Be a Bonobo Who Loves Islamic Vikings

I came across the word “bonobo” for the first time over a decade ago. This African ape, media stories explained, was the gentle, pacifist, feminist relative of the chimpanzee. It didn’t take long before even the New Yorker, hardly a scientific publication, dispelled this absurd media myth, in 2007:

For a purportedly peaceful animal, a bonobo can be surprisingly intemperate. Jeroen Stevens is a young Belgian biologist who has spent thousands of hours studying captive bonobos in European zoos. I met him last year at the Planckendael Zoo, near Antwerp. “I once saw five female bonobos attack a male in Apenheul, in Holland,” he said. “They were gnawing on his toes. I’d already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I’d thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth. Now, that’s something to counter the idea of”—Stevens used a high, mocking voice—“ ‘Oh, I’m a bonobo, and I love everyone.’ ”
Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female. (He might also have mentioned keepers at the Columbus and San Diego zoos who both lost bits of fingers. In the latter instance, the local paper’s generous headline was “ape returns fingertip to keeper.”) “Zoos don’t know what to do,” Stevens said. “They, too, believe that bonobos are less aggressive than chimps, which is why zoos want to have them. But, as soon as you have a group of bonobos, after a while you have this really violent aggression. I think if zoos had bonobos in big enough groups”—more like wild bonobos—“you would even see them killing.” In Stevens’s opinion, bonobos are “very tense. People usually say they’re relaxed. I find the opposite. Chimps are more laid-back. But, if I say I like chimps more than I like bonobos, my colleagues think I’m crazy.”

On another occasion, Hohmann thinks that he came close to seeing infanticide, which is also generally ruled to be beyond the bonobo’s behavioral repertoire. A newborn was taken from its mother by another female; Hohmann saw the mother a day later. This female was carrying its baby again, but the baby was dead. “Now it becomes a criminal story,” Hohmann said, in a mock-legal tone. “What could have happened? This is all we have, the facts. My story is the unknown female carried the baby but didn’t feed it and it died.” Hohmann has made only an oblique reference to this incident in print.
These tales of violence do not recast the bonobo as a brute. (Nor does new evidence, from Lui Kotal, that bonobos hunt and eat other primates.) But such accounts can be placed alongside other challenges to claims of sharp differences between bonobos and chimpanzees. For example, a study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Primatology asked, “Are Bonobos Really More Bipedal Than Chimpanzees?” The answer was no.
The bonobo of the modern popular imagination has something of the quality of a pre-scientific great ape, from the era before live specimens were widely known in Europe.

Down the stream from the New Yorker, mass media, which is not really good with complex issues like this, decided to ignore the evidence and go full steam ahead, refocusing on the feminist part of the narrative. This short video posted weeks ago in one of the largest Youtube channels is a good example of the trend. Even in prestige media, the trend is clear: as recently as 2016, the New York Times was still running stories about exemplary bonobos:

Last year, somebody took the trouble to publish a deeply-researched book about bonobos where all the touchy-feely myths of the great peaceful ape of the forest are demolished comprehensively. You can see a good review of that book in this website. Here’s hoping somebody in media still read books.

Sometimes, the New York Times reminds me of what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said about Ayn Rand(*): “she spells out the secret premises of the ruling ideology so clearly that they are an embarrassment for the ruling ideology itself.” Ayn Rand is gone now, so I suppose the Times has taken on that role now.

It all makes one wonder: why is mass media so insisted in telling the bonobo’s fairy tale? And, while we are on the subject of wild speculation with wide prominence, why do they want people to believe the absurd notion that Vikings were secret Muslims? This is a really, really weird idea based on the flimsiest of evidence, as The Atlantic (a competitor of the New Yorker) helpfully explained in a recent article – only after all the major media outlets run with it like kids with Halal ice-cream:

Annika Larsson, a textile researcher at Uppsala University who was putting together an exhibit on Viking couture, decided to examine the contents of a Viking woman’s boat grave that had been excavated decades ago in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. Inspecting the woman’s silk burial clothes, Larsson noticed small geometric designs. She compared them to similar designs on a silk band found in a 10th-century Viking grave, this one in Birka, Sweden. It was then that she came to the conclusion that the designs were actually Arabic characters—and that they spelled out the name of God in mirror-image. In a press release, she described the find as “staggering,” and major media outlets (including The New York TimesThe Guardian, and the BBC) reported the story last week.

