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In Praise of Delicious Tacos
The writer presently known as Delicious Tacos is responsible for, among other things, a series of short confessional narratives that chronicle his agonizing ordeal with an anorectal abscess. That micro-memoir of butthole affliction – the "Ass Variations," as I have dubbed it, though the actual chapter headings are styled “Ass Part 1,” “Ass Part 2,” etc.) – is nested like a polyp somewhere between the covers of Mr. Tacos' outrageously problematic self-published story anthology, The Pussy.
I will return briefly to the writer’s rectum. First, here is something you can do for fun: The next time you visit your local brick & mortar Barnes & Noble, tell the bespectacled store clerk that you're looking for The Pussy by Delicious Tacos. They won't have it, but you will get to say, “I am looking for The Pussy by Delicious Tacos,” and then you will get to watch as the clerk – who looks to be about 23, plump but pretty, milky-white skin, auburn hair, a few tattoos, smells like peppermint – pecks these ridiculous words onto the keyboard to check the warehouse inventory.
Now, back to the butt vignettes – the “Ass Variations.” You have to read these. Tell the Barnes & Noble clerk – her name is Rosemary; it’s right there on her tag – that she has to read them, too. They’re hilarious, but also sort of … harrowing. They’ll make you clench your sphincter on reflex, which is something you don’t get from most literature.
Yet the truly curious thing that happens when you read about the suffering poop chute of a man who calls himself Delicious Tacos in a book called The Pussy is that it soon hits you just how improbably good it is – how, by means of comic timing and sharply rendered sense-rattling prose, Delicious Tacos slyly delivers on a lot of what's promised in a fucking Norton Anthology. If you're looking for writing that limns the penetralia of sensual and emotive experience, well, you should probably read Proust. But after you’ve emerged from the madeleine-scented memory maze, I want you to try slumming with this serialized account of acute rectal trauma. Compare and contrast. See what jogs.
The Barnes & Noble clerk – Rosemary – is probably hoping you will leave her alone by now. But not quite yet. Go ahead and ask about the other one – tell her it’s an apocalyptic novel called Finally, Some Good News. Tell her it doesn’t have zombies. Tell her it’s also a kind of love story and be sure to address her as “Rosemary” repeatedly (because that’s why they give them name tags, right?). Notice how she avoids eye contact as she dutifully keys in the title and says, “Sorry, we don’t have that one, either. Um, you might have to order these online?”
Very well, then. Delicious Tacos will have to be our little secret, Rosemary. At least for now.
You want the links? Here are the links:
This is too bad, really. Because The Pussy is a bang-up showcase. It's wickedly funny and often shocking in its frank disclosure of such refractory vanities and desires and lusts and longings and manias that addle the minds of men. And I love the author's genre-straddling nous, the way the detours into speculative fiction, noir, horror, etc. seamlessly interface with the gritty autobiographical threads, being somehow unified under a grim thematic rubric and a relaxed verbal fluency that slightly resembles whatever it was that Vonnegut did when he was doing things right.
Another layer of connective tissue might have something to do with irony – including old-fashioned Rod Serling irony. Delicious Tacos is an adept ironist. He inflects his stories and anecdotes with ironic low notes, I suspect, in order to temper the bleak pessimism that skips into focus when you stop being amused. The Pussy is more keenly attuned to our present crisis than most of what gets noticed in the New York Review of Books. It should be displayed prominently at the Barnes & Noble, maybe stacked next to the one by the “Cat Person” person, where it is sure to pique Rosemary’s curiosity. Then she will flip to the “Ass Variations” – which aren’t even the best part – and her sphincter will clench, just like yours did. Maybe you should ask her about her tattoos.
And fuck me, Finally, Some Good News – which, full disclosure, I read first – is, fuck you, better. It's a brilliantly crafted full-plot novel that hooks you early and then subverts your expectations in the best way possible. If you thought The Pussy was a fluke, it proves you wrong. If you thought irony was twee, you'll see. FSGN is also a perfect misery companion for those of us – maybe all of us – who, at least on a bad day, would sooner see the skyline flattened than spend another hour on the clock. It should be made into a movie, maybe with John Paul Reynolds as the male lead. Not sure about the chick. Not Alia Shawkat – too distracting. Maybe Olivia Cooke? I don't know. Directed by Mike Judge. Or Mel Gibson.
It is the fate of too many talented writers to languish in obscurity. This has always been the case, but the situation seems worse now. Or different, uglier – especially for the ones who don't yield to the capricious dictates of scolds. Should something genuinely provocative get past the ramparts, mercenary reviewers will be dispatched to blunt the impact. Your local independent bookstore has a display featuring books with the word “Fuck” the title, which is cute, but they have decided, as is their right, not to stock the new Bret Easton Ellis.
American Psycho is still on the shelf – maybe it’s even a “Bookseller’s Pick” with a handwritten review on cardstock by “Joe,” who manages to use every variant of the word “satire” in the space allotted. But we know it wouldn’t be published today. Nor would The Prisoner of Sex or Sexual Personae or anything by Bukowski. The implicit grandfather clauses that keep such books in print are now subject to endless degrees of cloying editorial annotation, thus are we informed that Robert Crumb belongs in the attic. Just watch what happens when the next Houellebecq comes out. Rent control is nice if you can get it, but the landlord is always looking for loopholes.
Of course, the rent seekers are pretty good at finding loopholes of their own. For the time being, this means self-publishing. Which means self-promotion. It’s usually a dead end, just the same. Most self-published books are, after all, astoundingly bad. These books are so bad in so many predictable and sloppy and downright bizarre ways that the vanity press stigma stinks up the ones that maybe aren’t quite so bad, even if you’ll never know because who has the time and money to waste on a dim chance, right?
But a few of them are interesting enough to get noticed and passed around and reviewed and discussed in Reddit threads. You bookmark those, or judge them by the covers. Usually you forget to follow up. But there are also some select few that poke up from the teeming heap of vanity-inanities, just enough to insinuate their way into your timeline on repeat, maybe enough to burn a longer impression. Until the day comes when you receive an email or two or three from distant but trusted acquaintance…
“Seriously, you have to read this one.”
“Have you read ___ yet?”
And that, more or less, is how I came to the work of Delicious Tacos, the lapidary exception, the rara avis.
Self-publishing means self-promotion. (Red means dead.) So I knew there was a chance that the Scrumptious Burritos guy would agree to an interview. And I had some questions. He wrote back, suggesting we should do a podcast instead. But I have no idea how that works. I seem to be physically incapable of speaking in complete sentences, regardless. “I would prefer not to,” I Bartleby’d back. But here are some questions, if you find time. To my surprise, he did.
I think it reads well, all on account of the wit and insight that DC brought to the occasion. There’s a lot of stuff about the craft of storytelling. The PUA business also comes up. And Ted Kaczynski, who didn't like work either. The interview recently ran in an online magazine called The Autistic Mercury. You can read it there by clicking here. I'm also posting the text below, in case it should disappear elsewhere. I hope it moves some units.
I decided not to ask about his ass. If you think you may be suffering from an anorectal abscess, please contact your physician.
DELICIOUS TACOS INTERVIEW
NINE-BANDED BOOKS: You write under a pen-name that, when you Google it, yields mostly recipes and restaurant reviews. You self-publish books that don’t exist in the eyes of literary gatekeepers, that aren’t advertised except by Amazon bots, and that are reviewed and discussed only in dodgy crevices of the Internet. Yet you seem to be pulling it off. I suppose by dint of on word-of-mouth momentum, which is how I became aware of your work, you have attracted an enthusiastic cult following that appears to be growing. This is really quite remarkable and it goes against all professional advice. Did you ever try going the traditional route – securing a literary agent and shopping your work to established publishers? Submitting stories to The Paris Review?
DELICIOUS TACOS: Pulling it off would be making a living from it. I make enough from it now to live in Southeast Asia if I were to put out a book every five months, and books take me two years to write. I did submit to an agent for the first time last week. A friend talked me into it. Non-high-powered agent here in Southern California. She said she could never work with someone who wrote a blog post called “Fuck Cunt Pussy.” Also she sort of politely disparaged my being a self-published author.
I worked in Hollywood film development for 9 years. I used to read Publishers Marketplace and go through every publishing deal made that week. Circle ones that might be movies. Even beyond the humiliation of sending my work as a slush pile submission to someone I know will hate it, there’s no example of a book in the last 15 years that’s like mine that has made somebody money. Thus agents and publishers would see my stuff as unsellable. And they’d be right. When I show stuff to people in “real life” they hate it, lose respect for me, and distance themselves from me. And I’d get a publisher to market my books, but publishers want people who can market their own books.
Plus, the semi-ironic Nazis and rape advocates I’m associated with online are correct about publishers. It’s the ne plus ultra “SJW” industry. They want to publish YA about taking down Galactic Emperor Drumph by trans teens of color. This is a convenient argument for not subjecting yourself to rejection at their hands. But it’s also true.
My friend continues to submit my work to agents. It will continue to be a worse than useless exercise in self-flagellation. I hate it and I regret giving him permission to do it. Obviously I’m saying this because she said no.
I also don’t want anyone to edit my prose. I don’t want anyone giving me ideas of what to write. I don’t even care what my readers think about my work, unless they tell me I’m great. I don’t care about the money. If it stays a hobby that’s fine. Basically everyone can suck my dick. My job is to write stuff that is true.
I gather that part of the mystique surrounding your work derives from your early participation in online forums devoted to “game” – the stuff associated with Roosh, Roissy/Heartiste, Neil Strauss, et al. It’s very clear to me that your writing transcends this niche, but the residue is there. What are your thoughts on PUA subculture and how it has evolved in recent years – in particular, why do you think it has become infused with MAGA-flavored political extremism? And what distinguishes your work from that of a guy like Roosh, who also writes about sexual adventure and rejection?
Yes, I’m associated with “the manosphere.” I took advantage of this when “the manosphere” could get you page views. And I liked Roosh’s work and still do. But when I was getting involved in this “scene” in 2012 the parts I saw were guys talking honestly about getting laid. I remember when the Roosh V Forum, which I still post on, was abuzz about ABC News doing a segment on “the manosphere.” I tuned in and it was fat ugly mushmouth men I’d never heard of complaining about divorce law. This was my first hint that there was a larger “scene” of freakish repugnant famewhores using the “manosphere” label. I understood I would now be associated with these men forever, having taken no precautions to protect my anonymity. And now I am.
