A particular contentious day in the Penny Press today, as the cold rain drizzled down outside my favorite little Chinese food restaurant! For ever stretch in which I was just enjoying what I was reading, there was a stretch of rumpled macadam, attracting muttered grumbling and aggravated underlining with my trusty ever-present pen. Of course, it's usually that way when I engage with the Penny Press (or anything else, for that matter - I'm an immoderately involved reader ... as all of you must know, else why would you be here in the first place?), but today felt extra irritating, and I don't think it was the food.
Speaking of food! Surely that's the topic that tops the snit parade! Last week, the New Yorker ran a review of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book Eating Animals (they largely gave the ridiculous little confessional a free pass, but then, almost everybody's given it a pass - except for my good friends over at The Second Pass, ironically enough - John Williams' review, "The Oy of Cooking," is not to be missed), and this week the magazine runs some letters from readers. One of those letters was from Kevin Jablonski, and he writes:
First, environmental degradation and cruelty to sentient beings are not unique to industrial animal agriculture; rather, they are characteristic of industrial agriculture as a whole. I wonder if Foer has ever visited, or considered the impact of, a thousand-acre soybean monoculture. We have demanded cheap food, and so we have received cheap, destructive food production. Second, vegetarian moralism denies an essential fact of living: death. Everything dies, and not always in its due time.
This is really bad stuff, but at least it's stupid rather than anything worse. Far be it for me to defend a pretentious little putz like Foer, but his book wasn't only - or even mainly - about environmental damage; it was about the mind-staggering cruelty that accompanies large-scale meat production. Hauling in soy beans isn't any way to refute anything, it's just nonsensical clouding of the issue. And so is that windy claptrap about death being an essential part of life - again, Foer isn't railing (in his precious, nit-picking way) about creatures dying, he's railing about creatures being bred in their hundreds of thousands for the sole purpose of not only dying but dying horribly, in systematic and wild-eyed terror, often after prolonged torture. "Not always in its due time" falls just a bit shy of that mark.
But Jablonski's letter wasn't the worst of it, hoo-no! The worst of it came from Paul Gahlinger, who compounds Jablonski's sophistry with genuine evil:
There is only one good reason not to eat meat: because you don't like it. If vegetarians think they consume less by eating lower on the food chain, they should keep in mind that humans, whether they eat meat or not, use the vast majority of the earth's resources. Their most effective contribution to global well-being would be to simply not exist. Is it better for aging animals to suffer, blind, arthritic, starving, or cancerous, until merciful death? I grew up on a farm and can say with certainty that our animals gave their bodies in gratitude for a well-cared-for life.
At first I kept thinking this had to be some kind of joke; the animals you raised in captivity for food were grateful for your care? "Hey, you know what? Since you were kind enough to house me and forty of my closest friends from the rain (not the cold, but hey, you're not made of money!) these past two years, we've got an idea: why don't you eat us? Really, it's the least we can do." The mind staggers, trying to figure out how this Gahlinger person could resist adding the line, "A cow would eat you - if he could!" It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for Foer, who must be encountering evil little loonies like this guy at every whistle-stop along his book's publicity tour.
There were other things in this New Yorker, mind you - it's another fantastic issue, from a funny Roz Chast cartoon to a fascinating article about abortion and the so-called 'right to die' to a piece on world champion runner from Limpopo who appears to have some people (including Ariel Levy, the piece's author, who keeps using the wrong pronoun) convinced he's a woman, despite the fact that every photo purporting to be this person, Caster Semenya, are all clearly photos of a muscular young man. You read the oddest things these days in the Penny Press.
(Pop culture fans such as myself also couldn't help but be intrigued by the fact that the adorable little Zac Efron from "High School Musical" manages to get the ultimate high-culture thumbs up - David Denby caught his performance in "Me and Orson Welles" and liked it: "Efron draws on his confident good looks (from certain angles, this Jewish hoofer from California looks like, of all people, Tyrone Power) without being smug. He's an actor, after all - maybe even a genuine star")
But the good things weren't enough to counterbalance those horrible, evasive, the-Jews-like-their-ghettos letters, and the same tension was on display in the TLS as well. Here, again, there were very good things in abundance - including Daniel Karlin's review of Georges Connes prose translation (into French, that is) of Robert Browning's "The Ring and the Book," which manages to be both hard on Connes and refreshingly benign to Browning, who tends to take it in the teeth from critics these days. "The Ring and the Book" is a long, absolutely wonderful poem (I literally cannot conceive of a reason to offer a prose translation of it in any language), so it was all the more ruefully that I was forced to agree when Karlin writes, "I doubt there are 6,000 English readers of The Ring and the Book alive today." More's the pity, he's probably off by about 5,600 readers.
But not all the Browning in the world can compensate for what the normally-sensible Sylvia Brownrigg writes about the insufferable Dave Eggers in her review of Eggers' screenplay for the new movie-travesty of Where the Wild Things Are and his new collection of short stories, The Wild Things, that purports to flesh out the world Maurice Sendak created in 1971. It's going to be physically painful to copy this stuff out, but I'll endure it for my readers:
Dave Eggers is the self-anointed king of the influential empire that is McSweeney's: begun as a wittily designed literary journal, it subsequently became an "Internet Tendency" (ie, website), a publishing house and the purveyor of an all-round sensibility and style, in which high irony is laid over a base of sincerity and optimism. The co-founder of 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing centre for youth, Eggers this month received the Literarian Award for "outstanding service to the American literary community". Reading The Wild Things, I could picture the multi-faceted Eggers as Max, governor of an unruly but lovable group of creatures, and wishing from time to time that he could run away from them all and enjoy a calm, hot dinner. With all that he does and presides over, it is possible to forget that Eggers is also a very good, very daring writer of prose, who can produce images and characters of complexity, empathy, and humour.