But other experts are not sure the silk bears Arabic script at all, never mind the word “Allah.” They warn that people being credulous of Larsson’s claim may be guided less by solid evidence than by a political motivation: the desire to stick it to white supremacists.

I’ve come up with a lot of crazy ideas for story pitches in my fifteen years working for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. One thing I learnt: if you want them approved, make sure they correlate exactly with what gatekeepers want everyone to believe.

(* In an interview with an Australian radio station, in 2015, available here)


Posted in Zizekiana | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Desigualdades durante el asedio de Leningrado

En “Los 900 Días,” un estimable libro sobre el asedio de Leningrado, Harrison E. Salisbury escribe a propósito de la hambruna durante el horrible invierno de 1941-42, el peor de los que sufrió la ciudad bajo asalto nazi:

“Surgió un cierto orden de inanición. No cayeron primero los viejos. Fueron los jóvenes, especialmente aquellos que vivían con las raciones más pequeñas. Los hombres murieron antes que las mujeres. Las personas sanas y fuertes colapsaron antes que los inválidos crónicos. Este fue el resultado directo de la desigualdad de las raciones. Los jóvenes recibían una de dependiente, que era idéntica a la ración de los niños hasta la edad de doce años. A partir del 1 de octubre, esto equivalía sólo a 200 gramos, aproximadamente un tercio de barra de pan, sólo la mitad de la ración de un trabajador. Por ello murieron tan rápido. La ración para hombres y mujeres era la misma: 400 gramos de pan para los trabajadores, 200 para todas las demás categorías. Pero los hombres gastaban más energía, al llevar una vida más vigorosa. Necesitaban más comida. Sin ella, morían más rápidamente que las mujeres.”

Posted in Ocurrencias | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Against George Plimpton

I don’t remember how or why I came across the self-published autobiography of Robert S. Griffin, a cranky, retired college professor. I certainly forgot why I felt compelled to download it and put it in my tablet reading list, but here we are: reading it with great enjoyment, and having a lot of fun with the idle thoughts of a man who knows his time is up. It’s pretty short too, so I highly recommend it to anyone: it’s here for free.

This book definitely reminds me of another unexpectedly great autobiography: Travels, by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame (which is not free). In Travels, Michael Crichton explains there’s no point to his writing a description of his mostly boring and uneventful life, so he just tells a handful of stories, mostly about his travels across the world and his short, exciting time as a medical student.

In “From Old to Elderly,” Griffin starts off with a regretful description of a youth wasted on pointless sports pursuits and his sad-sack family, and then complains about random stuff and tells of interesting moments of his life and the things he saw and read. There is a bit about the once-idolized writer George Plimpton, whom he never met, which is to me a masterpiece of couldn’t-give-a-shit literary criticism, and I will copy it here in full, below this post.

By way of introduction, the Times Literary Supplement recently discussed Plimpton, in his role as co-founder and longtime editor of The Paris Review (here, behind a paywall). J.C., the anonymous contributor to the TLS’ back page, doesn’t hate Plimptom, actually kind of like him, but still has this to say:

During Plimpton’s reign, the Paris Review was a club. The issue before us lists myriad distinguished types and family members as advisory editors, editorial assistants, contributing editors, among other concoctions. Here are a few: Donald Hall, Nelson Aldrich, William Styron, Rose Styron, Dana Goodyear, Philip Roth, Matthew Bruccoli, Francine du Plessix Gray, Ben Sonnenberg, Jonathan Miller, Frederick Seidel, Sara D. Plimpton, Robert Silvers. The last, to take only one, wasn’t listed as “advisory editor” because of the advice he gave. The masthead was the assembly point of a branch of the establishment – the kind whose members invariably unite to deny its existence.