I used to write PUA-adjacent stuff, though it was never corny shit for money. But then in 2013 I wrote a story called “Autopilot” and realized I could actually be a “writer” in some sense. Not long after that Roosh wrote a fictional story called “Patricia’s Smartphone” that even anti-rape activists admitted was interesting. What if we all blossom into real artists, I thought. What if this “movement” takes its honesty about sex and love and turns it into something good. Years passed and I’m the only one who did this. Everyone else is shilling merch or bashing Jews.
PUA turned into neo-Nazi politics because PUA tactics stopped working. There’s no “game” in the age of Tinder. Your picture’s hot or it isn’t. I’m lucky to have lived through OKCupid. You could be merely OK looking and type words into a keyboard and girls came out. Guys still ask me how to get laid. I tell them move to the Philippines.
What are your thoughts on deplatforming and online censorship? Do you worry that Jeff Bezos and other corporate powerbrokers might ban your books? They began with pederasty manuals and Holocaust revisionism, but the target has been moving – as Roosh, among others, will attest. What’s to keep them from shutting you down?
There’s nothing to stop them from shutting me down. There’s nothing to stop me from using drones carrying IEDs made from (REMOVING THIS DETAIL- DON’T MAKE BOMBS) to blow up the power lines next to Amazon fulfillment centers. Nothing to stop me from buying a printing press. Slipping autographed copies of The Pussy into school libraries across America. Or there’s nothing to stop me from putting all my books online free, except my desire for money. I don’t make a living from this, which sucks, but it’s also liberating. I don’t have to have a spinning ad block my web page selling you a free online pussy guide. And I don’t have to be acceptable to the horrifying stereotypes made flesh who run tech, media and society.
What would suck about an Amazon ban is: they really are a monopoly. And reading the physical book, which they do a beautiful job of printing and distributing, is the best way to read my stuff. But I’d use Lulu or some other printer. Or give out a free PDF and ask people to donate. Once rich guy could easily pay a lifetime of book royalties. Writing is the least economically valued work in the world. This is why it can be the most honest art form.
Is it true that you went for ten years without writing? Was this a conscious choice, or more to do with circumstances? Writer’s block? Inertia? How do you think this affected your eventual development as a writer?
Yes, I won an arts competition when I was 17 and people called me a genius. This crippled my ability to write from age 18-28. I thought if I wrote something, it had to be successful and good. Yet I still conceived of myself as a “writer.” I had long horrible OCD rituals where I had to pretend to write every day. It was just writing the letter “I” on notebook paper on certain odd-numbered lines. The word “writer” still makes me sick. I don’t like to call myself that.
One good thing about this was I became a polished talker. My ideas and turns of phrase would go into conversation with other human beings. Now I’m a social idiot.
As for how it affected my development – it probably severely retarded my development. Maybe I really could have been great. But we’ll never know. At the same time, you can put it down for ten years and pick it up and after a while you can be good.
The way you write about sex – or, perhaps more accurately, sexual desire – is fascinating to me. The effect is very often outrageously funny, but there’s also a kind of graphic frankness that can be shocking – both viscerally and in a way that provokes introspection. It seems effortless going down, but I sense you’re walking on a tightrope. Do you have any thoughts on what makes your approach to a well-worn subject so original and affecting?
I write about horniness while experiencing it. My most horny work is journal entries where I’m on my laptop at the beach/ park/ coffee shop leering at women. Looking at that stuff after, the magnitude of horniness is shown via attention to detail rather than told in the abstract. The horny man’s mind is at once painstakingly focused on weird details of the woman’s anatomy but also flying off into baroque fantasies about sex acts, picturing the ruined abandoned woman 8 months pregnant with your baby still googling the fake name you gave her, etc.
What can I say – I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know if other men get as horny as me or not. But people ask about my degenerate persona or my “character”– it’s not a character. I think everyone wants to tongue down a fat high school girl’s taint. Most men just lie about it.
Your language in many stories and essays could be described as pornographic, but the effect is almost never titillating. I might even describe it as anti-erotic. Is erotic literature possible in a cultural environment saturated with pornography and Skinner-box dating apps?
Like so much else in this technological age: what’s the point of erotic literature. I guess women enjoy it.
It used to be a truism that a writer had to “find his subject.” I believe your subject, beneath so much comedy and confession, is longing. Am I wrong?
This is correct.
Your collection The Pussy shows you working across a range of genres. This might be easy to overlook because a strong autobiographical voice sort of runs through everything, but alongside work that might be described as Carveresque, readers will find examples of speculative fiction, allegory, prose poetry, narrative journalism, flash fiction, and I really want to mention that the story “Jack” (perhaps my favorite) is an efficient work of uncanny literature that bears comparison to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti. So I’m curious about your approach to genre, but I suppose this an obvious cue to ask about influences – what did you read growing up? Are there writers that have directly or indirectly influenced your work? And for that matter, are there writers – or literary trends – that strike you as especially overrated, pernicious, or just bad?
Horror is the right key for what we’re experiencing. Behind these sitcom-tier problems of “oh she dumped me” is the horrific idea of dying alone. More and more inevitable every day.
My favorite recent horror story I’ve done is What’s Out There. I wrote it after reading Gogol’s Viy. They’re not that similar except the character is killed by his own fear. I watched a clip of the movie adaptation of Viy, which I found infuriating. I won’t spoil it but they fucked up that key element.
Horror is the right key because it’s your own mistake that gets you. Only the camp counselors who fuck get killed. You’ll die alone and the worst part is you can’t even blame society. It’s your own fucking fault.
You’re often compared to Houellebecq. What do you make of the comparison?
I’m not fit to lick his boots. I’m glad he’s alive and putting stuff out because it takes the pressure off. No one else can be that good. The rest of us are just fucking around.
I know you’re a fan of Cat Marnell’s Vice columns. Any thoughts on her memoir, How to Murder Your Life?
I read the free sample and didn’t buy it. I thought a lot of her columns were genius. But the memoir felt like a product commissioned for big money by a big publishing house, guided at every step by generic publishing forces (Ivy League women on psych meds). Maybe it gets better after the sample, who knows. It felt like an honest book crossed with a wish fulfillment for women book. Dad’s money, famous men, makeup. Shoes, horses. I’m sure my book sucks worse than hers but that’s for someone else to judge.
I feel like I have to ask about Kristen Roupenian. I know you’ve blogged about her book contract, and it does seem unfair. But what did you think of “Cat Person” – the story itself? And what do you make of the unprecedented social media reverberations that followed its publication in The New Yorker?
I loved Cat Person. I wrote a whole review of her book for Autistic Mercury. I liked it and people should buy it.
You express profound pessimism about contemporary relations between men and women, at least in western culture. How and why do you think things went off course? Do you see a path for improving the situation?
Like a lot of people I have nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced. That no one may have ever experienced. The past, where you got a free wife, may have sucked worse. But yes men and women in America, at least in the cities, hate each other.
My path for improving the situation is for at least 6.5 billion people to die, depopulate the earth, de-industrialize, go back to chucking sticks at wooly mammoths and fucking pubescent morons doggystyle.
How do you respond to those who say you’re being cynical – that your take on the modern sex economy is jaundiced by your immersion in low-rung online dating culture and pickup artistry? I mean, I don’t personally know anyone who met their wife through Farmers Only, but I’ve heard stories.
If their life is so great, good for them. Look, the way I respond to anyone who disagrees with me is: I’m a genius, you’re an idiot, and you’re fucking wrong. My “take is jaundiced by my immersion in low-rung online dating” – as opposed to what? Mormon soda pop socials? Low rung online dating is the only dating there is. Low rung online religion, low rung online journalism, low rung online intellectual life – that’s what there is now. I may have seemed deep in it in 2012 when people thought there was an alternative. But I was just slightly ahead of the times. The world caught up.
Accusations of misogyny are inevitable, and often trite. But I think there are thematic currents in your writing – and explicit expressions in your narrative voice – that lend the question a bit more resonance. How would you characterize your feelings about women? And what do you make of misogynistic sentiments that seem to have acuminated in various manifestations of contemporary web culture? Was Elliot Roger a harbinger, or just a dipshit?
I resent the power they have to choose me or not choose me. I hate myself for respecting their opinion on the matter.
Do you find that men and women react differently to your writing? I imagine the one about the cat gets passed around by chicks. Then again, I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up reading it.
It used to be this way. Women liked my work. When they read it now they’re still more sympathetic to it. But mostly women don’t read it since I stopped showing face online. If you look at the Goodreads reviews about 2% are women. The women who talk about it on Twitter are the few who interact with me there. They’ll only grudgingly, coyly admit to buying it. They won’t tell me it’s good.
When women did read my work, in 2015 or before – back when there were women, back when they were interested in things, back when they had a sense of humor – their responses to it were deeper and more understanding than those of men. I used to get wonderful emails from women. Again, it completely stopped – 100% – when I stopped showing face. My emails now are exclusively from men, often asking me for advice on things I know nothing about. Relationships, money.
I’m sort of coming to your work in reverse. A guy kept insisting I read Finally, Some Good News, so that’s where it started. Then I read the other stuff. Anyway, I’m not sure what I was expecting with your novel, maybe an absurdist diversion or something “alt-lit.” So it really caught me off guard. It’s propulsive and deftly crafted and full of insight and pathos and wicked humor, but I also felt you were tapping into something – like a kind of mounting crisis or breakdown that we all sense but can’t articulate, a collective tension that prefigures the apocalyptic events in the narrative. How did the book come about?
Thank you. The book came from a feeling. Every day at work I felt like the meteor needed to hit and I needed to die. We all needed to die. That’s where the cover image came to me, a mushroom cloud blowing up everything and the title “Finally, Some Good News.” The apocalypse fantasy is the men’s version of a rape fantasy. Horrible violence that you’re not morally accountable for. We’re all pathetic worms now and the dream is to have a big reshuffle where men are actually useful again.
You’ve described it as an “anti-dystopian” apocalyptic novel (or something to that effect, so please correct me; I can’t find the quote). What does this mean?
We live in a dystopia. I do anyway. I mean look, I don’t always feel like this – sometimes I water the garden and there’s a nice finch eating seeds and shit is OK. But work dominates your life. Even a good job. It makes other necessary things such as love impossible. And most jobs are not good jobs; they’re hustling sales bullshit for nothing. There’s no escape from it.
So most apocalyptic stories are about the dystopia after the big bang, and oh man do we wish we could get back to homes restaurants and TV. But I sometimes look at the homeless camps and think: those people have better lives than me. They get high, fuck, sleep in the street, no bills. No homework. Every day’s a vacation. We’re in the dystopia now. The utopia is not having to be in it.
If there’s an element of wish fulfillment or escapism behind the premise, this is soon complicated by events in the post-apocalyptic setting. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s uglier than hardscrabble as the collapse of traditional order gives way to brutish collective behavior. Is this a reflection of your view of human nature?
