Fare Thee Well, My Honeys

by Michelle Dean

Andrew asked me to guest-blog here the day before The New Republic hit the skids. Both events came out of the blue for me, so they’re linked in my mind now. All week I’d meant to getting around to commenting on the weirdness of it, but then the Sony hack and North Korea came crashing into the news cycle, and here we are at my last post.

What I want to say has little to do with TNR. It’s more about about how that entire mess, as it unfolded, made me feel as someone who writes online but has aspirations to do more than just blogging with her life. And the way it made me feel was: shitty. And shitty primarily because many of the people who were railing on about the loss of the magazine – and for whom it seemed to be no answer that the thing had not yet shut down – could not hide their contempt about people who came to writing in any way other than a staff job at one of these intellectual magazines.

I know many ex-TNR staffers who walked out said they were totally open to the internet. I don’t think they are lying, per se, though I think it’s having your cake and eating it too. Nonetheless, it does not excuse the unconscious snobbish clubbiness about what felt like everyone else on the Internet. Primarily, their contempt emerged in asides. It emerged in the snide mentions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, the former of which has employed me, the latter of which employs many (great) writer and reporter friends of mine. Julia Ioffe, one of those staffers, was insistent that for her Buzzfeed was not “a slur” but it did rather get used that way. It felt telling she had to defend against it. And the contempt also emerged in the rhetoric about the greatness of the magazine, specifically the argument of the open letter the staffers wrote about how “the promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”

I like high-flown rhetoric as much as the next ex-law-student who spent a lot of time studying Martin Luther King Jr. and Hannah Arendt. On the other hand, the rhetoric covered up for a sort of argumentative disconnect that the TNR staffers never quite seemed to see. It was this: For people outside the magazine to feel the full effect of the “lamentable blow,” we would have had to agree that merely by being online, by writing for outlets less august, less focussed on longform than TNR, we were somehow locked out of this whole discussion of “the promise of American life.”

Unsurprisingly, I and others had trouble doing this. And I still feel pretty awful, if I am honest.

There is still a prevalent myth out there that writers totally choose the form they write in. To some extent that can be true. You can choose to write a novel instead of a blog. You can choose to write about political theory instead of celebrities. But what you cannot generally choose, these days, is not to write for the internet unless making a living is a matter of total indifference to you. There are some very fancy novelists who manage to avoid the churn. There are also a few exceptionally fancy reporters who do. For literally everyone else, this is where you have to start. This is where the entry-level jobs are, and the editors with a slightly more liberal approach to what they’ll publish.

The only way out of being an online writer these days, for some period of time, is to be exceptionally lucky. You can be the person who was hired out of college to the New Yorker or Harper’s or the New York Times. Or the NYRB, though I’m not sure they’re much for very green hires. It will probably take you an Ivy League degree’s worth of debt first to get that job, by the way. But other than finding yourself a spot in that small-membership guild, you will start out writing online. And you will end up working for places that evidently, people will wield as reasons you shouldn’t get to work at others.

This is depressing. Journalism was not always like this. Writing was not always like this. Credentials and connections used to be somewhat less important in large part because the people in charge of general interest publications didn’t have them themselves. Harold Ross, the man who founded the New Yorker, dropped out of high school. William Shawn, who succeeded him, dropped out of the University of Michigan. I’m not saying that made either of them warriors for diversity in their pages. I’m saying I long for such a thing to be possible, now.

Which brings me back to Andrew asking me to blog here. Life is strange. I have this self-serving myth about how I’m a bit of a Llewyn Davis type as a writer. I can’t seem to fit in most places. But this is among the most pleasant gigs I’ve had. “you get to write whatever you want,” he wrote me, “on any topic that grabs your fancy.” (I hope he won’t mind my revealing that he writes in low-caps.) So I did. I hope you liked it, even if it struck you as odd or off-putting. I hope it was sort of like that Queen Jane song Davis plays in the middle of the movie.