Wherever you are, thanks a lot for this here, Mr. Griffin:

33 Pseudo-Self-Effacement
May, 2013.
I’ve been paying attention to how people who are fawned over get themselves in that position when they don’t really deserve to be that high on life’s totem pole. It’s not that these people are unaccomplished; it’s that the adulation they evoke goes beyond their actual merits. How do they pull that off? I ask myself.

For example, there’s Princess Kate in Britain. She used to fold clothes at the Gap, not there is anything wrong with that, and seems a nice enough person, and she keeps herself slim and trim and has a pleasant smile, good precision with it, upper lip exactly to the top edge of her front teeth, but really, she’s no better as far I can tell than the young women I see looking in store windows in downtown Burlington, Vermont where I live.

Of course what Kate has going for her is the princess title—or I guess actually she’s a duchess—which, princess or duchess, from what I have read, she went after pretty hard. If you can bring it off, the princesses and kings and queens and duchesses and dukes stratagem is a good one: you get you and yours designated royalty and the rest of us commoners. We get to watch you ride by in carriage. Good deal for you.

This past week, I’ve been paging through a book of reminiscences about the late George Plimpton (Nelson Aldridge, Jr., editor, George, Being George, Random House, 2008). Plimpton (1927-2003) was an American editor, author, and partyhosting man about town in New York City. He was best known for a being a co-founder and editor of The Paris Review literary magazine and for his sports writing in which he would recount his exploits as an everyman participant in big time sports.

Plimpton’s most successful book in the sports area was Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last String Quarterback, published in 1966, in which he wrote about his experiences in the training camp of the Detroit Lions pro football team. His angle was that he wasn’t there as an observer but rather as a player. He even took a couple snaps as a quarterback in one of the Lions’ pre-season games. Paper Lion was a good book and a best seller. I remember enjoying it at the time it came out.

Looking back on it now, I realize that more than anything the reader of Paper Lion comes away from the book thinking what a super guy George Plimpton is. Here he is, this Harvard man and big time literary type, and yet he gets around these rough and tumble jocks and they accept him in their world and really take to him.

Yes indeed, George Plimpton is a man for all seasons. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, I would nightly sit alone in front of a TV set in a darkened room in the Midwest munching on potato chips watching late night talk shows out of New York City—Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett in particular—and Plimpton was a regular on those shows.

Plimpton would sit on the couch or chair with Johnny or Dick in his tweed sport jacket and, without being heavy-handed about it, get across in a vaguely British accent that he was from old money and went to Harvard and went to the right parties and knew everybody that was anybody. He related amusing name-dropping anecdotes to an attentive and borderingon-reverential Johnny or Dick–as well as to me, of course.

Now that I think about it, the only thing that stuck with me from these little stories was that not only was George Plimpton a superior being compared to the rest of us, he was an upbeat, chipper, fine fellow to boot. I got that message loud and clear, but at the same time I didn’t feel as if I were being sold anything or put town. I felt fine about me being a humdrum plebeian and George Plimpton being a lively noble; that was just the way things were.

When I think about the people who have been masters of selfpuffery over the span of my long life, George Plimpton’s name is right up there at the top.

I didn’t pick up the Plimpton book this week to read it from the angle of Plimpton’s self promotion, but it couldn’t have been more that twenty pages into it and I was caught up with examining how Plimpton worked his self-inflating magic. The book has been a fun read for me, I’m not done with it yet. Techniques that went right by me back in the old days jumped out at me now.

One of them is what I’ll call the pseudo-self-effacement technique. The basic idea with this maneuver is ostensibly you’re putting yourself down, but what you are really doing is building yourself up. I’ll use a transcript of an after-dinner speech Plimpton gave in the mid-eighties that was in the book (pp. 323-326) to illustrate how the pseudo-self-effacement technique can be effectively employed. I’ll quote from Plimpton’s speech and insert my comments in caps to point out how George was selling himself even as nominally he was documenting his limitations:

I think I should start off by saying that I didn’t do very well at Exeter. I WENT TO EXETER, AN ELITE PREP SCHOOL. My marks were terrible. I’M NOT HERE PITCHING HOW GREAT I AM. I’M A MODEST, SELF-EFFACING GUY. I had the strange notion that in class, even if I were daydreaming of something else I’M CALLING IT DAYDREAMING, BUT YOU KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT ME TO GET THAT IT WAS ACTUALLY MATURE, INSIGHTFUL, CREATIVE MUSING AT A VERY YOUNG AGE, my brain was still absorbing all the material like a specialized sponge, and the next day at the exam I could scratch around in the appropriate corner, in the detritus I KNOW WORDS LIKE DETRITUS, and there would be the appropriate answers. I HAD CONFIDENCE IN MYSELF EVEN BACK THEN.