There was a simple initial idea of: before the nuke: bad, after the nuke: good. But that doesn’t have enough gas in the tank for a whole book.
I had this idea that the two characters would extricate themselves from this office building. 45 minutes would pass. Then their first encounter with the outside, where they get an idea of what the world is like, would just be comedically bad. The scene in the grocery store was supposed to be in the parking lot. They turn the corner and just see street orgies of rape cannibalism. But in writing it got more “grounded.” She has a reason to know something he doesn’t. She knows what men are really like. He has to learn. Then we learn how she knows.
In the middle of so much devastation, there’s also a tender human connection. Do you consider FSGN to be a love story?
One of the things I keep thinking about is if/ how the book actually works as a Hollywood 3-act structure. It does and doesn’t. But if you think about it as a romantic comedy, it works perfectly.
You have an act 1 where they’re “right for each other” but neither knows it. Act 2 where they’re on a journey of coming together, an end of act 2 where they come apart. Act 3 he has to win her back. Their love is born, dies and is resurrected. So yes, it’s a love story. As I said in the only break the fourth wall part of the book – this is the most fantastical element. The idea that a 2010’s American man and woman could fall in love with one another. The nuclear holocaust is more plausible.
I imagine that feminist readers who pick up your novel expecting the worst may be disarmed by what they discover. The way men are depicted could be described as uncharitable, and to my mind the most sympathetic character is a well-drawn female character with a heart-wrenching backstory. I wouldn’t call it a bait & switch exactly, but I do wonder if you were aware of how the story might cut against your literary reputation.
Let’s see if a feminist reader ever picks up my novel. Plenty of other stuff fighting for their attention. But yes, I know men, I am a man, so I know how to trash men properly. I know the innermost secrets of a man. Some men are good, some bad. The good ones lose and the bad ones win. I think human beings innately worship evil, especially women. But I don’t know women as well, so I end up cutting them a break. I suspect they’re evil but I haven’t experienced it as my own inner thoughts.
One recurring theme in the book is: almost every woman he talks to knows something he doesn’t, and holds it back. Either that there’s a plot to blow up the world, or something about human nature and men, or just that he’s being used.
Regarding Marcy’s backstory, I fought so long and hard over writing that chapter that I kept trying to find ways to cut it down, or leave it out. I talked to a lot of women and gathered stories. I wanted to make that chapter real. Ultimately it’s based on one friend’s story, except in real life it happened when she was four.
Then I had to write from her point of view, which took a long time to get to. I got there by focusing on her interpretations of nature. This is something she has in common with me and with the main character. Two birdwatchers survive a nuclear holocaust.
The book is ingeniously structured, with intersecting timelines that converge in a very satisfying way. Was this your original concept, to evoke a kind of disorienting feeling to be resolved? Or did the nonlinear form suggest itself as you were developing the story? Was it a challenge to map out the threads so everything would fall neatly into place?
Thank you. When I started writing it every chapter was his birthday. I didn’t know where I was going with this. But I had this concept of following a guy through his birthdays as snapshots of the ways his life sucked impossibly bad, then somehow got worse. Maybe that’s where the jumpy chronology came from – honestly I don’t remember. But the first two chapters are his 39th and 40th birthday. Third chapter is his 36th birthday. With the finished book this is an early signal that we’re jumping around in time.
There are three timelines in the book:
Timeline 1: before the first nuke. The hero is trapped in working life. His romantic and emotional life, which were gross to begin with, become even more pathetic as he ages. This is what was happening to me. It continues to happen, to get worse and more desperate in new ways. The job is a job I had. The dates are dates I had. The Belinda chapter is a real story a girl told me on a date. She really wouldn’t kiss me. A lot of people have pointed this chapter out as a “Red Pill” parable I engineered. But it happened verbatim in real life. She found out I wrote about it and was infuriated. Usually I mix up girls’ stories so they’re not too close to life, but this girl can suck my dick.
The girl who works for the pubic radio station is based on details from a close friend. But not on her actual character. The real person would never fuck a guy with her kid in the room. She’s still mad at me for writing that. I’m surprised she’s even talking to me. The kid from that chapter is a real kid. I just visited him last month; I mailed him the book and still haven’t heard back. Maybe he’s pissed. More likely he doesn’t want to read some jerkoff’s self published novel.
Timeline 2: the “plot” timeline. I had to figure out the big mechanical question. How does the guy from Timeline 1 plausibly destroy the world. This was Hollywood training coming back to me (see below) – the initial concept was the world just blows up, but for it to be a story the character had to drive the action. That led to a character question: does he pull the trigger, or does he back out, but the things he’s set in motion are too far along and it happens anyway. Is it a cartoon nihilistic black comedy or is this character a real guy. If you’ve read the book you know how it had to go. This set up a bunch of other plot puzzles. You have to ask yourself: how real do you want the plot to be. And my answer was: fuck it. The emotions have to be real. But the plot is going to have insane coincidences and hand waves, and that’s just the fucking way it is. You have to be free to be stupid.
Timeline 3: post-apocalypse. Simple. Get from point A to point B and live. You can use or “subvert” every trope from every other post apocalypse book and movie along this Odyssey plotline. Or Aeneid plotline, since there’s a dalliance in cave. The “dark” version of this timeline is: they end up in the exact same place as before. Society being rebuilt and they have jobs again. Another “dark” version is: they don’t stay together. He loses her. Do they go backwards. The possibility of these things has to exist for the ending to be meaningful. They have to find the strength to escape. He has to find a way to keep his woman through the only way a woman can be kept: brutal physical domination.
I always bitched about working in Hollywood “developing” scripts. But plotting out the book was like a street fight. You get popped in the face and go back to your training. Whatever your junior high school wrestling coach taught you. I went right back to character arc, story beats, act breaks. The shit he doesn’t want to do in Adaptation. You can think of it as a “subverted” three act structure, like a horror movie or comedy where the character loses or goes backwards, or you can interpret it as a heroic three act structure, but it’s there. And each act has its own structure within it. In the first timeline, he makes no progress. In the second, he almost gets there but falls back. In the third, he finally pulls the trigger.
The chronology is mixed up so emotional beats can be next to each other. The first time they have sex, which is written as a prose poem, is followed by them in the office and he can’t talk to her. The beauty and simplicity of the post-apocalyptic life, where people can experience feelings, is next to the stilted complexity and horror of the life we experience now. Because the world really does need to go, and you need to feel it.
With the possible exception of Charles Bukowksi (especially in Factotum), I don’t know of anyone who writes more incisively than you about the soul-crushing reality of work. This is something that runs through much of your writing, but it assumes thematic salience in FSGN, where the of the end of civilized life on Earth is presented as a preferable alternative to the prospect of more hours on the clock, poring over spreadsheets or PowerPoint slides or lines of code, or tending Big Macs, widgets, whatever. There’s a memorable – and pivotal – scene where the protagonist sort of lets it all out, giving vent to sentiments that so many of us feel but never express as we go through the daily motions. It might be the longest dialogue sequence in the book, and it’s a dead-on gut punch. So I guess my question is: How the fuck did this situation come to pass, where we’re obliged to be grateful for the opportunity to trade more than half our waking hours for subsistence wages and the tenuous promise of a few end-of-life years of constrained leisure under a stock cashout? Why is the root source of such profound anguish so roundly celebrated?
I don’t know, man. Our society is Satanic. We worship money and success. This is a big question that I had to write several books to address.
It’s interesting that you bring up that section because that’s a thing I always wanted to cut down, or at least make into more naturalistic dialogue. But that on-the-nose YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH movie monologue got left in. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. It’s one of the passages that people bring up as their favorite part of the book. The other one is the “snow day” passage which again, I thought might be too on the nose. Both parts are places where I’m violating “show don’t tell,” so maybe that rule is horseshit.
Part of the plot involves weaponized blackmail, with personal data being leveraged by a terrorist cell. In the wake of the Ashley Madison dump and so many instances of doxing, it’s an eerily plausible scenario – and of course this ties in with our increasing technological dependence. Maybe there’s not a nuclear holocaust at the end of the chain, but do you see things coming to a head?
The good version of this would be: everyone’s innermost secrets are revealed. We all realize that we’re all racist, horny, greedy, hateful. We all jerk off to unspeakable things. We all hate our husbands, wives, children etc. Everyone’s secrets come out at once and no secret has leverage over another.
At the same time, it might have already come to a head with the metoo controversies. It’s been revealed that old rich guys molest women, and this surprises people. Women are shocked that men are horny, even ugly men. There’s a regression in basic knowledge about human beings. Everyone’s a shocked innocent at all times. But in the book the “in the know” character mentions the terrorists looking for pedophiles specifically, which is what you’d have to do with a blackmail plot. I don’t think anyone would give a shit if the president was sucking adult black cock.
In the book people are blackmailing for a movement, which I don’t think will happen. People will just keep doing it for money.
You have expressed admiration for the writings – if not the deeds – of Theodore Kaczynski. What can we learn from Uncle Ted?
Industrial Society and Its Future is brilliant and he’s right about everything. But reading his stuff is less of a learning process. More of a confirming what you already knew process.
His other writings don’t pop the same way because he gets into what a revolutionary movement should do. It’s the natural next step, you think. I’ve outlined the problem. Now what’s the solution. But there is no solution. Industrial Society said: here’s what’s wrong. That’s something Uncle Ted knows perfectly.
He follows it up with: here’s what we should do about it, which he doesn’t know at all. Nobody does, because nobody can, because nothing can be done. The Earth will be destroyed for money. Not could be: will be. If you doubt this, spend five minutes with any human being. We are fucked. Your children or your children’s children will suffer and die horribly and you might as well just try to forget about it. That’s something that Houellebecq gets right. There’s no fixing anything.
In terms of mechanics, Ted was kind of a cautionary example. Industrial Society is a brilliant, true book that doesn’t end, it just stops. If it had been a better book he wouldn’t have had to blow off people’s faces and hands. Write your ending first. That way it’s the best part of the book and the whole book works together.
Do you want to say anything about your next book? It’s called True Love, right?
The next one is another collection like The Pussy. I’d like to put that out in December. First I have to write 10-20 more things worth putting in it. And I haven’t been writing well lately.
After that, yes, the next novel is called True Love and I want to take my time with it. Finally, Some Good News is a pretty tight, heavily plotted novella. I want this to be a long, rambling, non-mechanical novel that digresses all over the place. I wrote the last sentence first. Then there are a bunch of other connected ideas I’ll put into it, like I did with this one. With FSGN I had 30 different ideas about how the world should be destroyed and the mechanical aspect of it was how to make them all hang together.
