As listeners to my late, lamented NSFWLIVE show will testify, I am an unironic, dyed-in-the-wool fan of Taylor Swift.
More specifically, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Taylor Swift’s lyrics: Once having dedicated an entire, hour long episode, to examining the contrasting (and, taken together, entirely contradictory) lyrics of “Speak Now” and “Better Than Revenge”.
I mention all of this to explain the anticipation felt when, a few days ago, it was reported that Swift had deleted her entire social media history, in rumored anticipation of a surprise new album. Anticipation which turned to delight this morning as I pored over the lyrics to the first song from that album, as an Old English scholar might pore over a freshly discovered Chaucer manuscript.
But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!
Ooh, look what you made me do
Look what you made me do
Look what you just made me do
Look what you just made me
Already the professional reviewers have handed down their verdicts on “Look What You Made Me Do”, and also their interpretations: The song – like, duh – is a response to Kanye West’s Famous, and the controversy surrounding whether Swift gave West permission to sexually harass her in song.
Shrewder critics, like those employed by the New York Times, have also drawn parallels between the song and Swift’s recent lawsuit brought against former radio host David Mueller.
The song isn’t called “Look What I Did,” it’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” a surprising flipping of agency at a moment where Ms. Swift is being heralded for her strong language in court, where she testified that a radio host assaulted her with no equivocation: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.” But making this song was her decision: not his. It sounds powerful, yet joyless.
All of these interpretations are accurate, but none goes nearly far enough. Sure, Swift clearly intended her new song to stick it to Kanye and, obviously, the title and lyrics have new significance given Swift’s inspiring performance (in the best sense of the word) in court. But whether intentional or not, there’s a third, much deeper, layer of significance to the song (and perhaps – we’ll see – to the entire album.)
Consider Swift’s message, to Kanye West and to David Mueller and to social media trolls and to the rest of the world:
I really wish it hadn’t come to this. I would have been perfectly happy continuing to post fun tweets and make cookies for my fans and produce country/pop crossover hits and stay out of gender politics and politics in general…. But no. You just couldn’t help yourself could you? You had to do something so unbelievably, unforgivably bad that you forced my hand. Forced me to delete my social media, and put away my cookie recipes, and grab my microphone and use it to beat the motherloving shit out of you, loudly and publicly. I hope you’re happy. This is what you made me do.
It’s impossible to hear that message and not recognize it as the message of all of America (at least, non Nazi sympathizing America) circa 2017.
It’d be nice to think we were a nation of activists. A nation of born freedom fighters. But, for good or ill, that’s not the case. For every political junkie and activist spoiling for a fight, America is home to maybe a hundred other people who really, really didn’t want to get into this shit. Who would have been perfectly happy using social media to post amusing memes, or snarking about President Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe choices, or obsessing over or dismissing Taylor Swift’s new album. For every anti-fascist demonstrator ready, willing and able, to protest against the alt-right, there are maybe a million Americans who had satisfied themselves that the fight against Nazism (and racial bigotry, and unequal rights) had been fought and won.
The last thing most Americans wanted, on social media or the streets, was to be dragged into a huge fucking fight, against sexual harassment, or racism, or all manner of other bigotry or… seriously? In 20fucking17?… Nazis.
But then 20-30% of Americans gave us President Trump.
Now look at what they made us do.
What’s that? The idea of Taylor Swift as figurehead of the resistance is a little hard to swallow? This, after all, is the same Taylor Swift who remained tactically silent during the last election so as not to alienate her country base.
I agree. Not least because the “ok, you asked for it” phenomenon was already widespread, without any help from Taylor Swift. It’s Teen Vogue becoming the political publication of a generation; it’s Merriam Webster dictionary sharing its most searched words and phrases; it’s the Economist and the New Yorker and Newsweek evoking Nazism and the KKK on their covers; it’s scores of business leaders (except, notably, those from Silicon Valley) boycotting Trump, it’s the heads of the armed forces publicly declaring their opposition to the bigotry espoused by their commander in chief, it’s the Anne Frank Center demanding Jack Dorsey ban Trump from Twitter; it’s Valerie Plame trying to buy Twitter after Dorsey revealed himself to be Silicon Valley’s greatest coward.
But the point is not that Taylor Swift is at the forefront of anything. Rather, as with the spectacularly cynical “Welcome To New York”, she has proved herself adept not for inspiring or even shaping a movement, but rather at expertly re-packaging and distributing it.
With Welcome To New York, though, the repackaging was done for profit. This time, Swift’s skillful framing (appropriation, if you prefer) of the current political movement coincides with her thoroughly uncommercial decision to demand only a dollar in damages from the man who sexually assaulted her. In deciding to testify personally while seeking only a token amount, Swift presented an unimpeachable, unignorable example of how women – regardless of wealth or fame – are treated in America circa 2017.
