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Replacement-level writers and writing, with three examples from Wendy Lesser's The Threepenny Review

Saturday 12/2/23

I'd like to introduce a new term to the Many Moments More journal, which I feel is a useful one that will be used going forward.

I've co-opted this term from the baseball concept of the replacement-level player. A replacement-level player in baseball is deemed to be that player from Triple A--the minors--who would come in and replace a player on the big league roster if, say, he went out with an injury.

Major league players are statistically measured against this theoretical replacement-level player. That's what the stat WAR is--Wins Above Replacement. If you have a WAR of 10, that means you'd be responsible for ten more wins for your team than the replacement-level player would be.

In publishing, we have--and only have--what I think of as replacement-level writing by replacement-level writers. Whether it's someone writing short stories, essays, reviews, opinion pieces, music pieces, sports pieces, novels, all of these people can be replaced by someone else doing that thing. I don't mean that another writer or story or book would take their place. I mean that millions of other people could do exactly what they do. There is nothing you will read by anyone else, anywhere in publishing, regarding which one can honestly think, "No one else could do that."

There is one writer about whom this can be said, and always be said, and it's the writer that these people want dead because that's true. In every single thing he writes. He's the only one in the world who could have written it.

There are millions of people who could replace any of these people, and AI can easily do so as well. Next time you read anything, ask yourself if it could have been by anyone else. Ask yourself how many people you think could have written it. Anything by anyone else. Anywhere.

I'll give you three examples from one venue to further illustrate what I mean by these terms of replacement-level writing and replacement-level writers. We'll take them from The Threepenny Review, which is edited by the fossil-termagant Wendy Lesser, a nasty piece of work, one who is entirely lacking in talent, discriminatory, arrogant, and so damn boring.

But The Threepenny Review is useful here--and really for nothing else--because I can give you an example of a replacement-level short story, a replacement-level music piece, and a replacement-level film piece, by three utterly disposable writers who could be replaced by a million other writers who could do the same thing.

And you know what? I haven't even found these pieces yet. I haven't gone to round them up. I just know they'll be there. How do I know that? Because it's always the same shit that, again, lots and lots and lots of other people without any talent could do.

In order to get these spots in a place like The Threepenny Review, you need to suck at writing. You need to just be terrible. And you need to be like all of these other people of this twisted system are, so that a fossil-termagant like Wendy Lesser feels like you're the right kind of person.

Ready? Let's go to the site, and let's start with a short story.

Here we have "Safety" by Ariel Dorfman. "Safety"? Wow. Really knocked yourself out on that title. That's the best title, huh? The best you can do? Has to be that title for that story? Ariel is a guy. We had Wren, and now we have Ariel. This is the first sentence, which is also the first paragraph:

It was only a dream, a bad dream, and nothing else.

How comically bad is this? Now, Wendy Lesser hates me because she's a fossil-termagant, all about discrimination, bitter and nasty and broken and talentless, but can you even imagine me ever writing something that bad? In a billion years, could you imagine that from me? This is supposed to be one of the "best" places out there. Do you see what a joke this system always is? That's the best, huh? Like Granta? Anyone think that's great? Or is that, again, at the level of Bunker Hill Community College Creative Writing 101? But less compelling. Because at least there'd maybe be some earnestness in the piece from Bunker Hill.

This is the first sentence of the next paragraph:

The man in Vidal’s dream was stalking a woman, spying on her from the shadows, following her down a dark alley as she sought refuge from a downpour.

Are you kidding me? Vidal, huh? Like Gore Vidal? Is that seriously what we're doing here with your sub-fourth grade prose? Really? What's even funnier is that the character's first name is Gabriel. Gabriel Vidal. Gore's sibling?

But that's awesome. That's the best fiction in the world!

You can't write worse than this shit.

Who couldn't do this? What do you do for work? You're a doctor. You're a plumber. You're a preschool teacher. You couldn't write better than this? You couldn't come up to this mark? You don't have that first sentence in you?