I hadn’t studied, but why hadn’t my brain compensated out of thin air? I DIDN’T GET BAD GRADES BECAUSE I WAS DUMB. I HADN’T STUDIED, THAT’S WHY. Somewhere in Melville’s Moby Dick is the line “my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded.” I HAVE READ MOBY DICK AND CAN QUOTE IT FROM MEMORY. Which is apt, thinking back on it, because my head when I was in Exeter I WENT TO EXETER was ever off somewhere else I WAS THINKING BIG THOUGHTS funning it up I WAS A GOOD TIME KIND OF GUY, NOT A DRUDGE with heads of the few others who were having difficulty. We beheaded few, we band of brothers. I WASN’T AN ISOLATE LONER REJECT. I WAS PART OF A BAND OF BROTHERS.

At nightfall, I went down to the Plimpton Playing Fields THIS ELITE SCHOOL HAD FACILIITIES NAMED AFTER MY FAMILY and drop-kicked field goals with Buzz Merritt I HAD FRIENDS, just the two of us in the gloaming YOU DON’T KNOW WORDS LIKE GLOAMING, often with a thin moon shining above the pines, above the river. THAT IDYLIC IMAGE WAS ME—YOU WORKED IN A CAR WASH. Why did I do this when I should have been studying Tacitus WE STUDIED TACITUS IN THIS ELITE SCHOOL I ATTENDED, WHILE YOU STUDIED HOW A BILL BECOMES A LAW IN THE ONE YOU WENT TO for the exam I knew was coming up the same day? THE ANSWER: BECAUSE I WAS INTO COOL THINGS LIKE BEING WITH MY BUDDY BUZZ—PREPPY-SOUNDING NAME, RIGHT? TOP DRAWER–KICKING FIELD GOALS UNDER A FULL MOON, NOT CRAMMING FOR AN INANE TEST LIKE YOU DIDN’T KNOW ANY BETTER THAN TO DO. Sometimes to escape the exams, I went to the infirmary. There was a secret way, which I have now forgotten, to drive up the temperature on a thermometer. CLEVER OF ME, HUH?

But what really got me in trouble were the little things I thought were funny—like sneaking in at night and turning all the benches around in the Assembly Hall because I thought it would it would be funny to have my classmates sitting backwards when they came in for assembly. I WAS ADVENTUROUS AND CREATIVE AT A VERY YOUNG AGE.

I wrote for The Exetonian I WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO WRITE FOR A LITERARY MAGAZINE AT A PLACE LIKE EXETER, I WENT TO EXETER, but if you were on probation you couldn’t use your real name. I took piano lessons from Mr. Landers. He assigned me a Debussy piece called “Bells,” as I recall. I PRACTICED PLAYING DEBUSSEY ON THE PIANO WHILE YOU LEARNED THREE CHORDS ON A GUITAR SO YOU COULD POUND OUT CHEAPASS ROCK ‘N ROLL. The next week I appeared at Mr. Landers’ quarters NOT AN OFFICE OR DESK SOMEWHERE, QUARTERS, GET THE PICTURE? and sat down to play. Mr. Landers said, “Well, that’s very fine, but that’s not Debussy’s “Bells.” I PLAYED NOT JUST FINE BUT VERY FINE PIANO, WHAT CAN’T I DO? PLUS I ADDED MY OWN INDIVIDUAL TOUCH TO IT–CREATIVE, UNIQUE, ONE-OF-A-KIND, THAT’S ME, GEORGE PLIMPTON.