This one is everything I think about love and women. Who the fuck knows though. The fantasy was: I’d research it by experiencing true love. But I can barely get a fucking date. This is because I work. My job is a great job; it’s far less grueling than other jobs I’ve had. But you can only have relationships if you work around hot women or you’re a rich NEET. So my day-to-day life is closer to the book I just wrote than this putative one where I live a natural life with emotions. After I wrote FSGN I had five minutes of a “got it out of my system” feeling. Now I’m back to thinking the world should be annihilated.
In Memoriam! Adam Parfrey
A few years ago I was interviewed by Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents Publishing and I banked off one of his questions to talk about some of the publishers who inspired me to start up Nine-Banded Books way back when. Here's what I had to say about Adam Parfrey, who died earlier this month:
I remember reading Apocalypse Culture when I was maybe 17. It was such a mind-blowing book at that time, and I came away with a sense that publishing was—or could be—a kind of garage punk performance. Parfrey had keen curatorial instincts that made all the difference. Apocalypse was billed as a kind of intellectual freakshow, but the bait and switch is what kept things interesting; once you were in, you discovered that the dark carnival being barked was about more than just tweaking bourgeois sensibilities.
Retrospectively, I think Parfrey was serving up a heaping dense platter of what Sister Y (Sarah Perry) has since described as “insight porn,” the sort of head-lit that tends to re-route mental polarities—that, in her words, gets you “epistemically pushed off of your reality.” Shock value only counts when there’s resonance, and with Parfrey’s literary provocations—and here I would be remiss not to also mention Rants and Incendiary Tracts and Cult Rapture—the afterburn has lasted for decades.
Adam was one of those guys who comes along and says: fuck all that; here's what I'm going to do — and does it. In other words, he was a genius. I never got to meet him in person (always meet your heroes, kids), but we corresponded from time to time and he was always very generous and encouraging. I am convinced that many of today's best independent publishers would never have come into existence were it not for his fearless and self-determined example.
No one will replace him. Here are links to select postmortem encomia:
Book Journal – “How to Judge People by What They Look Like”
The title cracks me up.
I mean, it could have been something vaguely academic — maybe Physiognomy Reconsidered, or Physiognomy: The Abandoned Science; or it could have been something suggesively literary, like Body and Essence or A Book by Its Cover or Windows to the Soul. Or just some slightly more elegant phrasing of the same titular pitch, like People and Their Appearances or even Judging People by Their Appearance. But … nope. Professor Edward Dutton named his book How To Judge People By What They Look Like. It's a hilariously clunky title. The halting monosyllabic deadpan word chain reminds me of those xkcd "Up-Goer" comic strips based on restricted vocabulary. It makes me wish the book were 700 pages thick so I could spine it obnoxiously alongside other amusing bullhorn titles like The South Was Right! and If We Can Keep a Human Head Alive and How to Start Your Own Country and The Heroin User's Handbook and Hitler: The Unknown Artist.
And if you're wondering whether the "How To" pitch is tongue-in-cheek, it is not. Or mostly not, I should say, since the author clearly has a sense of humor. "It is up to the reader," counsels Dutton, "to decide how cautious or reckless they wish to be based on the information presented." How can you not love an invitation to judgmental recklessness?
It is, in fact, the perfect title.
The book itself isn't bad. At just over 100 pages, it's a breezy, if somewhat slapdash, survey of past and present scientific research on various mental and temperamental traits and their correlation to observable physical characteristics in humans. The term for this line of inquiry, as I've already indicated and as you probably know, is physiognomy. And if you know that much, chances are you also "know" that physiognomy has long been a textbook example of "pseudoscience." Dutton's primary aim, which I think he accomplishes fairly persuasively, is to shore up the case against this textbook orthodoxy.
Part of the problem, as Dutton notes, is that physiognomy has historically been conflated with phrenology, which refers to the once-popular "belief that the nature of a person's character can be discerned by small differences in the shape of their skull." For whatever intuitive plausibility this quaint 19th century "science" once advertised, phrenology has been roundly debunked. That's not true of physiognomy, which encompasses a wide range of testable claims that are still being sorted out. It may be tempting to think of physiognomy as the baby in the bathwater of phrenology, but the truth is that they have little to do with one another in fact or history. Physiognomy is an ancient idea that has, to whatever arguable degree, been validated through scientific research. Phrenology was a fad, like palmistry or psychoanalysis, and it fails every test.
Of course, the ignominy of physiognomy (sorry) owes to other social and historical factors. Part of the story surely concerns the well-recited cautionary tale of "Nazi science," which has been effectively leveraged over the decades to shout down any view of human phenotypic diversity that doesn't align with a tidily culture-bound accounting. I think the Nazi bogeyman is more than overplayed these days. While the watchwords and catchphrases are easy to repeat, I just don't think people genuinely imagine that we'll start holocausting paupers if it turns out that violent criminals have funny-shaped heads. No, I think the funk that attaches to physiognomy (and other forms of indelicate sociobiological and psychometric investigation) has far more to do with a perceived threat to a moral sense of fairness — amplified as egalitarianism in political discourse — that has gradually acceded to the stature of a governing ethos. Don't think politics; think politeness. People feel understandable hostility toward empirical realities that complicate an ideal moral landscape, and physiognomy, if it truly constitutes part of our empirical reality, is just a madly complicating bug. If their priors don't permit them to yell "heresy!," they settle on "discredited" or "debunked." Repeat and hope it sticks. It's good to know your shibboleths, yes? It's wiser, I now think, to extend the benefit of doubt to those who sputter. They do have their reasons, and it isn't bad faith all the way down.
I suppose it doesn't much matter because the brass-tacks empirical case for physiognomy is surprisingly easy to make. Dutton only mention trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) in passing, but I think that's a pretty solid place to start if you want to establish the baseline premise that at least some mental traits can be accurately inferred from external appearances. Perhaps betting on Corky's LSAT score seems cruel and unusual, but my point is simply that you know you wouldn't lose. That's a foot in the door right there, punk rockers.
Dutton's variegated showcase dispenses with such rudimentary roadwork, focusing instead on physical characteristics that invite generally accurate, or statistically significant, physiognomic inferences. These include physical markers of high testosterone (which conform to stereotypical male behavioral complexes in both men and women); body shape (wherein Dutton mounts a qualified defense of William Sheldon's "endomorph/mesomorph/ectomorph" somatotypology, mainly insofar as these "partly reflect differences in testosterone level"); body size (yes, obese people tend, with considerable variation, to be less intelligent and rank lower in conscientiousness); marks of sexual orientation or "gay face" (which can be detected, well above chance, by human observers under lab controls, as well as by facial recognition software), and facial symmetry/asymmetry (with some evidence tending to vindicate some aspects of Cesare Lombroso's "criminal man" typology). And while this is not a racialist tract per se, Dutton doesn't shy from citing J.P. Rushton's "Life History Perspective" concerning broadly observable racial group differences as evidence for physiognomy.
More curiously to my mind, Dutton reviews evidence for physiognomic effects in the study of less conspicuous characteristics, such as digit ratio, pupil size, and left-handedness (I don't think he discusses hair whorl patterns, but you can look it up). And to further complicate the definitional parameters, he explores the significance not just of developed physical traits, but of affectations (the "glassy stare," for example), as well as bodily adornment (tattoos, makeup, etc.), and even scars and wounds that may be indicative of neurological trauma. Things get even gnarlier when he offers up a broadly physiognomic account of religiosity and political affinity, speculating that rapid changes in selective pressures brought to bear by the industrial revolution introduced an elevated mutational load, with atheism and "dogmatic leftism" tagging along in the new muck. There are good reasons to be skeptical of such an effect absent stronger evidence than Dutton presents, and I can certainly think of different interpretations to account for the evidence presented. Still, it would be funny, to a cosmic nihilist such as myself, if such a provocative thesis turned out to be true. There might indeed be something to the "Mormon glow," regardless.
Nested throughout his appraisal of evidence for — and occasionally against — various physiognomic hypotheses are Dutton's theoretical speculations on the meaning of it all. It's no surprise that he settles on Darwinian firmament (as the above example illustrates), emphasizing mutational load, sexual selection, assortive mating, and the "life history" perspective popularized by evolutionary psychology. I've already mentioned Dutton's favorable account of J.P. Rushton's research on racial differences, so it's worth noting that he goes a step further in discerning evidence for intra-species (and intra-racial) r/K strategies that might correspond to physical traits. Is pattern baldness more common among cads than dads? How about tramp stamps? Place your bets.
The signal to noise ratio varies considerably and there are plenty of nits to pick with many of the claims explored. I think Dutton is probably too dismissive of the possibility that the direction of causality might occasionally root in culture or other environmental factors, rather than in his preferred vat of Darwinian acid (depending, of course, on how far you want to play it down; culture doesn't form in a vacuum). Yet it all adds up to something rather than nothing for the aspiring street savvy physiognomist playing as cautiously or as recklessly as prudence and science permit. So while the belief that gap-toothed women tend to be easier to bed remains … unproven, there are ample empirically grounded bases for rejecting the claim that physiognomy is rank "pseudoscience." Numerous studies show that people are able to rank intelligence above chance simply by looking at unadulterated human faces. That's pretty interesting, even if it's not all that surprising. As evolved social beings with tumescent brains, it makes sense that we would have developed sensory modules for detecting useful or potentially threatening psycho-social traits among our kind. Of course, it also makes sense that such sensory adaptations could be thwarted or hijacked in the same evolutionary scheme, perhaps through mimicry or countermanding deceptive (and self-deceptive) strategies such as those explored by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in their recent book The Elephant in the Brain. An arms race pitting detection against deception might account for the fact that physiognomy isn't a far more pronounced feature in our long-evolved mental toolkit. But that's mad speculation on my part.
Still, it does lead me to an interesting question that I don't think is sufficiently engaged in Dutton's monograph — perhaps because there's little relevant data. This question concerns whether some people are especially good at this stuff. Across many dimensions of measurement, Dutton relies on fairly weak but significant correlations, and with the "replication crisis" humming like a loose fluorescent bulb in the background, he does well to address this potential shortcoming. He points out that the cited coefficients are very much in line with findings in other psychological studies, and he emphasizes that the weak or moderate correlations tend to be strengthened insofar as they are typically clustered along multivariate scales of prediction. Fair enough, but I'm really curious about what's going on within the data — you know, when you get granular.