Similarly with “Look What You Made Me Do,” by accident or design, for cynical motives or noble, Taylor Swift has summed up the national mood more perfectly in one catchy lyric than the rest of the media has managed in endless hours of cable news, reams of newsprint and petabytes of push alerts.
My first foray into entrepreneurship was at age 15 when I began importing magic tricks and other stage props from America to sell, by mail order, in the UK.
At the peak of my garage empire I had maybe a thousand customers, most of whom would send long letters with their cheques (almost always cheques, this being a million years ago), explaining how they planned to use their new props, and sometimes asking my advice on what they should buy next.
My favourite notes, though, came from the non-professional magicians: Those for whom magic was a hobby, not a job. The teacher who used close-up magic in his high school history classes, the doctor who entertained young cancer patients with bedside illusions, the well-known musician who would hide away on his tour bus, practicing false cuts and complicated coin manipulations while his bandmates partied with groupies.
And then there was Mr O’Doyle. Mr O’Doyle (not his real name, but near enough) was an enigma – which, in a customer base made entirely of magicians, was really saying something. Mr O’Doyle didn’t pay by cheque. Rather, he would send large brown envelopes, stuffed with banknotes. Hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds at a time — sent through regular, unregistered, uninsured mail. And tucked inside this pile of cash was always a handwritten wish list — a list which usually bore no relation to items I had actually advertised for sale. Mr O’Doyle , it seemed, had absolute faith in a) the British postal system b) my ability to obtain the various decks of cards, little wooden boxes and obscure instructional books he required and c) his own ability to estimate the cost of those items.
Given the amount Mr O’Doyle spent every month, I assumed he was a very successful professional performer: Perhaps even a celebrity TV illusionist, buying under a pseudonym. How else to explain his seemingly unlimited budget, and his insatiable hunger for new miracles?
Finally, after about six months of having Mr O’Doyle as a customer I plucked up the courage to call him on the telephone — partly out of curiosity and partly because my bank manager had insisted I find out more about the mysterious Irishman who paid only in cash (again, these were different times.) After about a thousand rings, the phone was answered by a character straight out of Samuel Beckett who, for the next half hour or so, told me the story of his life in magic.
Mr O’Doyle, it turned out, was retired and lived alone in a house miles from anywhere. For him, magic was a way to escape even further from the realities of the world and a way to occupy and challenge his mind, in the same ways others read books or complete crossword puzzles. The more complicated the sleight of hand required, the better. And, like most readers or puzzlers, Mr O’Doyle could see no benefit in performing his hobby on stage. He had literally never performed for an audience.
At the time, I found this revelation astounding: My biggest customer – a man who spent more on magic tricks each week than most other magicians did in a year and who, it became clear, practiced morning noon and night, did so only for the mental challenge. Only for himself.
I lost touch with Mr O’Doyle after I closed my business and went to law school. In the intervening years, I haven’t thought much about him, except when pondering some similar example of obsession: A writer with no ambitions to be published, a gifted singer who performs only in the shower, a comedian who refuses to use Twitter.
But then, this past week, Mr O’Doyle popped back into my brain during my trip to Magic LIVE in Las Vegas. On Sunday night, I attended a screening of “Gambler’s Balad”, a new short documentary by Penn Jillette and Johnny Thompson. You’ll recognize Penn Jillette’s name, of course, but Johnny Thompson is less well known — a magician’s magician. Although a accomplished performer in his own right, Thompson spends most of his time working as an inventor of tricks and illusions for other magicians (including, of course, Penn and Teller.)
Gambler’s Balad is, essentially, a very long card trick, set to a poem about gambling. The poem was written in 1971 by Milan Bulovic with Thompson fitting the trick to the story after the fact. I don’t mean to diminish the skill required to perform Gambler’s Ballad when I say it’s not a particularly exciting thing to watch. In fact, if you’re not a magician – and so don’t recognize the incredible sleight of hand employed – you might even find it (gasp) boring. In many ways it’s the card equivalent of Penn and Teller’s famous Principles of Sleight of Hand routine…
Still, the film I watched on Sunday night wasn’t really about the Gambler’s Ballad trick. Rather it was about Penn Jillette’s attempts to learn it, so he could perform it side by side – live on stage – with his dear friend Thompson.
As Jillette explains:
“Johnny Thompson is a guiding force in my professional and personal life. For 40 years he has inspired, conspired, corrected, inflected, improved footnoted, fixed up, calmed down, pumped up, inspected, protected, pushed, culled and validated my attempts in showbiz. In my personal life he’s a role model of integrity, power, strength, joy, loyalty and love. Johnny is always there for me. Johnny helps me get closer to the me I want to be
A couple of years ago I wanted to learn more about Johnny than all I’ve learned from being his friends and coworker. It was time for me to learn something that was pure Johnny.”