Yeesh. I hope Brownrigg gets the job/endorsement/date for which she's so heinously fishing, but still - this the TLS! Surely some editor somewhere along the line should have stopped her from sullying the reputation of the finest review organ in the world by this shameless cozying with an overreaching fraud of such vast proportions as Eggers? If he can produce very good, very daring prose - characters of complexity, empathy, and humor - he's done a damn good job keeping those talents to himself. Instead, he's shared with the world only flat, boring prose and one-note allegories so heavy-handed they make John Bunyan look like P. J. O'Rourke. His books are boring in exactly the same way over and over again; they all reek of the class clown who has yet to learn that being merely clever is no sign of deep intelligence (insects do it, when they disguise themselves as something they're not). And since Eggers runs his own publishing house (whose smarmy condescension continues the lampoon the very sincerity and optimism Brownrigg says it champions), he gets to do all this without the slightest hint of editorial interference - not that running his own publishing house seems to be necessary. Your power as a literary name-dropper and taste-maker is absolute, if the TLS can so sing your praises without a trace of irony. As if that Literarian of the Year crap weren't bad enough.
On slightly less elevated levels of outrage (although hey, if you're lower down, you've got a shorter space to fall, right?), there's the cover interview with Twilight: New Moon boy-toy Taylor Lautner in the latest Rolling Stone. The interview, such as it is, is by Neil Strauss, and after only a couple of paragraphs, I was feeling sorry for every participant. I mean, here you have one enormous conglomerate, the publicity machine behind New Moon, instructing its newly bepected thespian to submit to an interview and photo shoot, and you have another enormous conglomerate, the media company of which Rolling Stone is but one outlet, instructing its obviously talented interviewer to turn out juicy copy despite the fact that it's obvious from the start the first conglomerate has instructed its star to say virtually nothing at all. What follows is pretty much mathematically destined to be a complete waste of everybody's time, and apart from the enjoyment to be had from Strauss' snappy prose, it is.
The young star is in pure LautnerBot mode, responding in noncommittal monosyllables to all but the most innocuous questions (and lying outright, telling Strauss he's never so much as smoked a cigarette or had a beer, despite the fact that he just got done shooting a movie on location for months with a cast that party like Fellini extras). In this he's much the same as Zac Efron when he's in Efronocon mode, and Strauss is quick to pick up on it and speculate: "With such polite, and seemingly oblivious, responses, it sometimes appears as if Lautner has taken a press-training course in evading answers." The best part of this puff piece is Strauss' deconstruction of the whole genre of young stardom:
There are two kinds of child stars: the Lindsay Lohans and the Zac Efrons. The Lohans are from broken homes, were abandoned in some way and witnessed or were victims of some form of abuse. The Efrons are raised by two parents who love them and support them, and are brought up in some sort of religious faith. The Lohans end up in the tabloids for doing stupid, destructive things to themselves and others, usually fueled by drugs, alcohol and self-esteem issues; the Efrons tend to work hard, discourage any attention paid to their personal lives and stay away from clubs, drugs, and the back seat of police cars. Lohans are interesting but unstable and depressed, while Efrons are boring but grounded and happy.
Needless to say, Strauss concludes that the LautnerBot is an Efron.
So if the writing is snappy and the piece itself is fluff, you might be asking what could possibly cause irritation! Well, it's this: at the beginning of the article, Strauss is trying to find some "dirt" on Lautner (that's when the lying about tobacco and alcohol happens, as well as some probably true denials of doing coke or getting arrested) - trying and failing. You almost forget about that angle of the piece until you reach the very end, when Strauss, obviously irked by his star's teflon question-deflecting all throughout their interviews, starts to ask leading questions:
Strauss: Like you said on "Valentine's Day" you and Taylor [Swift] got along really well. My guess is there is something romantic going on, and you're seeing how it developes.
LautnerBot: You're pretty good with the analysis. So I don't know. I guess I'm going to trust you.
Strauss: Of course, there are other possibilities.
LautnerBot: Yeah, what other possibilities?
Struass: Another possibility is that you're just sort of discovering yourself ...
Struass: ... as a young person trying to figure out his sexual identity in the world ...
LautnerBot: OK. I see where you're going. Interesting choice.
Strauss: It is a possibility.
LautnerBot: There are lots of rumors out there.
Reading that, the small naive part of me irritatedly asked, "So being gay is the equivalent of having a drug problem?" Of course I instantly recalled the conglomerates involved; the LautnerBot has obviously been programmed not to alienate any of New Moon's gazillion potential ticket-buyers - most certainly including the vast undulating sea of gay men (of all ages) who won't exactly be sighing over Lautner's acting abilities. Lautner has said in half a dozen interviews that he isn't gay, but now the stakes are higher, and ambiguity sells, and the vortex of all that lying and manipulating is enough to irritate me regardless of my food's quality.
Fortunately, there'll be other weeks in the Penny Press! Even though it's always nice to read good press for Robert Browning, I'm calling this one a rain day.