We're all familiar with studies showing that most people can't taste the difference between top- and bottom-shelf wine, right? Yes, but unless you're a complete simpleton, you probably also understand, as high-stakes market research confirms, that some people can indeed discern absurdly nuanced gradations in the character and quality of wine, and with astonishing accuracy. The same clods-to-gods continuum applies to general sensory reception in other domains, from food, to beer, to fragrances, to sound recording. That's why breweries hire "super tasters" who are rigorously tested and well compensated for their superior saporous sensitivity. Well, since the evidence is pretty strong that physiognomy is real at some crude population-scaled level, it's only natural to wonder whether there are physiognomic sommeliers in our midst, isn't it? Are some people gifted with the ability to more accurately "judge people by what they look like"? I'm betting the answer is yes, that such people do exist. And if they do, the questions that follow are just as interesting. Does such an acuity correlate with other traits? General intelligence? Verbal intelligence? Empathy? Is it more pronounced among women (my bet), or men? Does it come naturally to, say, psychopaths? Is it absent among Autistics? Does perceptive accuracy among the gifted change when cues are supplied by people of closer or more distant ancestral lineage?
All of which is to say, more research is needed!
Dutton's slim book is a decent start. If you come expecting a studious popular history of physiognomy, you'll be disappointed. What Dutton serves up is instead a freewheeling and well-sourced drive-by tour of an unjustly tarnished sphere of empirical and theoretical investigation. He supplies plenty in the way of solid empiricism, even if the theoretical scaffolding occasionally veers into questionable territory. I don't think it really works as a how-to primer, but then I'm short-statured atheist mesomorph with a lazy eye, so you probably shouldn't trust me.
Book Journal – Habit
I've been acquiring a lot of books of late. This is nothing new, but I'm aware that my habit has, in recent months/years, tilted manic. It's is not a concern. Books aren't laced with fentanyl and there is no underlying crisis to bring to account. It's just something I'm keen to acknowledge, and to more or less embrace.
Schopenhauer said we buy books because we tell ourselves that we are buying the time to read them. I’ve settled on a more a more grounded delusion. I tell myself – as I tell others who ask – that I’m going to open a used bookshop one of these days. That’s how I justify the horde. That’s how I rationalize my reflex purchases – sale bin or eBay – which include, fuck me, duplicates of many books that I already own. “It’ll make for a modest seed,” I say. “For one of these days” when some idealized young-version-of-me customer will enter my idealized tobacco- and pulp-scented corner shop to be properly gobsmacked by floor-to-ceiling barrister cases teeming with near-mint Mylar-protected Grove Press obscurities, many of which, I’ll coyly regret-explain when queried at the checkout, “I never got around to reading.” Alas.
I suppose the “future bookstore” excuse is at least more ambitious, if arguably less honest, than calling them “lending copies.” That was my prior fallback excuse.
If I try to tunnel beneath such excuses that I repeat on cue, I settle nearest the notion that it’s something to do with wistful memory. Isn't there a core concept in psychology – something from Maslow, maybe? – that describes a habitual tendency to try to recreate some retro-idyllic experience from one's past? Something like Freud's “repetition compulsion” but where the recurrent tic is centered on a nostalgic fixation rather than trauma? Regardless, I have tactile memories of the ones that hooked me in my youth, and I can almost capture something of the full sensory-cerebral experience that once attended every rarefied deadwood discovery that I wouldn’t then have imagined to be trite.
I remember the ones I loaned out that were never returned, and I still have the spine-creased and dog-eared firsts that I scold myself for not having treated with better care. I don’t delude myself that I am buying time, but I do understand the sham version of time travel that we are permitted, or tempted by. I can’t go home I’ll go home, to brutalize Beckett. And when the fix doesn’t take, spin the wheel again.
In the meantime, I chip away at the lot. I read.
I read for a couple of hours in bed most nights. I’m told this helps with insomnia, which I have. The problem is that books tend to keep me awake. It’s still a tough call, though, because I have noticed, at least with certain shades of fiction, that once the cover is closed and the lights are out, I will dwell on afterimages and narrative loops that can indeed be conducive to a dreamy descent. Could be that's the real trick. More research is needed.
I never read at work, not even over my lunch break. I’ve tried. It feels like borrowed time. It sets me on edge.
I seldom read books while watching television. Magazines, but not books.
I used to read while walking. I lost that habit when I moved to a more heavily trafficked area. It’s dangerous, anyway, right?
I don’t read ebooks. If I have to read on a screen, such as I do when I edit, I prefer backlit PDF files or InDesign spreads. I’m convinced that physical books, apart from their sentimental attraction, represent a plateau in a long process of socially evolved technology. Electronic books remind me of pan-and-scan video transfers, fucking up the mise en scène. Please do not argue with my religion.
Without question, and I mean to stress this, I do my best reading at a quiet neighborhood bar after work. It's nice there. Cozy, intensely air-conditioned, low-lit. The decor is wine-red and the after-work patrons are a motley mix of ruined alcoholics, AARP-eligible homosexuals, lawyers, and slumming hipsters (with some inevitable overlap). Mostly regulars. They leave me alone.
Just as often, I'll be the only one there.
I’ll walk at around 5:45 and before my pupils have adjusted to the stark change from harsh sunlight to interior shade, the bartender – she’s good – will serve up my first beer. Miller Lite, thanks. Call me a simpleton, but I prefer the consistent and understated champagne-water-pop familiarity of factory-produced domestic pilsner to whatever hoppy distraction is sold for more a few doors down. Beer as white noise, please. And after a desultory sip or short glug, I’ll set up shop at my preferred padded booth where the cheap swag light pools best. (If my preferred booth is occupied, which it almost never is, I’ll muffle a fit of pique. Then I’ll take the next best booth and irritably wait for the invaders to abscond.)
And there I’ll be – in my best booth (as I insist for this account), with give-or-take three, four, five books in my bag. I’ll just dump them on the red Formica tabletop and eenie-meenie my way into a deep dive until the world outside dissolves. If I’m not deeply engrossed in a particular text, I’ll toggle from one book to the next, changes cued by chapter breaks or bland instinct. (My rule is one novel at a time, but I juggle nonfiction by the stack.)
After I finish a few beers and reach a natural stop, I’ll step outside to smoke a pipe by the Dumpster behind the bar. On better days, I will then think in fluid detail of what I've been reading. These are often very good moments. In the best such moments, I feel open to connections, velleities, the occasional epiphany leads somewhere.
(I do recommend trying this on for yourself, by the way. You’ll need a rutting day job from which to escape. You’ll need a neighborhood tavern as sanctuary. And you’ll need a bag of books, preferably plucked from a massive bedside tower. I'm sure this will make you a better person. Just don’t take up my goddamn booth.)
The fuck-of-it idea, then, is to bleed something from a precious lazy clockwork ritual that’s otherwise out-of-frame. Here I should admit the itch probably came as I was editing Anita Dalton’s infectiously book-obsessed anthology, TL;DR – The Best of Odd Things Considered (which I emphatically recommend). Anita’s groove is uniquely her own, but somewhere in the process of reading her studious yet freewheeling deep-dive meditations on so many books, I found myself privately annotating or arguing with my own prior thoughts on various titles in our overlapping checklist. And, having largely abandoned the long-form blogging project to which this space was once loosely and clumsily dedicated, I figured I might try keeping things afloat by recording my own relatively short-form thoughts on some books, and maybe some films, that have interested me.
It’ll be books, mostly, if I follow through – drive-by, diaristic notations on books. Not for posterity so much as to see if I can layer habit with habit and tame it into a sustainable background hobby. I’ve written detailed book reviews for publication and have found the process to be utterly miserable. As much as I would like to affect a spirit of buoyant enthusiasm or a tenor of incisive critique, I always end up laboring over an ungainly thicket of words before settling on some wince-inducing stack of contrivances past deadline. I could never be a writer and wouldn’t want an audience. This won’t be that.
I don’t do marginalia, but I have steno pads full of notes. There are few if any genuine insights to be found in my bookside jots. A lot of the notes are trivial reminders to look up words like silla or louche. Others are inscrutable, or worse, illegible. But once in a while I will thumb through the mess and descry some half-formed thought in my own beerdrunk shorthand that jogs a lingering chord.
Like for example my scribble on how Nicholson Baker’s nonfiction stunt novel Substitute begs comparison to Andy Warhol’s delirious stunt anti-novel A. No one seems to have run with that thread, so I figure maybe it’s a good enough trick to circle back on.
Or like how no one is still talking about The Incest Diary and tsking David Aaronovitch for straying from supercilious horrorstruck form. There's a history to this sort of thing that seems to have slipped from the cultural radar.
Or: Have you read How to Judge People By What They Look Like? The title alone tickles my funnybone. Physiognomy is not phrenology, said the joker to the thief.
Or: Am I the only one who ever read Soul on Ice in tandem with Race, Evolution and Behavior? My oh my, it was like discovering a drug.
That sort of thing, then. I do hope and intend to report back.
Book Journal – “Rumour in Orléans”
Here's one I bet you haven't read:
Written by sociologist Edgar Morin with the assistance of a team of field researchers, Rumour in Orléans is a chronicle and social-psychological analysis of an episode of mass delusion that gripped the French city of Orléans (population 88,000) in the spring and summer of 1969.
Playing out over a period of roughly two months (May through June, with a multifaceted psychic hangover following), the titular “rumour” was essentially a retread of a species of moral panic that was common enough in the early twentieth century (though earlier antecedents can be identified) when the blurring boundaries between pastoral and urban life gave rise to breathless accounts of doe-eyed farm girls being plucked up from idyllic homesteads and sold into diabolical underground rings of forced labor and sex slavery, usually under the machinations of shadowy satanic sects lurking in whichever encroaching yonder hive of incandescent iniquity. In the United States, this earlier wave of “white slavery” narratives was amply documented in sensationalist news accounts of the time, as well as in mass-marketed books and silent films, now mostly forgotten – though you can sometimes still find the timeworn pulps in musty used bookshops, perhaps spined alongside family eugenics primers and other antiquarian curios. The lurid covers suggest a once-thriving cottage industry of populist crisis reportage – morally overheated, salaciously framed, grimly illustrated, and seldom countered by any measure of skepticism.
The skeptical appraisals and socio-cultural retrofitting would come later, before and after the essential “snatch & enslave” narrative would be rebooted – with a few novel tweaks tuned to a different patchwork of social anxieties and latent, or “re-nascent,” enmities (i.e., antisemitism) – in the also mostly forgotten episode that is the focus of Morin’s very interesting book, the first and only English translation of which was first published by Anthony Blond Ltd in 1971.