I tried out for a play called Seven Keys to Ballpate. I WAS GAME, TOOK RISKS, TRIED NEW THINGS. They found a minor role for me, that of a young widow. I was required to let out an unearthly scream, perhaps at the sight of a corpse, I’ve forgotten what. My scream carried far out over the quadrangle QUADRANGLE, GET IT?, down the hill past Langdell and into the Jeremiah Smith Building CATCH THE IMPRESSIVE-SOUNDING NAMES AT THE ELITE PREP SCHOOL I WENT TO, past the mailroom with its letterboxes WHEN I DID SOMETHING, I DID IT BIG, where in those days I received my father’s letter once a week I WAS IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO MY FATHER FOR HIM TO WRITE ME ONCE A WEEK with its admonitions—and up the stairs to Dean Kerr’s office WE HAD A DEAN IN MY PREP SCHOOL; YOU HAD A PRINCIPAL IN THAT HIGH SCHOOL YOU WENT TO, where he sat comfortably smoking his pipe A PIPE–GOT THE IMAGE? when suddenly this high-pitched shriek wandered in and his blood curdled and he said aloud, “My God, what’s Plimpton up to now.” THE DEAN KNEW ABOUT ME. ONE MEMORABLE ESCAPADE AFTER ANOTHER. “MY GOD, WHAT’S PLIMPTON UP TO NOW,” THE DEAN WOULD SAY. QUITE THE TEENAGER, ME, DON’T YOU THINK?

Could it have been that, having failed in all the departments at Exeter I WENT TO EXETER, I was driven in later life to compensate, to try once again to succeed where I hadn’t? I’ve wondered on occasion whether these exercises in participatory journalism for which I am known I WROTE PAPER LION, A BEST SELLER, THAT WAS ME were as much to show my mentors at Exeter I WENT TO EXETER AND HAD MENTORS; YOU HAD A GUIDANCE COUNSELOR that I had somehow managed to intrude into the highest plateaus of their various disciplines. THE HIGHEST PLATEAU IN NOT JUST ONE DISCIPLINE, OR TWO DISCIPLINES–VARIOUS DISCIPLINES. ME, GEORGE PLIMPTON, I DID THAT. AND YOU PICKED UP THAT I WENT TO EXETER, AN ELITE EASTERN PREP SCHOOL, WITH FACILITIES NAMED AFTER MY FAMILY, RIGHT? THAT DIDN’T GET BY YOU, DID IT?
How about if you come up with an example of the pseudoself-effacement technique? I think you’ll find that it’ll be a good time, and that it will give you a better handle on how people acquire unwarranted reputations and status in the world generally
and in your own circumstance.



Posted in Sights and Sounds | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

¿Cuál es la diferencia entre una revolución y un golpe de estado?

Un golpe de estado sólo se llama así (lo que supone un etiquetado negativo) si se percibe como contrario a los intereses de la ideología dominante; si es favorable, se llama “revolución”.

Usemos un ejemplo cercano a un español como yo: Portugal. En el siglo XX, Portugal tuvo tres golpes de estado militares, tres:

-En 1910, un alzamiento militar acaba con la monarquía portuguesa (previo asesinato del rey y su heredero) y lo llamamos Revolución del 5 de Octubre.

-En 1926, un alzamiento militar acaba con la república para imponer la dictadura derechista de Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, y lo llamamos golpe de estado del 28 de Mayo.

-En 1974, un alzamiento militar acaba con el régimen del ya fallecido Salazar, y lo llamamos Revolución de los Claveles.

Posted in Conspiraciones | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Art As A Beautiful Lie: the Case of “Fearless Girl”

It’s really hard to think of a more effective use of art as propaganda than the “Fearless Girl” sculpture in New York, which is being moved to the New York Stock Exchange.

Fawning press coverage will have you believe this thing is a symbol of female empowerment, as it was set facing the “Charging Bull” sculpture that came to represent everything that is wrong about Wall Street and the financial world. This is what they’ve looked like for a while now:

fearless girl

But consider the following facts:

-The “Charging Bull” sculpture was cast by Arturo di Modica, a then-46 years old Sicilian immigrant, as a gift to the city following the 1987 stock-market crash; as Matt Levine wrote for Bloomberg News in March 2017, Di Modica thought the 7,100-pound symbol of virility would be an antidote to New York’s flaccid economy. He spent $350,000 of his own money and then dropped the bull right in front of the New York Stock Exchange (without permission) in December 1989.

