Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Scattered Thoughts

Here's a fun game to play the next time you're hanging out in the Borders cafe in Evanston: homeless guy or Northwestern professor?

I'd forgotten how much I like David Foster Wallace's essays. Sometimes thinking too much about David Foster Wallace's David Foster Wallaceness obscures the really appealing reasons why David Foster Wallace is David Foster Wallace. Reading the first few pages of "Big Red Son" in Consider the Lobster last night brought me back into the fold. (Mimi Smartypants agrees, or, I should say, I agree with her.)

I can't decide if I should make a snarky comment dismissing this survey or print out a hard copy of it and use the sheet to slowly papercut myself to death. (Via the Rabbit Blog.)

Oh the digital, futuristic isolation of it all! Listening to OK Computer on my iPod yesterday made me actually feel my thoughts start turning into 1s and 0s.

Best band name ever (revised and updated edition): The Kevins! BAK thinks the website is creepy; I say it's like a panda bear made out of marshmallows: twee, self-conscious, and fucking adorable. (Via Said the Gramophone.)

The more I think about Freygate, the more it genuinely upsets me. Not so much his role in any of this, but Oprah's appalling behavior. I suppose it's her prerogative to whip the whole thing into a frenzy in the service of "good television," but it completely invalidates any of the earth mother lovey-doveyness she fancies herself to be the living embodiment of. Her spectacular failure to treat this man, who is clearly in need of some genuine forgiveness for his admittedly shady behavior, with any semblance of grace is, in its own way, just as damning an example of misplaced American indignation as any of Dubya's fucked-up revenge politics. When will our collective national "me, me, me" temper tantrum finally die down?

I was all set to write a big post praising Soderbergh's Bubble the other day, but I kept getting tangled up in my own thoughts about it. I hope to gain some clarity soon, even if it's just some clarity about my own mutated ambivalence.

DS has a new show opening this weekend. It's called A Child's History of Bombing and will be playing at the Neo-Futurarium weekends through March 11. I plan on checking it out soon.

A big happy birthday shout-out to my beany brother today. Too bad he never reads this blog.


Mikow said...

I think that website should have a page with a big ol' "DO U LIKE ME, CIRCLE ONE YES/NO" - where the yes links you to sign up for their mailing list, and no takes you to a page with tranny porn or dead kittens or something.

I think that survey on salon was fucking horseshit. Besides the fact that you know damn well that the survey's subjects ("hundreds" of men and women in their TWENTIES? c'mon! I can't think of a more self absorbed cross-section of mongoloids outside of junior high schools) were a total crap sample, but couldn't it be equally true that the people surveyed were more interested in random hook-ups than they were relationships?

You ask me, speaking as an intelligent, funny guy, I think intelligent funny people have a hard time finding long-term relationships - not because we're intimidating - but because we're usually fucking neurotic! I don't think it has that much to do with sex.

I know MY dick gets all hard over the idea of finding a girl who'll read Kafka with me and watch BBC comedies. So these fuckos can speak for themselves.

Mike O'D said...

The biggest lesson of the James Frey affair for me is the caprice and maybe even danger of this branding-by-personal-preference phenomenon that is the Oprah Book Club. Oprah's thumbs-up has got to be the single most valuable endorsement in the publishing world today--it beats the Pulitzer, the Booker, and the Nobel in a walk. Oprah starts redaing Steinbeck? We'll all read Steinbeck and take it to our book clubs! Oprah thinks James Frey's got an uplifting story to tell? Let's be uplifted! It appears that many discriminating readers even put aside their misgivings about Frey's more fantastic claims (a root canal with no novacaine? are ya kidding me?) and gave him the benefit of the doubt on O's say-so. And now it turns out they've been led not just to literature that's campy and bad, but downright fraudulent.

When a company advertises, we all know to take its assertions about its product/service with a grain of salt. From now on, hopefully, when Oprah advertises books to us, we will know to think twice because her choices suffer the same failings as those of friends who recommend books to us: our friends may not have the best taste.

The flip-side of that is that maybe Oprah's book club has precious little to do with the big cheese's personal endorsement; maybe it's a brand ruthlessly cultivated by the Oprah empire just like any other product. Oprah's companies know that we live in a celebrity-worshipping culture, and people want to read what their favorite plain-talkin' talk show host reads. So the book club execs pick books that fit Oprah's image--Oprah reads books about the triumph of the human spirit, and you should too.

In this view Oprah's knee-jerk defense of Frey and her subsequent decision to turn on him on her show shouldn't be all that surprising: she's protecting her brand, which in this case happens to coincide with her own personal tastes. If I really like a book and someone else attacks it (for its credibility or some other reason), my first reaction will be to defend it. Maybe the criticisms of Frey's book were unwarranted, in which case O couldn't allow the brand to be sullied simply by standing to the side while someone baselessly discredited it. But then when it became clear that the criticisms were valid and the book actually was fabricated, Oprah had to acknowledge the mistake and move on in order to protect the integrity of her brand and her taste, lest she be viewed as pig-headedly defending a bad product.

I suspect that the truth about the Oprah endorsement is a combination of both personal preference and corporate branding--i.e., Oprah really did read and enjoy James Frey's book, but maybe she has a screening committee that finds potential Oprah Book Club selections that she can approve or disapprove. But whether Oprah's endorsements are real (personal) or contrived (by committee)--and I'm sure there's an article in some business review somewhere explaining how the book club works--the basic lesson is the same: people shouldn't just read what they think Oprah's reading. It's a bad way to find good books. (Or, as Principal Ed Rooney of FBDO might say, it's "a first-class ticket to nowhere!)

allison said...

Mike (O'D), yes, whereas I agree with you that it shouldn't have been--and isn't--surprising that Oprah lashed out in an effort to protect her multimillion dollar branded image, I guess what I was more getting at is that Oprah has cultivated her branded image to represent lovingkindness and uplifting the downtrodden and celebrating the human spirit, and here she is publicly punishing Frey for the delectation of her worshipful audience. In my mind, it was first and foremost an Irresponsible Use of Magnificent Power.

Clearly, she had to address the issue, and she had to address it publicly. She had to make a statement about it. But, rather than meeting privately with Frey and Talese to express her disappointment or embarrassment or fury or whatever, then giving a sensible little speech about it on her show and moving on with her life, she chose to create a gladiatorial spectacle out of it. The fact that it's wrapped up in a controversy about books is almost a completely separate issue for me. Her business is promoting a particular kind of lifestyle, and her behavior, while certainly understandable and even appropriate for the leader of an enormously successful franchise who has a vested interest in the cachet of her brand and its economic viability in the marketplace to express in private, couldn't have been more contrary to the "values" she espouses as the public face of this company. I just don't think we need one more person demonstrating for an enormous and obviously deeply malleable segment of the population that it's OK to jump on the vengeance dogpile when one feels slighted. I mean, maybe I'm getting overwrought and over-sensitive about this, but she could have chosen to turn the fracas into an enormous, extremely valuable object lesson for peace. For showing that it's equally powerful to forgive. To empathize with someone who's done something wrong and react with quiet dignity in the face of feeling personally hurt. To act out of the "we're all God's children" love that she preaches. But she didn't. She took the easy way and flipped out and privileged her corporation over compassion and commenced with scolding a grown man on live television, and invited a whole bunch of people to join her in the punishment, and convinced us she was doing us a favor, that she was acting in our best interest. And disguising this ruthless attitude with a lot of rhetoric about Truth and the Function of Literature makes for uncomfortable bedfellows with a lot of our international belligerence in the name of Freedom and Democracy.

Also, save the puppies.