Jillette goes on to explain that he’s not a great sleight of hand artist (“Johnny has said I’ve gotten further with three simple magic moves than anyone in showbiz history.”) He knew that learning Gambler’s Ballad would likely take him a long time, and for very little public reward (he can hardly add it to his stage show alongside the bullet catch.) But none of that was the reason Jillette wanted to spend almost a year mastering a not very exciting card trick. He wanted to master it as a tribute to Johnny Thompson; and he wanted to learn it because it was going to be a real challenge.
In my first dispatch from Magic LIVE, I explained that I’d come to the convention to try to find some escape from the craziness of Trump World and the Silicon Valley swamp. It’s hard to imagine a sharper contrast to those worlds than Penn Jillette learning the Gamber’s Ballad: Someone who can (and does) make millions on a public stage deciding instead to sit down and shut up, to look inwards, to challenge himself to do something incredibly difficult, and all in tribute to the loyal friend who taught him lessons in integrity and love. Compare that to a know-nothing reality TV star, screaming his ignorance and hate on Twitter. Or to the Silicon Valley bro willing to sacrifice loyalty, friendship and any semblance of decency in pursuit of a multi-billion dollar payday.
(The fact that Jillette, like so many of those tech bros, is a proud libertarian serves only to underscore the contrast. Ideology doesn’t always have to be an excuse for acting like a selfish asshole.)
What Mr O’Doyle already had figured out by the early 90s has taken me slightly longer to understand: There’s no escapism like learning something new and difficult, just for the satisfaction of mastering it. Moreover, in Trump’s America, the acquisition of knowledge as a way to bring yourself closer to your fellow man isn’t just an act of love, but of resistance.
It’s a little after 11pm and a white man with a shaved head is reloading his crossbow. Six or seven feet away, a woman dressed in black is holding up a flower, inches from her face. The man takes aim. Several audience members lift their iphones to neck-level, hoping not to be spotted.
About that audience: There are, by my count, at least as many fedoras or other non-baseball hats as there are women. Comfortably three times as many male ponytails as non-white faces.
A couple of guys behind me are talking loudly about a card trick. They know the woman will almost certainly survive. This is, after all, a magicians’ convention — where everyone and everything is always fine in the end.
* * *
I mention all of this – the stark gender and race imbalance, the imperilled leather clad female “assistant” – not to judge, or mock, or even shame, the attendees of this week’s “Magic Live” convention in Vegas. At times like this, it’s important to pick one’s targets carefully, and magicians hardly rank in the top million when it comes to threats to American democracy.
Rather I mention it to explain my own intense discomfort at attending such a dazzlingly white, almost exclusively male event on this of all weeks.
A few months ago, I revisted that old thought experiment about what you or I might have done to stop the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. “Whatever you’re doing today,” I wrote. “That’s what you’d have done.”
While Silicon Valley continues to struggle with the fallout from James Damore’s male supremacist manifesto, and his subsequent embrace by alt-Nazis… As torch-bearing fascists march on American cities and our leaders preach hatred and intolerance and brave protesters are being beaten and mowed down by cars…. I’m in Las Vegas, watching a dude firing a crossbow at a woman, surrounded by members of one of the few industries less diverse than tech.
So, what the David Copperfuck am I doing here?
The direct answer to that question lies a quarter century in my past when, like so many other pre-teenagers with similar chromosomes and melanin levels, I decided to learn magic. On my 11th or 12th birthday, I’d watched awestruck as a street magician made a small pile of coins appear and disappear in front of my eyes. I practiced that trick till I was blue in the fingers, before working my way through most of Mark Wilson’s Complete Course In Magic. Finally, around age 15, I turned my hobby into a bedroom business: Importing special playing cards and other small magical apparatus from America to resell by mail order to magicians in the UK.
It was around about the same time that I discovered Magic Magazine, which was exactly what it sounds like — a monthly glossy magazine for magicians, published in Las Vegas, Nevada (which in those days might as well have been the moon.) I wrote a letter to the publisher, not bothering to mention that I was still a child, and soon became an official UK distributor for the magazine.
Fast forward an entire lifetime and, apart from the odd coin behind the ear miracle for Eli or Evie, my days as a magician are long behind me. But, still, time couldn’t entirely dull the pang of sadness when, a couple of months ago, I noticed a small news item on some media website or other announcing that Magic Magazine, like so many other print magazines, had published its final issue.
And then this kicker: To sign off in style, Magic would be hosting two final installments of its big annual conference — Magic LIVE! — one in 2017 and another in 2018, both in Las Vegas.
So that’s what brought me to the Orleans this week, officially: Nostalgia. Curiosity. A desire to pay my respects to a publication that gave my awkward teenage self his first physical connection to America and, of course, Las Vegas. Never mind the fact that it also helped him earn the money to buy his first car.