In its embodiment and trajectory the Orléans panic would mutate over time, but the core rumor-bound narrative held simply that teenage and adolescent girls were being drugged – usually by a hypodermic injection – and abducted in the fitting rooms of a network of Jewish-owned dress shops. The girls were then held captive in the basements of such shops, as the story went, where they were subjected to indignities before being sold to underground sex slavers. It was mostly the same old yarn in slightly altered garb, though the focus on changing rooms was a decidedly new, and not insignificant, kink. So was the contextual emphasis, echoing classic blood libel narratives, on Jewish complicity.*
Evolving in rapid order, the tale came to accrete other elements, some of which will be familiar to armchair students of contemporary scares and conspiracy theories to which the Orléans episode merits comparison. Aniticipating the McMartin preschool panic (and other daycare/satanic ritual abuse panics), for example, various iterations of the rumor would be elaborated to include the claim that the suspect boutiques were connected though a labyrinth of underground tunnels. And as the tale played forward without formal investigation and with only hostile press coverage, adherents came to imagine a more far-reaching cover-up, such that cops, journalists, politicians and "anti-racialist" groups (“outside agitators” to believers) would fall under color of suspicion. This element of expansionist ratiocination is of course parcel to every strand of conspiratorial speculation that has since plagued the internet, and it’s significant in the present study insofar as it marks the transference of an insular myth into the formal, though narrowly articulated, metalogic of conspiracy theory.
Playing the analogy game yet forward to the more or less present, there are also limited parallels with the Pizzagate (or #pizzagate) conspiracy mishmash that seems to have crested and ebbed over the past couple of years, the most salient motifs here being the innocuous storefront as a gateway to nefarious flesh trade and the industrial basement as holding cell. A more superficial correspondence with the contemporary moral panic over sex trafficking in general is also hard to miss. Of course, with all such past to present comparisons, discretionary caveats are in order. The point is not to imply simple equivalence between one demonstrably false rumor from another era and such perceived crises of the present that may or may not be founded on more veridical scaffolding. One may insert asterisks wherever they fit;** it’s still fascinating and instructive to consider how Morin's singular case study of a collective fever that enveloped a polity across an ocean nearly a half century ago might yet be wedded to deep and fraught currents of mythic tension that churn and get recycled with different set pieces over time.
With specific reference to the Orléans panic it is worth emphasizing that no police reports were ever filed and no missing girls were ever named. In other words, there is no credible reason to believe there was a proverbial “kernel of truth” to the central claim of clandestine girl snatching. And while the germ of the rumor qua rumor remains elusive, Morin does well to speculate on some possible catalysts. It might have traced to a garbled retelling of an apparently factual story that had been reported elsewhere and a decade earlier. Or it could have had something to do with the contemporaneous opening of a trendy boutique named, ominously enough, “The Dungeon.” Or it could have originated from a practical joke, as some interview subjects insisted.
Whether or not the rumor was rooted in germinal incident, which I personally doubt, the belief appears to have spread sub rosa through friend-of-a-friend gossip among schoolgirls, being subsequently amplified and transformed through the above-ground chatter, culminating in public protests, of civic-minded parents (mostly mothers – fathers, according to Morin, tended to be skeptical). And it seems likely that some of those chattering mums harbored subconscious or perhaps overt animus toward Jews, or at least toward the new wave of young metropolitan Jews who ran the shops under suspicion.***
What strikes me about Morin's account of the foundational rumor, however, is that at least at its inception it seems to have had far more to do with changing sexual mores – or the threat of such, which Morin describes as a crisis of “the polis” (harking back to the “city mouse, country mouse” subtext of earlier white slavery panics) – than with dormant antisemitism. The “fitting room” as locus makes sense in this context, as Morin observes, since it represents a place of literal naked vulnerability, and perhaps liminal eroticism. Against the distant but magazine-advertised backdrop of Parisian sexual liberation, it isn't difficult to see how the common yet private experience of these would-be yé-yé girls donning miniskirts in quasi-public dressing rooms could stir sexual imaginings, tinged, as ever, with danger. The next step is to tell a story. The next next step is repeat. See what grows. Similar stories probably circulated in other regions around the same time, but without reaching a tipping point. Orléans might thus be understood as a kind of critical mass event. A Goldilocks moment in a darkened memeplex.
Whatever the etiology, matters would become more complicated after a spate of provincial news reports captured the attention of the Parisian press, including Le Monde. The editorial tenor of media coverage at all levels was hostile toward the rumor itself, igniting a meta-narrative – what Morin calls an "anti-myth" – that emphasized the dangers of anti-Jewish mob hysteria. The insertion of the press, and particularly the big city press from outside the polis, along with the vested and vocal interest of anti-racialist groups, apparently transformed a "quasi-medieval" narrative of cabalistic deviltry into a metapolitical narrative foregrounding the specter of recrudescent antisemitism.
The residual "myth," having incubated in gossip and having crested in public protest, was thus cornered and insulted by a more powerful strain of external framing. In the high-tension feedback loops that followed, Morin postulates a complex yet plausible process whereby the original rumor, having given way to a cascade of politicized counter-narratives (or again, anti-myths) would sprout anew with anti-anti myths in popular reaction to such external framing. As the once-nested delusion abated, some true believers would invent bigger designs (the tunnels and cover-up), while others, presumably less invested, would latch to available excuses to retreat from the story with minimal embarrassment. Eventually the life-cycle of the rumor ran its circuitous course, leaving embers. The absence of closure is eerily palpable in Morin's chronology.
Being assembled from interviews conducted well after the initial spell of belief had (mostly) lifted and had been exposed to public ridicule, Morin's investigation is primarily concerned with the process of rationalization and embellishment that followed. In this respect Rumour in Orléans may be usefully compared to (and contrasted with) Leon Festinger's seminal account of shattered delusion – and famously “cognitive dissonance” – in his classic UFO cult case study, When Prophecy Fails. The crucial difference is that Festinger's team was embedded – having infiltrated the cult/community – before and after the curtain was lifted. Morin, who was alerted to the Orléans story through press accounts, argues that his team’s late-comer injection into the drama is a feature not a bug since happenstance provided an optimal vantage from which to observe the feedback and reaction in real time. That might be a case of sweet lemons, but his account of the assimilative process is for the most part surefooted and genuinely compelling.
Rumour in Orléans consists of a central monograph, which is usefully supplemented with inline footnotes (not endnotes, thankfully) and appended with extensive interview summaries (though I would have preferred transcripts), field research diary entries, transcribed press documents, and miscellaneous notations. The lack of an index is a point of only minor frustration since the book is relatively short (about 275 pages, counting the substantive appendices). Reading Morin’s case study in 2018 is a bit like witnessing a partial excavation, with mysteries yet buried – and of course, one is struck by contemporary parallels. I also found it surprisingly refreshing to rediscover the “sociologist on the ground” approach that has now been largely abandoned in favor of more recondite modes of social research. Speculative social psychology may be outmoded in many spheres of inquiry where behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines) tend to yield more reliable data, but for all its overreaching faults in application to other domains, I suspect this more intuitive, dot-connecting method remains well-suited to the analysis of episodes of mass delusion and collective behavior, where flux and feedback mitigate against strict empirical controls. I might add that the translated text is very solid, even eloquent at times. It's not just that it reads well, but that the interplay of factual and analytical accounts is carried forward in cogent language, and with (inevitably dated) academic jargon deployed only in necessary and fully explicated doses. The core chronology of events is clearly delineated and Morin's documentation of literary antecedents, relevant ephemera, and paradigmatic folklore is deftly incorporated throughout.
While the emphasis on antisemitism might be a tad overplayed in relation to the gestational rumor, the specter becomes manifest with second wave of the panic which, as discussed, entailed a political "anti-rumor" reaction (and consequent sequelae) that was spearheaded by press accounts and leveraged by antifascist rhetoric. In broader context, it seems important to recognize that the Orléans episode was of profound concern to Jewish organizations, and understandably so when we consider that the Nazi occupation had barely receded on the collective time horizon. I suppose it is also worth disclaiming that Morin’s field research was conducted at least in part under the auspices of one such concerned organization, I forget which. You could make hay of this fact, but given the nuanced, multilayered, and still-relevant exposition that resulted, it hardly seems to matter.
* With some caveats, Morin stresses the novelty of the rumor inasmuch as Jews had not (according to him) generally been implicated in prior white slavery scares. I am not sure that this is true.
** I might as well inset mine here, since I understand there are intelligent people who assign veracity to contemporary conspiracy theories that I find highly dubious. With reference to let internet kudzu that is #pizzagate, I can state my own views cursorily. If you believe the cryptic lucunae embedded within a pored-over Wiki-dump of Podesta emails betray a winking familiarity with predatory online hot spots and some order of clandestine semiotics, I do not discount the possibility that you might be onto … something. That doesn’t mean I don’t entertain other plausible explanations, which might or might not prove entirely innocuous, and it doesn’t mean I’m as sure as you might be just what that “something,” if it's there at all, really means. If your first frisson leads you to believe that benuded kidlings are – or ever were – hogtied in the basement of a politico-frequented DC pizzeria that covertly catered to a deep-state-allied shadow elite of closeted libertines trading in pedo-crime, well, then I am obliged to politely register my sincere incredulity until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary. As to sex trafficking claims in currency, I don’t for a second doubt there are abject stories behind the screaming headlines and banners and PSAs and censorious legislation, but I’m just as confident that the rehearsed narrative of widespread coercion and chattel-equivalent slavery is mostly huff & puff. Whatever it means in Cambodia, in the First World “sex trafficking” is now a byword for every shade of prostitution, just as “human trafficking” is a byword for every shade of illicit labor. Absent evidence to support the more sinister framing favored in popular media accounts, I think the ground-level reality has far more to do with hardscrabble life choices and, yes, different strokes that tweak puritanical sensibilities. In other words, nothing much to get hung up about. I color myself a skeptic on all fronts in this sordid business in part because I understand that people are drawn to wicked stories, especially when such stories involve untouchable powerbrokers sating vile appetites. Freud may have been wrong about most of it, but he wasn’t wrong about projection. And if you believe there were tunnels under a Manhatten Beach preschool, please tell it to the nearest Reddit thread.
*** Morin asserts that the older generation of Jewish shop owners was not implicated in the rumor, lending support to my impression that the episode had more to do with shifting norms than with antisemitism as such. I do wish Morin’s study provided a more detailed demographic account of dress shop proprietors that were active in Orléans when the rumor was in currency; in weighing evidence for the central versus incidental role of antisemitism, it would have been useful to know whether similarly situated gentile dressers, if such a control group existed, were excluded from suspicion. I might well have missed something on this point. Mea culpa if so.
The Art of Reading Dangerously — An Interview with Anita Dalton
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.