-Di Modica does not like the “Fearless Girl” sculpture that is now facing down his bull: “That is not a symbol! That’s an advertising trick,” the 76-year-old Sicilian immigrant said in an interview with Marketwatch.

-“Fearless Girl” was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, a custody bank, as part of a gender-diversity initiative for International Women’s Day, as well as a marketing drive for a female mutual fund. Again, citing Levine:

“There is something pleasing about the fact that the Charging Bull, a global symbol of rapacious financial capitalism, is a piece of guerrilla art installed without payment or permission — while the Fearless Girl, an egalitarian symbol meant to challenge the bull’s soulless greed, is a piece of corporate advertising commissioned by an asset-management company.”

-The marketing and media exposure for State Street from installing the sculpture is worth $7.4 million, according to the estimates of Eric Smallwood of Apex Marketing, which measures the value of media placement and sponsorships. State Street spent just $26 million on advertising in all of 2016, according to Kantar Media, which tracks advertising spending, Bloomberg reported in an April 28, 2017, story.

-State Street originally wanted to commission the bronze sculpture in the shape of a cow, according to an email exchange between the company’s rep and City Hall obtained by The New York Post in June 2017.

-State Street on Oct. 2017 agreed to settle U.S. allegations that it discriminated against hundreds of female executives by paying them less than male colleagues. The custody bank paid $5 million to more than 300 women, following a U.S. Department of Labor audit that uncovered the alleged discrepancies, according to the settlement agreement.

Posted in Bad Propaganda | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

¿Por qué los dioses se hacen humanos?

En “El León del Sol”, una novela histórica de Harry Sidebottom (he hablado antes de esta serie de novelas aquí y aquí), el emperador romano Galieno reflexiona sobre la teología de los alamani, quienes estaban convencidos de que los dioses siempre estaban presentes durante sus combates. Los alamani fueron una prominente tribu germana de la etapa final del imperio que eventualmente le dieron a los idiomas latinos la palabra “alemanes” con la que definen a todos los Germanii/Deutschvolk (la traducción es mía):

Galieno no condenaba los sangrientos ritos de los alamanes. Diferentes dioses requieren cultos diferentes. Sólo un tonto no se daría cuenta de que un campo de batalla es un lugar frecuentado por dioses. ¿Cómo podría ser de otra manera? Imagina el tedio de la inmortalidad. ¿Cuántos años hay que pasar en la eternidad antes de haber bebido cada vino, probado cada comida exótica? ¿Puede quedar uno encadenado a una dieta inmutable de ambrosía, néctar y humo de los sacrificios? ¿Y sexo? ¿Cuántas hermosas chicas o chicos antes de que llegue la saciedad , seguida por la perversa experimentación y luego el asco? Piensa en el aburrimiento de releer los mismos libros una y otra vez. Imagina la envidia de las emociones inalcanzables de los mortales: la sudorosa emoción de lo desconocido, el miedo que se agarra en las tripas, el verdadero coraje frente a la muerte, el dolor de la pérdida. En ninguna parte más agudas que en el campo de batalla. No es de extrañar que los dioses quieran estar cerca.

Hace años que soy miembro de la Iglesia Turing, un grupo transhumanista fundado por el científico italiano Giulio Prisco con el objetivo de inventar a Dios, ante la casi certeza de que no existe: un objetivo que durante una época pensé que era una ocurrencia mía. Desde luego, no lo es.

Los transhumanistas hablan (hablamos) de muchas cosas. No creo haber sido el primer transhumanista en considerar los inconvenientes causados por la inmortalidad. Tampoco creo que ninguno los haya detallado tan elegantemente como Sidebottom.