In truth, though, I also came to Magic Live looking for something else. Perhaps even a miracle.
I’ve written before about the devastating effect the tech industry has had on the magic industry. Not just because YouTube has made it easier to expose the method behind a trick, or because miniaturisation has rendered close-up miracles commonplace — but, more fundamentally, because technology like smartphones and apps have provided a better, cooler way for nerdy kids (like I was) to impress their friends. And unlike a career in magic, a career in building cool tech toys can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. I can think of several tech entrepreneurs who used to be magicians — Aaron Levie, Tony Hsieh — but very few who made the journey in the opposite direction.
And yet. What technology still struggles to replace is the pure escapism that magic provides. A good magic trick — that is, a really good magic trick – can transport you, even if just for a second, to a world in which miracles really are possible. One where there are no problems that can’t be solved at the snap of a finger, nothing that is broken that can’t be instantly repaired, nothing lost that can’t be recovered. That sounds cheesy, and it is, but it also stands in stark contrast to the technology industry which seems determined to pursue a path of disruption, destruction and unfiltered, uncensored ugly reality.
Like most people who value their sanity, I’ve spent the past few months desperately trying to balance my obsessive CNN watching and news site reading with… pretty much any kind of healthy escapism. I’ve devoured novels, I’ve binged watched TV shows, I’ve listened to music and I’ve spent hours walking and cycling and trying – in vain – to put as much distance between myself and reality.
And so when I saw that small mention of the Magic Live convention it might as well have been a flashing neon sign: ESCAPISM GUARANTEED.
Of course I knew, even as I paid the $400 registration fee, that I was setting myself up for disappointment. Trying to recover the sense of wonder – of safety and innocence and un-Nazi-ness — I remember from my early teens was always going to be an old fool’s errand. And by the time I landed in Vegas — just hours after the horrific events in Charlottesville — it started to feel like full-blown dereliction of civic duty to be huddled in a Las Vegas casino with a thousand or so white dudes, hiding away from reality, at a time when every one of us should be running towards the fight.
That guilt only intensified as I stood in the registration line, surrounded by the fedoras and the hawaiian shirts and the cellphone holsters; every dorky white male cliche packed into a single conference room. Again, I say that not to judge: I was standing in the exact same line, no less excited by the prospect of seeing slight of hand stars like Johnny Thompson or David Williamson or – be still my teenage heart — Richard Turner.
It’s easy, living in Silicon Valley, or indeed on Twitter, to assume that the entire world has become more sensitive to issues of gender or race. Twenty minutes at Magic Live will assure you that isn’t so. Never mind the jarring dearth of women or people of color, but I’d defy even the most tone-deaf tech worker not to at least raise an eyebrow at the persistent objectification of female “assistants” or the moment one audience member let out an honest-to-god wolf whistle when a rare female attendee was invited on stage to assist with a card trick.
As if the role of women in magic – and the establishment’s blindness to it – weren’t already clear enough. Here’s how conference organizer Stan Allen introduces Magic Live’s official program…
A Note of Awareness:
Just about four months ago, two magicians approached me suggesting we open up a conversation about women in magic at this year’s convention. The two magicians happened to be women in magic, both well known, At first, I listened politely but not at all intrigued. And then everything changed.
One of the ladies casually mentioned that she tries not to go to the Magic Castle by herself. Wait you’re a member. You’re a performing member. Still, when she’s alone she just doesn’t feel comfortable at the clubhouse… at her clubhouse. She added that it was the same at local club meetings and magic conventions.
The more women I talked to, the more it dawned on me that magic, as a community is not quite the welcoming and nurturuing envitronment I thought it was.
Well holy shit, Stan, that’s quite the “note of awareness.”
Recall, this is the man who, for 25 years, served as editor of Magic Magazine. It has apparently taken a quarter century – and direct intervention by two “well known” women – to make him realize something that was glaringly obvious from standing in the registration line, or hearing that first wolf-whistle.
Still, at least Allen got there in the end. At least he was able to add a panel on gender in magic to this year’s conference, right?
There is no such panel; no formal programming whatsoever dealing with gender, race, diversity or any other glaring reason why more than 50% of the population might feel excluded from this already struggling art form and industry.
Instead, Allen simply invites attendees to “Ask women in your local club, or women at this convention. Find out if they do feel uncomfortable, and if so why?”
…because nothing will make a female attendee more comfortable than a dude in a fedora and a hawaiian shirt marching up to her and asking why she feels uncomfortable.
“Next year at MAGIC Live, I will be inviting some women and men to talk about how things have changed over the year.”
That outta fix it.