Blaspheming Dorothy Parker

by Michelle Dean

I was checking out The Millions’ Year in Reading again this morning and came across the entry of one William Giraldi. Giraldi is a critic I’ve run into a few times before. He once wrote a weirdly angry review of two books by an acquaintance of mine. This got him pilloried all over the internet. It was really more of a reap-what-you-sow moment than an outrage moment. I think if you write something angry, you should probably be prepared for people to respond in kind.

What I am about to describe is not something angry he wrote though. It’s just something that made me stop short, before I’d even looked at the byline in my RSS feeder:

Imagine the irredeemably WASPish, cloistered Connecticut world of John Cheever if rendered by James Thurber, or John Updike’s suburban New England strivers and cheaters delivered by Oscar Wilde, or, better yet, imagine if you could make an alloy of H.L. Mencken’s irreligious perceptions and Dorothy Parker’s cagey sapience, and you might come close to beholding the vibrant abilities of Peter De Vries.

I’ve never read Peter De Vries. Let’s stipulate that he’s probably wonderful in all the ways described. I Young_Dorothy_Parkersuspect, though, that this sentence would have benefited from about four fewer names included in it. The adjectives could have left too. I am no stranger to long, looping, complicated sentences, and in fact it annoys me that in my own work I have to use the shorter ones so often. The windup here simply goes on too long.

None of these are what bother me, though. What bothers me is this reference to Dorothy Parker’s “cagey sapience.” It’s so totally wrong it took my breath away. An insane overreaction, I know. This is the problem with writing a book about dead writers: you sometimes find yourself with highly developed opinions about other people’s tossed-off remarks about them.

So, caveat emptor, this is a nitpick. But I’m going to unpack it anyway in the interest of intellectualism and all that.

Which, by the way, Parker was never very much for. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be serious. She had a strong interest in politics, which you can see in the fact that she left the rights to her work to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP, thereby forever incurring the wrath of her friend Lillian Hellman, who had hoped to inherit that herself.

But “sapience”? That word implies that Parker believed herself to hold wisdom. For all her meanness, for all her pose of authority in her Constant Reader column in the New Yorker, her style does not present itself as wise. Parker did think of herself as funny, but as we know, there’s often a hollow core to humor. There’s often a punishing self inside. This was certainly true of Parker, and not because of the caricatures that posit her as perenially suicidal (she wasn’t always) nor falling-down drunk (more like “tipsy,” most of the time, people said).

Besides, all her work was founded on doubt. Doubt that people were as wise or as talented or even as important as they said they were. And putting yourself out there as a doubter and a ridiculer is not the same as wisdom. If anything I feel like half of Parker’s problems with herself came from her keen awareness of the gulf between “funny” and “wise.” So forget “sapience.”

Second, this matter of “cagey.” How was she withholding or careful or secretive in her work? Reading the better half of it she is in confessional mode. Her stories and poems often correspond closely to events in her own life. That’s not the same thing as saying they’re purely autobiographical, of course. But Parker wasn’t hiding, not remotely, in her poems and fiction. If anything I think she thought they were too honest, too close to what she perceived as her own weaknesses. She’d often plead to write as something other than herself: “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman.” Which is very sad to think about, especially given that so many people found her “self,” that Dorothy Parker persona, pleasant enough to buy her books in droves.

My point, I guess, is if you going to lard Parker up with adjectives you should at least use ones that indicate more than surface familiarity with her work. Pick up the Dorothy Parker Reader instead of the thesaurus. Or else risk offending Parker pedants like me.

(Photo via Wiki)

The End Of Serial, Part Three

by Michelle Dean

Without Rabia Chaudry, a civil rights attorney in Maryland, there would have been no Serial. Chaudry is the family friend of Adnan Syed’s who approached Koenig about doing the story in the first place. She is personally convinced Syed is innocent, and had hoped Koenig would come to advocate for his release the way she had. At TIME yesterday, she recorded her disappointment with the way it played out instead:

A few weeks ago Koenig visited me do a follow-up interview. None of that interview made it into the remaining episodes, but at that time, and on the mic, she told me that after a year of investigating, she had failed to find a smoking gun. She found nothing that either condemned Adnan for certain, and nothing that exonerated him for certain.

