews help normalize extraordinary interests. My site is small and has only a handful of regular commenters but my search strings and my Amazon Affiliate account shows me how people get to me and what they do when they leave. I also get emails from people too timid to discuss their reactions to books online. If anything really good comes from people who engage in self-absorbed book reactions, that good comes from demystifying the human experience, showing people who exist in a shame culture wherein “problematic” ideas and people are routinely shouted down and censored, that even very normal people have extreme interests and extreme reactions and that it’s not shameful to use feeling to navigate books and to use books to navigate feeling.
Beyond that it’s hard for me to comment on other people who explore books in the same manner as I do, or to comment on those who are quite different in their approach. There’s room for all of us at the table.
You and I are roughly the same age, and I think a feeling of generational kinship is part of what drew me to your writing. Another hook has been your willingness to read dangerously, for lack of a better word—to just follow the thread where it leads. While there have always been aesthetic and intellectual taboos, I think people of our generation can easily remember a time when it seemed perfectly ordinary and healthy to confront words and ideas that might challenge one’s preconceptions. That’s not the case in our present cultural atmosphere, where public speakers are shouted down, where people feel “triggered” by contrary viewpoints, and where the mere association with unorthodox thinking can lead to public shaming campaigns with dire social consequences for those targeted. As you lament in your discussion of The Redneck Manifesto, much of this new wave of thought policing comes from the political left—and I would further observe that the repressive momentum is being pushed forward mostly by younger people, by Millennials. It’s too easy to kvetch about “the kids these days,” but what the hell is going on? Is this just another pendulum swing, or have we locked into a perpetual state of moral panic? What’s the big picture, as you see it?
There are many theories as to how the Millennials came to be so reluctant to engage in ideas that they find politically or socially repellent, and it’s important to note that these are actions, climates, and beliefs the Millennials inherited. Their parents and grandparents lit the matches and often stand back in horror as their houses burn down. In his book Shit Magnet, Jim Goad outlined one of the ways we’ve ended up with this sort of knee-jerk policing of content: liberal dogma in the 1990s began equating words with action. In a climate wherein people think that hearing an offensive cat-call is equivalent to being attacked and dragged into an alley and raped, of course young women will blanch upon hearing anything that seems violent to them and will seek to control such content from potentially harming other people. Combine this reluctance with the rapid expansion of the Internet and how easy it became to find abhorrent ideas, ideas that 30 years ago you may have never learned about at all. Then add in the privilege economy that young people engage in, some believe because access to the real economy in terms of stable jobs and property ownership is effectively off limits to them due to the really crappy job Gen-X has done to preserve jobs and limit inflation, it’s no wonder that exposure to ideas and words they find anathema seems like so much more of an affront to the younger generations.
In comparison to many Millennials, I had a charmed life as a young adult. Seriously, when I was in college I had no idea that female genital mutilation was still practiced in the world. I had no clue that markets existed for child pornography and crush videos. I never saw a person beheaded and remember being shocked to my core that the media kept showing over and over again the ATF agent shot to death on the roof of the Branch Davidian compound. I sensed that when I graduated from college that I would be gainfully employed and always felt that eventually, should I want one, I would own a home. I grew up without having the worst mankind brings to the table forced into my face every time I sought information and simply getting a college degree ensured I had chance to achieve a stable economic life. No one went out of their way to shock me using anonymity, I never received hate mail, and though bad things did happen to me, I never felt constant fear that didn’t revolve around potential nuclear war.
Compare that to the Millennial experience.They have been exposed to the worst sorts of violence, sexual and otherwise, since they did the Internet equivalent of opening an encyclopedia. Waves of information, some rather horrible, were always at their fingertips. With no real sense that they will ever be comfortable financially and reap the rewards of such status, new forms of respect have become common, meaning that words have a far greater impact on them, and they feel the need to control the words used about them and the words others see and hear. If you will never have basic financial security and the respect earned from a long tenure at a job, you can still demand respect be shown you via the ideas and concepts others expose you to.
If all you can really bank on in society is the safety and respect you demand on pain of shame and misery heaped upon those who transgress against you, you will police your environment in a way that someone like me never would. Some people think that this new Puritanism and age of censorship is the online equivalent of “shot-rolling” – a sort of pre-revolutionary warning that before long the young will not be content to police themselves and will begin to actively revolt against corporate and government control. I’m not so sure about that because this just seems to me to be the pendulum swinging back. The right threw their weight around and ruined lives over supposed communist ties and moral turpitude. Now the left has their turn and it seems more alarming because the younger leftists are not following the script older leftists like me prefer, which is to honor freedom of speech and expression regardless of how such speech makes you feel.
But mostly I do think it’s the pendulum swinging.
That is not to say that damage is not being done to the fabric of constitutional freedom. I’ve mentioned before on OTC that the canard that it’s only censorship if the government does it is a load of crap because the government is simply outsourcing their powers to corporations. It should scare anyone who values freedom when a major outlet for books decides to stop selling an entire school of thought—historical revisionism—because of pressure from a very specific and hardly inclusive special interests group. It’s a very easy stance to take: genocide is something all decent people want to avoid so silencing those who refuse to believe it happened in WWII and who may feel it was justified seems like a good thing. But then you pay a bit of attention to the young people who are in favor of silencing Holocaust revisionism and it becomes weird. A surprising number of young people who are interested in communism themselves deny that the Holodomor and the Cambodian Genocide happened as they demand books discussing Holocaust revisionism be banned from sale. Soon the pendulum will swing back the other way and they will find their own specific hobby horses anathema and difficult to research as they pave the way to banish entire schools of thought.
But that’s how it’s always been. Libraries get burned to the ground during civil wars, religious institutions hoard and keep hidden heretic works, and both sides of the fence love themselves a good book burning now and then.
I also think that it’s correct to be concerned about the utter lack of intellectual curiosity that comes with these attacks on books and ideas. Refusal even to educate oneself on a topic is not a moral good. I myself have been called a “literal garbage person” because of the books I read and discuss. I’ve also been accused of being a government agent, black propagandist and worse because of my reactions to current events and books that document them. But I’m still cranking away and I have to think on some level that there are still plenty of young people, political affiliation unimportant, who seek out difficult content and different ideas. Like me, they spend more time reading and thinking about what they’ve read than they do publicly agitating. People are still reading difficult content. People are still writing difficult content. You just notice the Twitter feed demanding Nazis be punched more than you do the kid using violent Nazi tropes in the creepypasta stories he writes and puts online.
As someone observing from the sidelines, I’m not too worried. It’s irritating but it’s just that pendulum swinging. Twas ever thus. The McCarthy hearings became Satanic Panic became Punch a Fascist. It will be interest- ing to see what the Millennial’s kids decide is a verboten idea.
Let's close with my version the "deserted island" question. Say you're going to be sentenced to five years in solitary confinement and you get to bring exactly five books to read (and write about) for the duration of your imprisonment. Choose carefully.
This is a question that is almost impossible for me to answer. The longer I think about it, the harder it seems to narrow it down to five.
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- The Fallen Curtain: Stories by Ruth Rendell
- Wicked Women: Stories by Fay Weldon
- The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
- Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Titles that I wanted to include but deleted include:
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan
- Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz
- The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
- The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
It's interesting that there aren't any really outlandishly odd or weird titles in the final culling.