You can order a copy on Amazon or directly through 9BB. Or you may still be able to snag an autographed copy directly from Anita.
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.
“Prostitution Is a Country” – An Interview with New Juche
What follows is the transcript of my email interview with New Juche, whose extraordinary memoir Mountainhead was published by Nine-Banded Books in early April, 2017 (it's also available on Amazon). For an artfully arranged introduction to New Juche's singular body of work, Dennis Cooper's recent “Welcome to the World” post is a very good place to start.
NINE-BANDED BOOKS: I don't want to make assumptions, so maybe I should begin by asking: What does “New Juche” mean? I'm vaguely familiar with the term “Juche” (pronounced Chuch'e) in its North Korean ideological context. Is your nom de guerre a subversive appropriation?
NEW JUCHE: The first edition of my Whores of Leith EP was released by a friend's label in 2005. He took the project on faith, without listening to it first, and after it came out he publicly regretted ever being involved and was very disapproving, even disowning, along with many of our peers. I was embarrassed and hurt by this, but confident in what I was doing. The EP sold out, and I wanted to re-release it along with a new CD, so I decided to do it myself on my own label, which I called NEW JUCHE. I had a strong hobby-interest in North Korea at the time, and figured that the concept of "Juche," in addition to the material reality underneath the term, was highly appropriate to my circumstances and approach. It was slightly facetious, but the name has just stuck, and become a sort of nom de guerre as you say.
For more than a decade, you have produced art – recordings, paintings, photography, literature – under this name. Do you find that the use of a pseudonym is somehow important and necessary? Do you have something to hide?
I wish to keep my bread-winning and literary activities separate, for obvious reasons. But aside from that, even though the CDs are embarrassing to me now, they are undeniably the beginning of my writing life, so to speak, as it is today and as I imagine it will continue. So it seems right to stick with the name.
The painting was done by an artist of friend of mine in Leith, not by me.
Thanks for the correction. Can you describe the relationship between your recordings – and for that matter, your photography – and your development as a writer? Do you see writing as a culmination or graduation of form, or is it all connective tissue bound to the same imperative?
I like this phrase of yours about connective tissue. But I think of myself as a writer, and the CDs as a sort of larval stage. Although I still like some of the sounds I made, the first CD would have made a much better book, and the second CD is more or less contained within Mountainhead. I suppose that because of the culture I was coming from, making CDs seemed at the time a lot more feasible and realistic – and less pretentious – than trying to write a book. Like I give a fuck now. I always liked taking personal photos. Using photos and images with writing has developed in tandem with my job, which requires me to use photography very carefully. To make substantive points. But I really came into it with Wasteland. The difficulty and personal weight of what I was trying to talk about in that book was much, much more efficiently handled with the combination of the the writing and those images, and some of them, many of them, were really given to me, put inside me by that place, which I miss very much.
The photographic thread in Mountainhead consists of natural images – forest scenes, flowers, foliage and bugs. The absence of human subjects is conspicuous.
These few photographs where taken on the mountain where I was living. Their inclusion as dividers helps underline my location there, due to the frequent flights of memory. I had moved there in deliberate retreat from the city, and both the beauty and the physical demands of the location in part replaced my social life, which was certainly the aim. But contrary to my expectation, the solitude and that specific environment actually made me even more of a pervert. This was a fascinating and slippery process. Perhaps the reason is that in review, I increasingly afford my physical habitat more agency than any people I rub up against.
When did you realize that you wanted – or needed – to express yourself through writing? Can you locate formative experiences? Influences?
I always liked reading, writing and drawing, all of which got me in a lot of trouble at school. Because of that I guess, there is a clandestine guilt and excitement for me in the act of writing, as in early childhood masturbation.
Of course there are lots of writers and artists I love. However, it’s difficult to think of a single book that has been more powerfully influential in my world than Miracle of the Rose by Jean Genet. This book made such perfect sense to me, it was so familiar, in its project of subjecting a physical environment and all the rituals dictated by it to a highly selective process of sexualization and beautification. I am equally seduced by Prisoner of Love, in which his age and his maturity as a writer balance Miracle of the Rose. Prisoner also contains many unexpected, provocative issues for anthropology. I’m pleased that some anthropologists acknowledged and discussed Genet’s last book, including Clifford Geertz.
Anthropological work itself has exerted some influence, especially with regard to technique. Doing long periods of work, you’re encouraged to keep a laborious field-journal. This helps you process observations and work out subjective difficulties, and gives you an exhaustive source of reference for when you write papers and reports. A lot of my non-academic writing has grown directly out of my field journals.
A kind of sexualized extrapolation from physical environments – especially architecture – figures in much of Peter Sotos' recent work, where Genet's shadow also looms. Do you find value in his writing?
Most certainly. Moreover I usually intuit that he is addressing me personally.
I think there are many bad ways to shorthand Mountainhead, and perhaps the most reductive is to describe it as a travel memoir. But I actually like this because it poses a bait & switch, yet it's also inescapably accurate. An obvious question: Why Southeast Asia? What was the lure?
Fifteen years ago I fell into some cash, and was persuaded to let some of it go in Vietnam, via Thailand. Once there, I quickly decided there was simply no question of ever living anywhere else again. At first I really didn't care as to whatever circumstances that might entail. I went back home and sold everything I owned while working two jobs, and returned some months later with a little over four grand, intending never to return. There are countless reasons why this was the right decision, but in a nutshell, at the time, it was simply a desire for adventure – a richer life in an intoxicating place.
The status of my relationship to this place and my residence there was an obsession from the beginning. I learned languages and read and explored, to the point where I was able to do anthropological work, which engages me to the present day. I also became very ill, which heavily affected my lifestyle and my capacity to do evil. Mountainhead discusses this transition, which coincided with my moving north from the city, up into the mountains. The book is foremostly about prostitution and this transition.
Obsessions don't form in a vacuum. You may disagree, but I think most people, upon encountering your work, will first be struck by the depiction of squalor and abjection – which is presented, perhaps more disturbingly, in continuum with the natural world and at near remove from a disinterested anthropological stance. I don't mean to suggest that the effect isn't also lucid and human and even beautiful, because it absolutely is, but do I want to probe the idea of “a desire for adventure” in a context that of necessity involves prostitution, deformity, poverty, and self-inflicted illness. You can run with this any which way, but since you brought up the word “evil,” however facetiously, maybe that's a good place to start: Can your direct engagement with “exotic” people and places be understood as transgression? It seems that moral implications – or ambiguities – can be located throughout the text of Mountainhead, most clearly in the dialogue sequences.
I've always loved and reveled in prostitution. I lost my virginity to a prostitute, and I know that now as then, prostitution offers the least adulterated form of physical happiness. The category of prostitution has for me, out of necessity but also honestly, become so bloated and inclusive that it describes my entire history – I'll never betray it as long as I live. This is my whole subject. Sex is linked inextricably with place, as prostitution is with poverty. I love poverty, but coming back to Europe and even to Britain has been exotic. I'm a very susceptible person, and prone to powerful bouts of Stendhal Syndrome if the environment turns me on. Whilst adventure, for me, is riding a motorcycle.
I don't feel like loving foreign prostitutes and other unfortunates is in any way transgression, or at least in any personal sense. Moreover, the most honourable things I've done that I'm very proud of include these. The act of conversation, especially within and about prostitution, and various economic factors, these certainly do contain enormous difficulties for me. Sometimes I feel like the disgusting impurities of conversation have leaked or percolated into my writing; that my writing has become like this horrible conversation. So I address that head on. But I don’t deny that sometimes I paint sex a different moral colour. Earlier in my life I had to earn money against everybody else, and in that direction lies the regret I struggle with and dump on whores, my evil.
My health has been in decline since I turned thirty, getting on ten years. I suffer from a hereditary disease that is by far the worst of my problems, but of course my lifestyle has taken bites out of me too. I'm cool with it, I've used a lot of energy and am still alive.
Concerning your health, I shouldn't have been so presumptuous. My apologies.
Not at all.
When you mention "difficulties,” I am reminded of a line from Mountainhead: “You and your rape stories and your dead sisters and Pol Pot were all just my own private art gallery…” To me, this suggests a kind of reckoning, however shaded, with a more expansive situation. I hesitate to approach Mountainhead through a political lens, yet we might anticipate that your work will be viewed as “problematic” – to use a ruined word – by critics who are reflexively inclined to condemn a record of privileged slumming or western trespass and exploitation. If that's too crude, a more nuanced geopolitical interpretation might be tempted by comparative reference to Michel Houellebecq's contrastingly detached narratives of borderless sex tourism (even if these are differently framed and blunted by the pretense of fiction), or by reference to Antoine D'Agata's indemnifying photographic annotations. In any case, I think it's clear that you are acutely aware of your rank as an outsider, and of such implications that might therefore invite or mitigate a kind of judgment that extends beyond the personal. And I think this awareness is complicated at turns. I suppose this could be a minefield, but maybe I can open it up by simply asking about the question of artistic responsibility and the penumbra of “the political” in relation to your project? Is there anything to say, preemptively or otherwise?
Things are as real as they affect other things – as in “my own private art gallery.” This is a world in which illiteracy has a scrupulous value, especially in the evening. I can’t ignore rape as military strategy when it’s so indubitably a determining factor in a friend’s downward turn. In terms of responsibility, I want the language I’ve made to correspond to my vision and experience, just as much so when these appear mistaken or flawed in retrospect. I’m still working on that. The section that quote comes from describes a sorry episode. It’s in the book because I count it amongst the determining factors in my own upward turn, so to speak.
I’m heavily put off by writers who contrive to smear themselves into broader conversations, whether it’s intended to demonstrate piety or cynicism. But – and this is what I’m talking about with this heavy vendetta I have against conversation – I perceive some piety in precisely what I’ve just said. There's a BBC documentary in which a collection of lazy English middle-class twenty-somethings are chaperoned around Patpong, and have delivered to them a stage-managed encounter with a young “prostitute” in a pole-dancing outfit who relates the usual sob story through an interpreter and then weeps as she takes questions from the group. This all occurs in the heart of it, with tourists and bar girls all around and loud music. Worked up into a pious rage, one of the English females gets into a wild verbal fight with a passing American tourist, who tells her she is a “phony” who doesn't understand that “prostitution” empowers these girls, and that they all want to be there, etc. Not unlike a Houllebecq character. They both present as obnoxiously ignorant to me, but their platitudes are clearly born out of the respectively limited vantage and degree of their insight. This is demonstrative of how the flimsy insipid social politics of dim-bulbs can rarely come down to rest on the actual ground, especially in places like this. And again why conversation is undesirable. I’ve heard endless nights of rationalizations, justifications, and disgusted condemnations. In the end, prostitution is a country in which I've lived for most of my life, and it is as irreducible as any other country. I don't claim to know every corner of it.