It was not a punch to the gut, necessarily, but a quiet closing of a chapter that I had held open for 15 years. In the midst of the enormous coverage of the case and show, of hearty congratulations for staying on it, of lots of movement by the different teams of lawyers now working to help Adnan, I felt like a failure.

After making the decision unilaterally to get media involved, I’ve felt heavily responsible for the pain it’s forced Adnan and his loved ones to go through. It would be worth it, I hoped. Something concrete would surface. Koenig wouldn’t tolerate the fuzziness. She would dig till she struck rock.

Except Koenig didn’t. Chaudry adds that she nonetheless doesn’t regret taking the story to Koenig. And that Koenig still plans to follow the story, and that some good has come of the show. Still. I do not know Chaudry, though I interviewed her briefly for a piece. Reading the above three paragraphs made my own gut churn on her behalf anyway.

It is not unusual for subjects to feel disappointment with what journalist ultimately manage to dig up. Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is pretty much entirely about the conflict between what the writer writes and what the subject is hoping she’ll write. But expecting the disconnect doesn’t make the experience less wrenching for everyone.

Making It About Gender

by Michelle Dean

The news about humanity is never very good when it comes from Reddit, is it? Today’s contribution comes via an editorial at WIRED. Its authors, Elena Glassman, Neha Narula and Jean Yang, are scientists at MIT. They described the gendered horror show that was their Reddit AMA:

Within an hour, the thread had rocketed to the Reddit front page, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews and more than 4,700 comments. But to our surprise, the most common questions were about why our gender was relevant at all. Some people wondered why we did not simply present ourselves as “computer scientists.” Others questioned if calling attention to gender perpetuated sexism. Yet others felt that we were taking advantage of the fact that we were women to get more attention for our AMA.

The interactions in the AMA itself showed that gender does still matter. Many of the comments and questions illustrated how women are often treated in male-dominated STEM fields. Commenters interacted with us in a way they would not have interacted with men, asking us about our bra sizes, how often we “copy male classmates’ answers,” and even demanding we show our contributions “or GTFO [Get The **** Out]”. One redditor helpfully called out the double standard, saying, “Don’t worry guys – when the male dog groomer did his AMA (where he specifically identified as male), there were also dozens of comments asking why his sex mattered. Oh no, wait, there weren’t.”

“Oh, it’s just Reddit,” you might be saying to yourself. As a seasoned 4chan conspiracy theorist myself –at this point I think “4chan prank” whenever some weird story begins to break, at first even wondering if the whole Sony leak could be a 4chan hoax, if they could have made up the whole document stash – I understand the impulse to brush this sort of thing off as trolling. It is that, and undoubtedly some of these comments come from the sort of pure unmitigated jerkery commonly found in the underbelly of the internet.

But it’s also something else. Because their comments aren’t all that far from ones I have heard myself, said with utter sincerity. Men don’t respond very well, still, to the notion that gender might be relevant. They might be a little meaner about it in anonymous spaces online, but you can see the problem everywhere.

One of the slim, ephemeral benefits of being publicly identifiable as a feminist is that I don’t tend to be in male-dominated or even male-only spaces very often. There is one giant exception to that. Years ago, I spent some time in a journalism school. An admissions fluke had me in a class that was overwhelmingly male. There was one other woman, but she dropped out early.

I knew I was in for it when in a very early class, one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata. And towards the end of this digression, he referred to the magazine The Believer. And then he referred to its editor as “Ben Marcus’s wife.” Full stop.

I’m polite. I’m Canadian. I waited for the discussion to come around to me. I said something like, “You know, her name is Heidi Julavits. I wouldn’t call her Ben Marcus’s wife, if I were you.” I meant it rather benevolently at the time. I was amused.