For every moment during those first few hours at Magic Live that made me feel certain I’d made a terrible mistake in coming, there was an equal and opposite moment that sucked me back in. Some of those moments were small…
After collecting my registration badge and official conference t-shirt, I joined my fellow attendees at my first official session — the so called “Close-Up Experience”. Surrounded on three sides by an audience of his peers, a magician by the name of Garrett Thomas reminded me of everything I used to love about watching and performing magic as he made a spectator’s drivers license disappear and then reappear inside his own wallet. Then the wallet itself vanished – seemingly into thin air – leaving behind just the ID. It’s hard to render the impact of that, or any, magic trick in print, suffice to say there were audible gasps, even from the wizened old wizards in the crowd. Similar noises were prompted by South Korea’s Yu Ho-Jin’s stunning playing card manipulations.
Then, a few minutes into the show, another audience volunteer, seated alongside the performer, casually – and without any indication he was making a statement – removed his overshirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing a cartoon of a jailed Donald Trump and the slogan “Lock Him Up.” For a second, on the giant screens magnifying the performance, unreality and reality were captured in a single shot. Escapism vs Donald Trump in a jail cell.
Other moments were more plainly monumental…
Later on Monday afternoon, in the midst of a general programme of presentations about how to get paid better and how to combat YouTube critics (my answer: be glad you’re a magician, dude, and “you suck” is the worst thing anyone will ever say to you on social media), a speaker was introduced by the name of Abbey Goldrake. A promotional video rolled: Goldrake swallowing swords and dancing, and eating fire under her stage name of Viola LaLa Mia. So far, so Magic Live.
But then the video ended and a spotlight illuminated Goldrake, seated downstage in a simple black wheelchair. Goldrake explained that, two years earlier, while performing a levitation illusion that should not have been in the least bit dangerous, a technical fault sent her plummeting several feet to the ground. The C3 and C4 vertebrae in her neck were broken and doctors insisted she would never breath again without the use of a tube. Just the fact that she was sitting in front of us, clearly breathing and talking, was enough to put every other magic trick at the conference to shame.
For the next thirty minutes, Goldrake told the story of how she proved those doctors wrong. How in a ludicrously short time she not only learned to breathe again, but then to move her toes, then her fingers and finally her legs.
The presentation ended with Goldrake urging the audience not prioritize career over “taking the occasional side road” — before rising to her feet and walking off stage under her own power. The audience rose too, in a sustained standing ovation. When I was 14 years old, I sat in the front row of Earls Court Arena with my dad and watched David Copperfield fly: Even with the benefit of nostalgia, the moment had absolutely nothing on watching Abbey Goldrake stand up from that chair.
The next presentation was an illusionist who complained that YouTube spoilers were ruining his expensive tricks. “For the cost of this one illusion, I could have bought a pretty nice Tesla,” he joked.
* * * *
I walked out of the crossbow act, before the show had ended. Call me a triggered snowflake but that particular unreality – a leather-clad woman risking her life so a skin-headed man can garner applause from other men – was just a bit too real, a mite too on the nose.
Back in my hotel room, I turned on the television for the first time in almost 24 hours. Donald Trump apparently had finally, grudgingly, pretended to denounce white nationalism. Jeff Sessions was promising a civil rights investigation. Reality as unreality, with too much of both.
There’s no getting around the fact that there are few things less important than Magic Live and few groups less worthy of your attention this week than a thousand dudes swapping tips on how to force cards or palm coins. The escapism offered by Garrett Thomas or even the inspiration of Abbey Goldrake is no match for the horrifying reality of neo nazis on the march. I can talk about escapism, or a search for deeper meaning, but I’m still the guy reviewing a punch and judy show while across town the forces are massing for Kristallnacht.
But if there’s escapism to be found here – some connection to the simplicity of my half-remembered teenage years, before social media and tech bros and President Trump and the alt-right — I remain determined to find it. Per Rupert Brooke…
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
I’ll have more to share in a couple of days. But now I have to run to the first session of day two: A presentation by a reknowned gambling expert named Darwin Ortiz.
Sitting at SFO at 8am last Friday morning, I was surprised to look up from my Us Weekly and discover I had been transported to an episode of Jersey Shore.
“Ey, fuck you man.”
“No, fuck you.”
The whir of a blender. A female voice and then, apparently in response…
“You wanna banana smoothie? You like a big banana?”
If you’re like me – that is to say, old – you might not be familiar with “Joe & The Juice”, a Dutch-owned chain of coffee shops and juice bars which have recently begun “rolling out” across America. Including, apparently, to the International Terminal of San Francisco airport.
Joe & The Juice, per Business Insider, is a “notorious Danish juice chain” which “only hires hunks” and “[is] conquering the world”
It seems to be that the company hires only cool hunky guys and promotes a very bro culture. The company’s recruiting videos have been met with ridicule, but apparently it’s working.
Hunkiness, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder but certainly the “very bro culture” was much in evidence amongst the cafe’s all male employees who – 8am bedamned – gleefully cursed at each other and tossed innuendo at any female customer misguided enough to wander in for a banana smoothie. At 8am. At an airport.