Shortly after we sent Mountainhead to press, I found myself reading a popular history of 20th century existentialism and it occurred to me that your sensually immersive depictions of natural and bodily processes might be considered in relation to Sartre's literary explorations of sensory “viscosity” – you know, where a self is confronted by so much writhing, oozing, swampy reality. Not only this, but it seems that your technically rigorous yet emotionally invested descriptions of unnatural environments – shower architecture, toilets, living spaces, etc – likewise suggest at least an aesthetic fidelity to the more germinal project of phenomenology, such that traces to Husserl and early Heidegger. So I'm curious to know if this was in any way intentional; did you set out to construct a phenomenological memoir? Is your work influenced by these philosophical and literary currents? And quite regardless of how you answer, I wonder if we might talk more generally about the psycho-sensory “deep-dive” that flavors so much of your writing. It resonates long after the initial gross-out.
Thank you. I only have a layman’s notion of Sartre’s viscosity, but I imagine there is some scope for application of it to my writing, especially in Mountainhead. I rub myself all over in the idea that perceived templates of space and their tyranny reproduce and endure in my movement through people and places. There’s a relatively clear idea of “inside” and “outside” that applies to space, natural and built, and to people’s bodies. Like Sartre (I think), I don’t like the sticky slimy smelly inside. I like smooth soft dry shut curtains. But I don’t see viscosity in this sense as inherently female, and as I’ve moved further and further away from actually galloping hookers, it’s my own viscosity that I’d like sewn up. Prostitution, which as a teenager I used to think of as pioneering bravery, is of course about repetition and control. So I gravitate inside small, functional rooms, which are maybe drier than the sticky outside. I don’t want to pass through or soil the nice flat pictures I look up at, and so cum is a permanent inconvenience that has to be flung away in these little rooms. It’s certainly not paint.
Despite how it might seem like plunging into the sticky innards in a literary context, masturbating in the forest is actually not so different from the same act in cubicles and hotel rooms. In fact it’s much more wholesome. These are only a single, isolated dimension however, these templates and categories.
Rather than applying theory and concepts, I just underline patterns and continuities by instinct whilst I try to explain my lived and thought experience. Simple as that. I never see writing as a formal exercise – form and structure emerge with and obey the subject. The artist who painted that portrait we just mentioned – he gave me the best and simplest advice I was ever given. Be honest with the subject, be honest with yourself, and pay attention to detail.
As regards to phenomenology, the same goes. I skimmed Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. As someone who spends most of their energy on writing from a personal perspective, and also spends a great deal of time alone, my attention becomes increasingly focused on my subjective engagement with my surroundings, and how I consciously arrange these into patterns. I imagine it’s the same for others. Violence, sexuality, danger of various kinds, overwhelming beauty – rushes of intense experience linked to these – they are the arias of life that I want to celebrate and record and rest between. It sounds a bit adolescent and hammy to put it like that, but I suppose that’s just the sort of cunt I am.
Reading through our exchange, I fear I might have nudged the impression that Mountainhead is primarily a cerebral or introspective text, which would be misleading, since the book is scored with propulsive action and nuanced character studies. There are brawls and escapes and crashes and rescues and harrowing encounters with untamed nature (fucking arachnids!), and I think the contrapuntal rhythm of your ground-level storytelling actually serves to foreground an emergent portrait of human bonds and resilient friendship. So let me ask about your treatment of such events that might be considered within the rubric of more conventional travel/adventure writing. These threaded sequences are marked, I think, by a contradistinctively gritty or muscular prose style, and there's a fascinating, seamlessly executed dynamic – a kind of syncopation – in how the narrative moves from “inside” to “outside” (to misappropriate your terminology). You may recall this is something I remarked on when we were preparing the book for press, and I'm curious as to whether you were conscious of rendering what appears to be a kind of deftly structured balancing act. Is it instinct all the way down?
Amongst much else, I grew up on British fin-de-siècle boy’s-own adventure stories, which were still everywhere when I was a child. Since moving to Asia I’ve also read voraciously on the countries I like here, and that has included a lot of older literature on travel and war. And a bit like Paul Bowles, I’m the sort of expatriate that likes it when bad things happen to other expatriates.
By and large it is instinct all the way down. As above, the subject guides me always. I just start writing and the form emerges spontaneously. Then in editing, when I become more cognizant of the form and how it’s functioning technically, I sand it into as efficient a vehicle as possible. I should say that during the copyediting process you pointed things out about my style that I’d never consciously thought about before. That was very interesting and valuable to me. Mountainhead was the most laborious project, because there was never any structural plan beyond a desire to write about the mountain somehow. It took about five years, and the events selectively described span well over a decade. The version that 9BB has published is a little less than half of the original manuscript, which I thought of as a big unruly scrapbook with no structure whatsoever. Once I started to think about the thing as a whole and what it represented, I was able to cut out the fat, and the structure quickly became obvious. As ever, simplicity is the key when it comes to working principles – I just ask myself what happened, and what it means. And there’s your “outside” and “inside.”
Another dimensional counterpoint might be observed in variegated sequences that seem imbued with what I would describe, perhaps for lack of a better vocabulary, as a phantasmagorical or hallucinatory valence, where corporeal experience is melded with dreamlike subjectivity and imagery. From this vantage, the encounter with the witch remains haunting, but I also think of the book's vertiginous crescendo, where the rush of epiphanic revelation edges against a kind of feverish yet controlled delirium. The literary contrivance that comes to mind is of course “magical realism,” but that seems lazy, or somehow just roundly inapposite. I might rather ask about the role of liminality in your autobiographical process – a point that might bring us back to anthropology. Is there a risk, in descrying threshold experience, of losing one's moorings? Is it just the opposite?
That is a very difficult question to answer, beyond the points I make in the book itself. I’m a huge fan of state spectacle and religious theatre at all levels, but obviously this has little liminal value for me personally, although I’m often overwhelmed by the quality of the performance, as in that of the witch. But the witch in itself is an emblem of liminality that I found convenient to place there. Little has ever been as frightening and intoxicating as being lost on a forested mountain in pain with no water and nothing but the weight of one’s revolting misdeeds for company. And there is little as loathsome as sperm loosed in fear. You’ll never come right again. But it’s internal words and images that torment you with the most efficiency. I tried hard to lay the words and images that tormented me down in the book, in addition to how I tried to respond physically as well as mentally. And as usual the style is born to serve the subject.
A friend of mine “lost his moorings” in a cave not far from where I live. He was idling about in the entrance cavern alone when in came two ethnically distinct men who offered to take him half a mile down to hunt bats, which they called “cave-chickens.” During the descent he started to lose it and couldn’t go on. The men refused to turn back, and told him to stay put in some coffin-sized space while they went on to get the bats, and as long as he didn’t move they would pick him up on the way back. Think of it. He said that after they left him, the absolute blackness, the stagnant air and the silence just swallowed him into a different dimension. With increased volume, his consciousness turned on him suddenly and severely. Like some nightmare out of Beckett. Five minutes became so many hours, and that was the least of his hardships. You know how your tongue’s spatial knowledge of your molars never corresponds with what you see in the mirror? Shifting his body even slightly felt like he’d moved into a different chamber – he reached out with his arm expecting the air of the crevice through which he’d crawled in by, and finds instead a bar of cold stone. Haha, plummeting fear. So what does he do? Among other things, egged on by his treacherous consciousness, he masturbates repeatedly. I’m really not sure of the personal value of such experiences on any level. But we all know that risk is addictive.
What happens next?
I have three specific book projects in the pipeline. One is a short book about British childhood and Rangoon. It’s been finished for a while. Because of its subject, I’m keen for it to be published by a Scottish or at least a British publisher, but I’m not yet sure if this will be possible. The second is a book about prostitution called The Distributed Whore. Finally, there is an extremely difficult book on Cambodia, which was originally intended as a CD back in 2007. The project was to meet and interview some primary witnesses and participants from Pol Pot’s Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. There were two men who primarily interested me, firstly the late painter Vann Nath, who survived because the regime wanted him to paint portraits of Pol Pot. Secondly, the man in charge of the prison’s execution detail, Him Huoy. Huoy, who was a teenager at the time, originally admitted to killing at least 3000 men, women and children, and organizing the mass burials at Choeung Ek, although he later amended this total to a mere 5. My friend Pod and I travelled with our guide unannounced to Huoy’s home near the Vietnamese border, where he agreed to talk to me unreservedly in exchange for 300 US. Unfortunately, I fell deeply in love with his wife during this process. In addition to that catastrophe, the book also talks about other individual European engagements with the Pol Pot era in the example of the French anthropologist Francois Bizot. It’s the most difficult writing project I’ve attempted to date. And as was the case with Mountainhead, I am determined that it should be published only by 9BB.
My “Open Letter” Concerning the Amazon Blacklist and Freedom of Speech
A few days ago, I sent this "open letter" (which is reprinted below, and which you are free to reprint anywhere) to select publishers and 9BB newsletter subscribers. It's probably an impotent gesture, but I want to encourage folks who care about free inquiry to contact Amazon — and now, alas, Barnes & Noble — and politely encourage them get to back to the business of selling books, regardless of their content and regardless of the noise coming from intellectual gatekeepers of this moment or the next.
If you want to know more about what has happened, I'm afraid the most reliable information is currently provided by CODOH and Castle Hill Publishers. The few accounts from semi-mainstream sources that I've seen (and please correct me if I've missed something) have downplayed the extent of the blacklist, and (again, to my knowledge) there has been nary a peep from once-reliable free speech advocates who, I haven't forgotten, vocally objected when Waldenbooks refused to carry a specific book that millions of people found to be profoundly offensive. I can only guess that this silence stems from the banal fact that folks don't want to be seen as defending Holocaust heresies, but it is a truism that the open exchange of ideas requires protection of the most incendiary ideas and arguments, and that imperative is resonant long before the fucking cops get involved. That's how it works, when it works. The rest is a stack of cliches, sadly in need of restatement. I'd rather think about other things, too.
I'll have news about upcoming 9BB releases very soon. The text of my "Millian-dollar case for free speech" (that's a pun) is reprinted below, with a partial list of BoA ("Banned on Amazon") titles following.
Evolution of Psychopathology Conference 2016
The 2016 Evolution of Psychopathology Conference includes excellent talks by Nine-Banded authors Sarah Perry (on “Antinatalism in Cultural and Biological Evolution”) and Colin Feltham (on “Anthropathology”). Other conference proceedings are collected on YouTube here.