Now, to be clear, at the time the student registered chagrin. As I recall, he said something like, “Oof, that probably sounded sexist, didn’t it.” It did. There he had it. We moved on.

But the incident hardened into a parable within our small class. Mea culpa: I participated in this hardening by sometimes teasing the other student about his use of the phrase.

The parable didn’t come to be about him, though. It came to be about me, about what I was like, meaning that I was the kind of person who’d insensitively attack a man for making an inadvertently sexist comment. And gradually, the story became a way for the other male students to express their frustrations with my views of the world. I remember very clearly one of them bringing it up – it seemed to come up way too often – months later and saying, “There was nothing wrong with what he said. Ben Marcus is more famous than Heidi Julavits.”

Now, you could be forgiven for not wanting to do the fine filigree work of parsing reputations here. Suffice to say that I don’t think either Marcus or Julavits would be upset if I said that neither of them was particularly famous. I do, actually contend, that even within the kind of meager fame literary circles bestow on writers and editors like them, that Julavits is likely better known. This may only be true because Marcus writes experimental fiction and she is involved with more widely accessible work. (The latter is not an insult in my world.)

But that isn’t the point. The point is it’s odd to classify a woman as someone’s wife, particularly in a professional context, and no, your gut feeling that someone is more famous does not get us away from the problem with the phrase. Even if you didn’t “mean” to be sexist, the identifier “somebody’s wife” is a remnant of sexism. Women take it personally. They should. It was long used as a way to inform women that, as in Rebecca Solnit’s phrase, “This is not their world.”

The tossed off remark was only the spark of the larger problem, though. When I said something that day, and even later when I teased the student, I wasn’t trying to be a warrior for gender justice. I was trying to gently remind a bunch of young men that they, too, should pay attention to the names of women. It was almost friendly professional advice, because it was quite possible that they’d end up pitching stories to her.

Nonetheless, it labelled me as the person in the class who “made things” about gender. It made me the butt of these young men’s jokes. Which eventually had the result of making me angry with most of them, because there are only so many times you can hear from people that your apprehension of reality is incorrect before you start to get angry with them. I realize they might have felt the same way about me. But they outnumbered me at the time. Which they still do, by the way, just about everywhere in journalism that I’d actually like to go.

That’s another way of saying that besides injured feelings, I had history and statistics to be angry about. As do those MIT science professors.

Exonerated, But Executed

by Michelle Dean

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of yesterday’s Cuba and Sony-centric news, one of America’s ghosts shimmered into view in the background. It was the spirit of a black fourteen-year-old named George Stinney. He was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina. The only evidence of his guilt was a confession he said he’d been coerced into making. There was no physical evidence, but he became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century anyway.

On a motion from the family, a judge just recently vacated his conviction:

Judge Carmen T. Mullen of Circuit Court did not rule that the conviction of Mr. Stinney for the murder of two white girls in the town of Alcolu was wrong on the merits. She did find, however, that the prosecution had failed in numerous ways to safeguard the constitutional rights of Mr. Stinney, who was black, from the time he was taken into custody until his death by electrocution.

The all-white jury could not be considered a jury of the teenager’s peers, Judge Mullen ruled, and his court-appointed attorney did “little to nothing” to defend him. His confession was most likely coerced and unreliable, she added, “due to the power differential between his position as a 14-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”

The order was a rare application of coram nobis, a legal remedy that can be used only when a conviction was based on an error of fact or unfairly obtained in a fundamental way and when all other remedies have been exhausted.

Just to compound the awful picture of the American criminal justice system this provides, allow me to add that the time from crime to Stinney’s execution was unusually swift, a mere 83 days.

Here’s the thing: I know it’s tempting to tuck this case away in a drawer. I know it’s tempting to classify it as a product of its time and place, to say that Jim Crow laws are over, that we don’t allow executions of minors, that this is an America of the past. Problem is, the America of the present stands atop the America that convicted Stinney on the flimsiest grounds. When people qualifiedly sing the praises of the American justice system, they are singing the praises of the system that killed him in 83 days. And they are being a bit blasé about how it took more than a half-century for that same system to say they regretted doing it.