Of course you could. Anyone could.

We also get to enjoy this sentence, the kind that is a given in so much of this slop:

She was the protagonist of the novel he was writing.

I know--it sounds like I'm making this up. I get it. Go check for yourself.

This is how it ends:

Also not revealing to Amanda, not wanting to alarm her with the news that this might be the only way out: to go back to the dream, enter the downpour and walk down the alley, interpose himself between Emma and death, save her even if it meant greeting those claws himself, risking his own life so his favorite character could continue on her quest, risking that Amanda would find him, her Gabriel, dead under the blankets, yes, accosting the man and proving to him that his fury would not win the day, not win the wings of the night, that hatred was not eternal, letting the man know that when you love too much you may make mistakes, but nothing is worse than not loving at all, not being willing to give up your own heartbeat for someone you love.

The end.

How hard are we laughing right now? Not win the wings of the night? Is this for real? You know what this reads like? Bad fan fiction. Doesn't it? What's worse than this? What's more pointless? Do you think there's anyone on earth who wants to read this? Who would enjoy it, let alone be blown away by it, impacted by it, impelled by it?

Hell no. I needed to give you that link above because there was a real chance that you'd think I was making this up as satire or whatever.

This is all real. This is what they call the best writing in the world. This is what they give book deals to, put forward, dish out those Guggenheims for. This garbage.

And it's all some version of what you just saw.

Here's the bio for Ariel Dorfman:

Ariel Dorfman, a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke University, is the author of Death and the Maiden and, more recently, Voices from the Other Side of Death. His forthcoming novel is The Suicide Museum.

See? Right kind of person for a fossil-termagant like Wendy Lesser. And this is all it's about: Being what they deem sufficiently like them, and sucking at writing. Obviously box-checking, too. Can't leave that out. What's your color? What's your gender? Hell: What do you look like? Better not be an athletic-looking white male.

Here's something these people insist on: You have to be old. I don't mean in terms of age. I mean dead inside. Look at Laura van den Berg: Dead inside. Writes like she's dead inside. The work is dead. Lifeless. There has to be no life in you or in your prose in order for these people to accept you as one of them, and if they don't accept you as one of them, you have no chance with them when they have a choice in the matter and they're operating in darkness, where no one can see what they're doing and why.

You can be ancient at twenty-seven and young at eighty-seven. The people of this system--all of these replacement-level writers--might as well have been cremated already and had their own ashes stuffed inside of these bags of skin that remain, because there's no life in them. It's all sawdust and stuffing. And they want to look at you and think, "You're a miserable dried-up prune, too, nice and desiccated."

How about we move on to a film piece? Again, I haven't looked. Let's look. Maybe it will be awesome. Do you think it might be awesome? Okay--hold that breath.

This piece is called "They Feel It All" by Matthew Eng.

Not long ago, I had the misfortune of seeing Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment at Metrograph with an audience mostly made up of insufferable cine-bros, who proceeded to laugh openly and repeatedly at the film from its very first line of dialogue. The weirdest thing about this reaction is how it can occur at a screening of just about any old movie, no matter its reputation. I’ve sat among downtown audiences—mostly young, white, and male, and likely attendees or graduates, as I admittedly am, of the Tisch School of the Arts—who chortled with snide irreverence at works as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. But something about the reaction towards The Reckless Moment vexed me more than it has on past occasions. Maybe it was because this 1949 noir melodrama, centered around a California homemaker (Joan Bennett) who resorts to desperate measures to cover up her seventeen-year-old daughter’s self-defensive murder of her lowlife beau, is seldom talked about these days, much less held up with the type of deferential awe that Vertigo, Imitation of Life, and Chinatown continue to inspire in many. Today it seems to exist only as a brief footnote in the exquisite and highly vaunted career of its German-born director, or else as the movie whose source material, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, also inspired the 2001 thriller The Deep End.