Posted in A Plan to Create God, Ocurrencias | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Ugly Truth About Editing (feat. Raymond Carver)

Some eight years ago, a particularly irritating day during my tenure as correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Singapore, I came up with a list itemizing the three kinds of copy-editors one can find:

1.The hands-off editor, who will change little, will mainly check spelling and logic, and trust the reporter knows what he’s talking about; the hands-off editor may be motivated by confidence in the writer, lack of time to work deeply on articles, fear of reprisals by bullying reporters, or sloth.

2.The hands-on editor: has specific, detailed views on the exact usage of words and the exact tune of leads, and will rework stories mercilessly, cutting out and writing in (always making sure that the end-result is slightly shorter, so he can claim the moral high ground of brevity) until he’s satisfied that the story looks as if he himself wrote it. And he did.

3. The bugger: a hands-on editor that is too lazy to do the meddling himself, and orders you to do it for him (his rationale: he’s forcing you to learn how to do it right; but he couldn’t tell right from a banana).

In my professional experience, the second kind is most common at least in U.S. media, because of a variety of reasons, but mostly because heavy work on copy is a way to justify your position: if you make somebody a stuffer, he will stuff, and if you make him a highlighter, he shall highlight: that seems to be how human minds work.

I could go on about this subject for ever, but there’s no need. Those interested in how reporters perceive the work of editors would be better advised to look at this document here, circulated between New York Times writers circa 1995:


Anyway: Gordon Lish, who made his career making Raymond Carver’s life miserable, is perhaps the patron saint of all three kinds of copy-editors. In a review in the Times Literary Supplement, Catherine Humble describes the man in all his glory:

The literary editor Gordon Lish once said that, to be a writer, “You have to have an interest in the world”, admitting, “I’m not terribly interested in anybody else’s heart or mind”.

True to his calling of torturer of other people’s writing, Lish became perhaps the world’s well-known copy-editor when he mercilessly cut Carver’s prose into legend. That’s no mean feat: reading about Lish’s work with Carver, one gets the impression that Carver wouldn’t have had a fraction of the success he had without Lish’s help. Lish did discover the genius of that writer, lost in between the verbiage Carver had used to hide it.

And this is the ugly truth about editing: it’s not pretty, and it very often works badly. There are no sound rules. A man like Lish, so obviously good at what he did (at least while working with Carver) is still a pretty hopeless writer, and a man with a very uninteresting brain, as Humble shows in her TLS review of Lish’s latest book as an author, White Plains. Even the very best of editors was a hit-and-miss character whose obsessions and manias just happened to be the perfect cure to Carver’s writing:

White Plains (pretentiously subtitled Pieces and witherings) is closer to a snarling rant than a work of fiction. Consisting mainly of monologue, streaked with autobiography, the book reads like the freewheeling wordplay of a mad person. “Gordon Lish” appears in nearly all the stories, and lest we forget the book’s subject, we are told in “Mr Dictaphone”, “this book is devoted to the telling to you the tale of me”. Grandiloquence and sleaze abound. “Naugahyde” is a pointless little story about a couple discussing a chair they once had sex on. The writing is so utterly self-conscious (“He said, ‘Nice.’ He said, ‘It’s nice when it’s nice’. . . ‘You’d do well to do as well’”), one might mistake it for pastiche. It is curious that a man of letters like Lish cannot see how derivative his writing is. “She said, ‘Mmmm’. She said, ‘Nothing stays the same.’ She said, ‘Everything changes’ . . . ‘Nothing doesn’t change’, he said.”

Come on, but there must be some saving grace, somewhere, right? Nope:

From the man who produced the ingenious title “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” comes the less memorable “Jelly Apple” and “My Napkin, It Fell”. Lish’s penchant for clever neologizing (“stochastic” and “chthonicistical”) is depressing. If anything of interest emerges from this wordy mush, it is Lish’s recollection of his old publishing days. In “Postcards” he describes suing Harper’s for printing a bombastic letter he sent to his students (in which he introduced his “no questions or interruptions” rule). In contrast to the beating heart of Carver, bitterness forms the pulse of this book. Authors, for Lish, are always unappreciative, “snatching my inspirations from me right the fuck out from under my nose from the fucking moment I mint this shit”.


Posted in Sights and Sounds | Tagged , | 3 Comments