I’m not sure what angered me the most – the “you like a big banana?” line delivered to a flabbergasted young female customer, or the “ey, fuck you” exchange quoted above, delivered comfortably in earshot of the mother and children ordering breakfast.
What I know for sure is that, even a week later, I’m still stunned and depressed by the encounter. Stunned that anyone working the morning shift at a coffee shop – bro or no – would feel comfortable screaming obscenities in close proximity to children, or be bold enough to ask a female traveller whether she prefered “a big banana.” And thoroughly depressed that San Francisco International – Silicon Valley’s major business hub – would think a bro-themed coffee shop might make an appropriate and appropriate addition to their catering options.
(Ever the journalist, I emailed Joe and The Juice to ask if my experience was typical. A corporate representative insisted it was not, and promised to speak to the local managers. SFO didn’t have anyone available for comment when I called.)
Anyone even vaguely familiar with my work here at Pando, and certainly with my books, might be surprised to hear I’m such a prude, or a stickler for propriety. After all, didn’t I once write an entire chapter of a book, explaining the difference in usage of various curse words between America and Britain? And didn’t I once address a letter to NSFWCORP subscribers “Friends, Romans, C___s”? Yes and yes.
I’d certinly be lying if I claimed that I had never in my life – even in a professional setting – used profanity when there was a possibility that children may overhear. (Although I pray that, even in the depths of my former alcoholism, I never employed lazy fruit-based sexual innuendo, even consensually.)
So why did the Joe and the Douche incident bother me so much? Have I become, to paraphrase Trump Trolls, a “snowflake”, unable to handle a little profanity mixed in with my (godawful, tepid) latte first thing in the morning?
Certainly spending more time with Sarah’s children has made me more sensitive than before to what kids see and hear. And years covering Valley bro culture has absolutely made me far more attuned to, and disgusted by, the kind of causal harassment delivered by Joe’s Bros.
But I suspect there’s something more going on here. In recent weeks and months I’ve noticed that I’ve become far more likely to self censor my language, even in adult company. Fewer fucks, and more “fricks” and “f’s; a preference for milder curses when previously only something stronger would do. During a writing session a couple of weeks back, I spent a good hour and a half debating with myself whether a (fictional, British) character really needed to call another character a particular offensive word. (Eventual conclusion: yes, but only once.)
And then, last week, I read Ryan Lizza’s bombshell New Yorker transcript of his conversation with Anthony Scaramucci — and it hit me. The casual, lazy profanity of the Trump administration – the yobbish, braying, ugliness of the new Reality Show Masters of the Universe – has ruined swearing for the rest of us.
To understand what I mean, you need only compare and contrast today’s America with the America of 1962 when Lenny Bruce was arrested for (amongst other things) a bit he called “Eleanor Roosevelt Had Nice Tits”
“The most beautiful body I’ve ever seen was at a party in 1945. I was in the bedroom getting the coats. The powder-room door had been left intentionally ajar, and I viewed the most perfect bosom peeking out from the man-tailored blouse above a tweed pegged skirt …. Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen ….”
Of course nobody believes that the president in those days – Kennedy – was averse to cursing, nor that he would be genuinely offended by Bruce’s words. But nor would anybody in the White House, or any major public office, or in most of American public life, admit to finding the bit funny.
Bruce’s genius – and his fame – stemmed from his willingness to say the unsayable; to utter his famous Dirty Words, knowing they were likely to get him carted off to jail. He used profanity (and blasphemy) to mark himself out as a rebel; as the antithesis of those in power.
Fast forward to 2017 and a performance like Bruce’s would more likely see the comedian carted off to a job as White House Communications Director.
“I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. “I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength of the President. I’m here to serve the country.”
Or maybe even elected President…
“I did try and fuck her. She was married… Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything… And when you’re a star, they let you do it… Grab them by the pussy… you can do anything.”
I suppose it’s possible a modern day Lenny Bruce, seeking to distance himself from (and position himself above) the ruling elites he despised, would be able to figure out a way to be that much more offensive than Trump and his allies. But I have no idea what that would require, short of actual murder. (And even then.)
More likely he would need to move sharply in the other direction. Contrasting the yobbery and gleeful ignorance of Trump and Co with a deeply subversive intelligence and adherence to basic standards of decency. I mean, what could be more shocking in Trump’s America than to treat others with basic respect, to choose good words over bad, and to do everything one can to make the world a less violent, ugly place for our children?
In the Orwellian bizarreness of Trump’s America, the only language that is truly subversive is good language. The only truly subversive trait is dignity.
The same, of course, is true in Silicon Valley. If nothing else good comes from the ugly bro culture demonstrated by the Valley’s most powerful and wealthy leaders – none more so than Travis Kalanick – then surely we can at least hope is for an intense backlash of respect, tolerance and ethical business practices. A new breed of entrepreneurs who realize that truly disrupting bro culture means behaving in the exact opposite way to folks like Kalanick, McClure, Caldbeck and Sacca.