Here we have the tone of the pretentious douchebag. That's a douchebag, "I'm better than you" tone, isn't it? Or, a "People like us who are in the intellectual know are so much better than everyone else, aren't we?"

This isn't just a poor writer, but someone you'd want to avoid in life, and they manage to make that plain in just a few opening lines of a piece. You get--because we always get--the "There it is!" moment with these people. I had mentioned Chris Beha in a recent entry, and we'll take his dreadful prose apart in these pages soon enough. I opened a copy of a novel of his at the book store last year--hyped by the system, put forward for awards, all of that--and sure enough, on that very page there was talk of privilege, money, and being a writer. The "There it is!" moment. In Beha's case, it was just him. It's just you, sir. You have no talent. You have no imagination. It's just you. You have nothing to write about because you can't create anything, so you use you and call it fiction, and you're not interesting. You're not even comprised of more than a single note. You're just there. Nothing more.

In the case of this film piece, the "There it is!" moment is when this guy starts talking about his schooling. So predictable. But look at that holier-than-thou tone. "...mostly young, white, and male." Because those are bad things. You get that right? He's practically saying, "They might even like sporting affairs."

But then you have to wonder: Is this guy honestly this stupid, or is he being deliberately so so that he can showboat his pretentious douchebag tone, or is that just what's coming out accidentally because he's so insecure and can't stop himself from trying to overcompensate?

You don't understand why people laugh, genius? You can't puzzle that out? Are you honestly that obtuse?

People laugh over things that are different. They always have. They always will. A Hard Day's Night was screened in an eighth grade class of mine. When the kids saw George Harrison's guitar--which was shaped like a big pancake to them--they laughed. They didn't know any better.

Older films are very different from modern in films in just about every way (including, often, quality). The acting is different, how lines are said, the way films look, the music. Some woman will say, "Are you making love to me?" That doesn't mean the guy is pumping her behind some tree in the arbor. It means he winsomely asked her if she was free for a motor outing on Sunday.

But you don't think someone today, who is unaccustomed to films like this, will laugh at the line? They have no clue what it means in this context, they've never encountered it like this. People are simple. So, yeah, they'll laugh. Until they're acclimatized.

And this is the premise of your piece with its tone of the pretentious douchebag?

Again: What is the point of this? Only Matthew Eng could write this? How many people could write this? How many people are out there with Matthew Eng's skill set, if you even want to call it that? Or could learn how to do write something like this? Do you think that's seven people? 700? 7000? It's a lot more, right? What's nearer the number? 700,000? Seven million?

Do you think the piece is amazing? Do you think anyone thinks the piece is amazing? Do you think it's good? Do you think anyone thinks it's good? Do you want to read more by this guy? Do you think anyone wants to read more by this guy?

No, no, no, no, no, no. In order. Obviously.

So why is it here? This is some of the best film writing in the world, huh? What we just saw. Good to know.

What would it take to replace Matthew Eng and this piece? Basically nothing at all. I was going to say that it's not much more than a warm body, is it? Ah, but that's not true. If you said, "AI, write me a bad piece of film writing in the tone of a pretentious half-wit douchebag," do you think AI would struggle with that assignment, or do you think it'd give you something like this in a second?

Oh, by the way: You're supposed to believe--this is according to Wendy Lesser--that everything I've ever written, be it fiction, or about film, literature, popular music, jazz, classical music, is worse than everything ever published in The Threepenny Review.

Yeah...I think that's kind of a tricky one for anyone to believe...

Okay--you can let that breath back out now.

Then I thought, since we're this, why not feature the most recent thing from the fossil-termagant Wendy Lesser herself? Because she publishes herself in her journal. Again, haven't gone yet. I like how it feels we go together. Do you think this is the one that breaks the pattern of shitty writing and at last we see a masterpiece? Or, if not a masterpiece, powerful writing, insightful writing, writing of value that few people could do? That no one, perhaps, save this person could do?