Sony And The First Amendment, Ctd

by Michelle Dean


I got a little unlucky with the timing of yesterday’s post about Sony, which went up right before we learned that Sony was pulling The Interview from release. And also before we learned that federal officials believe North Korea really is behind the hacks. My frustration with James Franco movies seems rather less funny in retrospect. In any event I guess I don’t have to worry about being forced to watch it, since apparently it won’t even appear on VOD at this moment.

I’ve been trying to muster up some fire to write about how chilling this all is for people who want to write outré speech. I wish I could write something incandescent about how unjust it is to suppress a film – even one that I’m about as allergic to as a person could be – over physical threats and privacy violations. But I haven’t been able to. I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted just contemplating how we’re going to describe this one in the history books. (“Seth Rogen, a Hollywood star of Canadian extraction…” “And then Aaron Sorkin, who was not a journalist but who wrote a fictional show about journalism, which he said was more journalistic than journalism…”)

Suffice it to say, it’s all terrible, though honestly this incident doesn’t seem half as bad to me as other events in this proto-dystopia we call America in late 2014.

(Photo: Workers remove a poster-banner for The Interview from a billboard in Hollywood, California, on December 18, 2014, a day after Sony announced it was canceling the movie’s Christmas release due to a terrorist threat. By Michael Thurston/AFP/Getty Images)

The Outrage Manufacturing Process

by Michelle Dean

Slate has a big package today about “The Year In Outrage.” It’s thought-provoking, worth your time and effort.

I’d rather talk about it laterally, though, than re-litigate old social media controversies. There’s plenty enough of the latter in the Slate thing. Let’s, instead, consider the outrage manufacturing process, which I think is more complicated than usually described. You can do it half by accident. You know, by joking on Twitter.

For example: Last night I was reading Twitter when a link came into my feed. It was to an Los Angeles Review of Books essay about Joan Didion. I clicked.

The first sentence of the piece was a run-on sentence. Then it made proud reference to the author’s attendance at literary parties. I persevered. I was then rewarded with this paragraph:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.10.53 PM

I hope I don’t seem too outraged to you when I say that this is not a good paragraph about Joan Didion. It tells you nothing about Didion. It also doesn’t tell you much about the writer, Emmett Rensin, other than his lack of apparent shame. It would be a pretty embarrassing paragraph to record in your private journal. But there it was, published by the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Los Angeles Review of Books is edited. An editor read this paragraph, and published it.

I have, in the course of researching a book that touches on Didion, read a great deal of writing about her. It is worse than you’d expect, and a lot of people expect bad writing about Didion. I like to point out a 1970 Los Angeles Times profile that called Didion a “haunted elf.” There are a lot of reasons why this writing is bad, but one is certainly the strong personal feelings Didion’s work seems to evoke. These personal feelings – say, “desire” – then run away with whatever self-control the writer-about-Didion ordinarily possesses.

There is probably a good, self-aware piece to be written about all of that. This Didion piece is plainly not that piece.

I found this paragraph so bad, in a funny way, that I took the screenshot you see above. Then I posted it to Twitter. People responded. My friends and I made some jokes. I decided to add, “My cat just threw up. I think she saw the paragraph about Joan Didion.” I felt momentarily better after a long day. I went to bed.

Because now, waking up this morning and watching everyone chatter about outrage, I feel culpable. In fact, I’ve now deleted that second tweet because it feels mean, the morning after. Obviously we’re talking about a much smaller scale than social media controversies tend to reach. But I’ve done just what everyone typically describes as a gesture of outrage: I’ve found something I think is bad, I’ve lifted it out of context, and I’ve explained why. As a data point, I don’t feel particularly angry about it. More… bemused.

But someone else might think I’m stoking outrage. And then write an editorial about what a terrible person I am for posting this out of context. And then: here I am, who with my laughter at this bad paragraph about Joan Didion, am participating in a force that is destroying culture.

Or… not?