Such a world would be good news for any of us who have reached our limit with the debasing of public discourse and our breaking point with headlines about sexual harassment and assault in the tech industry. It would also, of course, be very bad news for the juicing bros at SFO and the Disruptive sexual predators ones assumes constitute their target audience.
According to a recent Pew study, a little over a quarter of American adults (26%) didn’t read a single book last year. Not a print book, not an ebook, not even an audiobook.
Totally unconnected: According to the Washington Post, the percentage of American voters who voted for Donald Trump was roughly… yep… 26%
Now, of course I’m not suggesting a correlation between illiteracy and voting for Donald Trump. If Trump voters couldn’t read, there would be no Bill O’Reilly on the best seller lists, no Ann Coulter and no Ayn Rand either.
What I am saying is that in an age of “alternative facts” when ignorance levels are rising faster than sea levels and when – yes – we just elected a President who “doesn’t read books” , those of us who can read should be doing so in spades. We should be devouring non-fiction by the cartload (this week I suggest Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”) just to keep the average national IQ roughly stable.
We should also be reading fiction by the tonne, as a counter to the sociopathy of Trump world. As cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explained to the Post…
…engaging with stories about other people can improve empathy and theory of mind. “When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it’s like being that person,” Oatley said. “That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them.”
Or as was put even more succinctly by Eleanor Roosevelt …
“The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.”
Then there’s the scientifically proven benefit of reading as a stress reliever. According to neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, reading books are significantly more effective at reducing stress than listening to music, drinking a cup of coffee, going for a walk or playing video games.
In a world filled with beeps and boops and other constant alerts, the more time adults spent immersed in books – any books – the better. Or put in the form of the shittest t-shirt slogan: Life is stressful. Books are good.
The good news is that, in the past few weeks since I quit the digital swamp, I’ve had a lot more time to read. Not just books themselves, but also the wider writing about books: literary magazines, book reviews and op-eds about literature. Anything, really, that might help me discover new authors and titles and generally inspire me to read more, and read better.
At least that was the plan. In fact, after just a few weeks exploring the literary web, I’m about ready to give up books for good. The harsh truth is, I’m just too stupid – too uncultured, too unhip – to read.
Exhibit A: My bedside table, on which there are currently six books. In no particular order: John A. Farrell;s “Richard Nixon: The Life,” Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed,” Agatha Christie’s “A Murder Is Announced,” Charles Cumming’s “A Divided Spy,” Anthony Burgess’ “Earthly Powers,” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind In The Willows.”
We can dismiss Cummings and Christie right away. I feel ashamed even mentioning them. They are, after all, writers of genre fiction – which, as the New York Times’ Glen Duncan helpfully explains – is little more than pornography.
A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?
And, like pornography, genre fiction something to be enjoyed behind closed doors, preferably furtively under the bedsheets. Here’s the National Review’s Tevi Troy, writing shortly after President Obama was caught reading The Bayou Trilogy series of mystery novels.
The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called “my little cheap thrills outlet.”
When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.
In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.
Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world, the Mercedes, the Harrods and the Luis Vuitton of high culture. Genre writers are mid-range consumer brands, with an equivalent status to Skoda, Argos and Primark. Stephen King is the Ford Mondeo of letters, the writer dads actually read while pretending they got past chapter three of Infinite Jest in their 20s.
The assumption is often made that genre fiction is poorly written, however this is not always true – in much the same way that literary fiction is not always well-written. Whilst it may not contain deeper meaning, it’s nevertheless a difficult feat to drive a compelling yet credible plot, and simultaneously maintain a degree of suspense.
The mind is not completely unchallenged and sluggish whilst reading genre fiction as some literary fiction proponents claim. For example, mystery novels, with their plot twists and subtle clues, require the reader to truly engage with and analyse the material they are presented with. What’s more, genre fiction can easily claim to demonstrate examples of utilising powerful and moving literary tools, characteristics that are regarded as inherent to literary fiction, merely in a different form.
Perhaps I might still be redeemable it I could claim I’m only reading Christie or Cummings for “relaxation and escape” as The Millions puts it, or perhaps as an anthropological study into what yokels consume instead of actual literature. But the truth is far worse: I actually enjoy reading genre books.
Before reading The Divided Spy, I also read Cummings’ earlier book, A Foreign Country. I really enjoyed it. I also read a couple of John LeCarres last year, including – quelle horreur – a TV time-in paperback edition of the Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Laurie on the cover.
It’s disappointing to me that authors feel that, in order to be successful, they need to write a book that a) is easily made into a movie and b) that people will want to see as a movie.