This is the opening paragraph of Lesser's piece about seeing Handel's opera Semele.

Semele has variously been described as an oratorio and a music drama, yet it is nonetheless very much an opera, with all the thrilling complications and intense feelings that only a great opera can produce. The misnomers arose early in its life, when Handel wanted it to appear as part of Covent Garden’s Lenten program in February 1744 and hence labeled it an oratorio. But audience members expecting a solemn, Christian-tinged exhortation were predictably shocked by this tale of sexual cavorting among the Greco-Roman gods; even Charles Jennens, Handel’s collaborator on L’Allegro, sniffily called it “a baudy Opera.” Semele was performed just a few times in Handel’s lifetime, and it is only since the mid-twentieth century that opera houses around the world have perceived its true worth.

What does that remind you of? Every report you had to do for school in middle school and high school, right? That's what you wrote--a version of that. The teacher said how long the report was supposed to be, and all you wanted to do--probably--was meet the requirements. Do you hear that book school report tone cadentially around the point of the coma in the first sentence? There is no attempt to pull the reader in. To interest a reader. This is a homework assignment as if done grudgingly. What if you're not already into Handel? Opera? Classical music? Automatically you're ruled out. Left behind. Given the middle finger. She doesn't care about that person. That reader. She thinks they're trash anyway.

What if you're already into those things? This does it for you? Do you think, "Wow, what a great supplement to my knowledge and enthusiasm." They wouldn't think that. What would cause them to? What, specifically, can we point to in that piece--what single thing?--would result in that reaction and outcome?

So that leaves the kind of pretentious douchebag who knows nothing about Handel, opera, or classical music, who isn't interested at all in Handel, opera, or classical music, who can say, "I read this intellectual person piece," which they didn't actually read at all. They sort of looked at it quickly so they could give themselves credit and say that they are this thing that it's important to tell themselves that they are.

And that, my friends, is Wendy Lesser's audience, such that she has one. That's the audience for just about everyone in this system. Whatever they write, whatever we're talking. Whether that's fiction in American Short Fiction, an essay in BookForum, gibberish in The Sun, a review in The New Republic, a story in Hudson Review.

None of it is for readers and for reading. None of it is for the world. For people. For an actual experience. For enjoyment. For edification. None of it is meant to be worth your time. Your energy. Let alone your mind, your heart, your soul. Your precious, innermost you.

Then everything else in following from Lesser is just a listing of things you could look up. How is this even writing? Get it from Wikipedia. Get it from Google. There isn't a thought here. There are no ideas. The prose is lifeless, off-putting, as dry as those ashes we were talking about.

This is how Wendy Lesser writes. It's how she always writes. It's the only way she can write. AI would write this better. AI is more alive than Wendy Lesser is as a writer.

For writing like this, for being a bigot who is only interested in a certain kind of person, Wendy Lesser was given a Guggenheim. For doing what you just saw. She was given a book deal by a major in FSG, for whom she wrote a book about reading.

And you know what? People hated it. They hated it because they were duped by the marketed premise--that someone would share with you why they loved to read what they read, as if there would be warmth, joy, and insight--and instead they got this fossil-termagant talking down her nose to everyone in her boring, replaceable way, with prose like what you just saw above.

Explain yourself, Guggenheim people. Explain yourself, FSG.

Because no one on the Guggenheim committee, and no one at FSG, thought, "Wow, Wendy Lesser, dynamic talent, dynamic writer, the world needs more of her unique abilities and voice."

But she was one of them.

And that, as we see again and again, is about all that matters within this system right now.

Also: Note the eyes in the photo below. There's no mistaking when the eyes give it away.

Anyway--I'll be back for more about The Threepenny Review later--just getting started--but for now, I'm off to win those wings of the night. They just don't win themselves, you know.


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