(This is going to sound terrible, but) They appeal to the lowest common denominator. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a little elitist and a bit of a hipster about my books. (If I wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be doing this whole book blogging thing in the first place.) If it takes a major motion picture to motivate you to read a book, I’m pretty sure we won’t get along.
Which brings me to Margaret Atwood. Hag-Seed? Surely that’s real literature. It’s based on the Tempest for God’s sake. I also recently finished reading The Heart Goes Last, which the author very kindly singed for me when she spoke at Pandoland. And I’ve read the MaddAddam trilogy too, and not only because Sarah was namechecked in MaddAddam itself (really). Even the literary web doesn’t have a bad word to say about Margaret Atwood.
But here’s where I embarrass myself again. Because, while reading Hag-Seed, I’m also thoroughly enjoying the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. As I’ve now learned from the literary web, watching TV adaptations makes me worse than stupid. It makes me a typical illiterate dude…
Men prefer to watch film adaptations of books than read the original novel, according to a new study, which found the opposite is true for women…. Researchers found 75% of men would opt for the big screen version of a story, while 30% admitted they had not picked up a book since they were at school…. Men also tended to be slower readers and less likely to finish books.
Speaking of being mentally subnormal: Before quitting Twitter I was amused (and more than a little heartened) to see how many people were making comparisons between popular fiction and Donald Trump. “1984” and “The Plot Against America” shot back to the top of the bestseller charts – as did Sinclair Lewis’ (to my dumb easily distracted brain, interminable) “It Can’t Happen Here.” Like you (probably) I was amused by how many readers, particularly millennials, saw a link between Trump and Voldemort in the Harry Potter books.
I haven’t read any of the Potters, but I don’t begrudge anyone else – old or young – that pleasure. Let he who doesn’t have Wind In The Willows bookmarked on his nightstand cast the first stone.
Or, better yet, hand the stone to the Washington Post. Per an op-ed published last week, written by cultural critic (and Interflora betseller) Sunny Bunch…
[T]here’s something tacky about the near-universal retreat by adults into children’s literature to voice their concerns.
Perhaps you could read another book?
For instance, if you’re tempted to argue that Trump’s victory resembles the rise of Voldemort insofar as it was enabled by those in power burying their heads in the sand and refusing to recognize what was happening, consider citing Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”
By the way, in that same essay, by the way, Mr Bunch also dismisses (emphasis mine) ‘the standard “1984” / “Brave New World” / “Fahrenheit 451” troika’ having moments earlier criticized “the near-universal retreat by adults into children’s literature.” Which is it?
But, I get his point, and the point of much of the literary web. Popular = stupid. Genre = moronic. Books I enjoy = I am a complete fucking imbecile. Clearly I need to get myself to a bookstore and trade my copy of 1984 for something less – ugh – entertaining.
As luck would have it, I was in New York earlier this week so figured I might check out Amazon’s new “bricks and mortar” bookstore in Columbus Circle. All of the convenience of Amazon but in a real world environment, but where I can actually rub shoulders with my fellow readers as I pick up my prescribed copy of The Plague.
I needn’t feel any guilt for doing so. It’s not like Amazon’s stores (which seem to be mostly a way to sell more Prime subscriptions) are going to meaningfully compete with indie bookshops – on service, stock, or experience. And who knows, maybe some of those 26% of Americans who haven’t read a book this might see the Amazon brand above the door, wander in through idle curiosity and emerge holding an honest to god paperback. Hard to argue with that, right?
According to the Guardian’s reviewer “, the first thing you notice when you walk in [to the Amazon store] is an air of excitement.”
Excitement! In a bookshop! Release the hounds!
I could go on. But I’ve got the message.
On behalf of all of us drooling halfwits who persist in reading the wrong books, bought from the wrong stores, and compared in too childish a way to Donald Trump, I’m truly grateful to the Smart, Hip and Well Read people of the literary web for taking the time to set us straight.
It’s thanks to those Experts I realize now that I’m basically a literary lost cause. That realization is incredibly freeing: Allowing me to finally abandon reading altogether and turn my attention to something better suited to my IQ. Eating soil perhaps, or repeatedly bashing my head against a brick wall while chanting the lyrics to Mambo Number 5.
Or perhaps I could use all my new found free time to start my own literary magazine for the millions of other irredeemable dipshits like me who persist in reading for pure enjoyment, and who are stupid enough to think that Voldemort (or Big Brother) are perfectly appropriate literary references for these terrifying times?
Not, really. I have a book of my own to write, and I’ve started enough magazines for a lifetime. But somebody should start that magazine so I can subscribe to it.
Let’s call this the latest installment of my semi-regular Pando series, ideas for other people… “The Idiots’ Review of Books”: A lit magazine for the rest of us morons.
It could even be printed on chewable paper, with a cover-mounted fidget spinner. I reckon the Amazon Bookstore would sell a million copies.