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The bigotry, clannishness, ego, insecurity, and incompetence of a J.W. McCormack of The Baffler

Tuesday 2/14/23

As we've seen in these pages, J.W. McCormack, the fiction editor of The Baffler, is one blatant bigot. He is exactly what you'd expect of the beta, clannish Brooklyn approach to editing, where it's all about putting forward the worst writing that no one on earth could ever want to read from a certain kind of person. Without fail. Without exception.

There's nothing that qualifies such a man to have his position. There's no evidence anywhere in his life, in his career, of actual talent. Of intelligence. Capable judgment. Existent character. There is no track record. No discernible credentials.

Someone like this exists in their job, like so many of these people, simply to perpetuate the insanity of a publishing industry that produces work that it is impossible to enjoy or think highly of. It's actually impossible, which is more understatement than hyperbole. It's not me saying that on account of taste, opinion.

Simply by showing the work--by shining the light on what happens within the cave of dysfunction and insanity--you prove the above statements about what that work is, and what a J.W. McCormack is.

It's that easy, because the work is always that bad. It's not arguably bad. It's not a matter of personal predilection. It's all objectively awful. Pointless. Inept. Just as the kind of person responsible for putting it out there is so plainly up to what they are up to. I'm just the only individual who is shining that light. Or, if you prefer, dragging that insane dysfunction out into the open.

How about we take a look at the first four paragraphs of a new short story in The Baffler, which is called "The Fourth Person" by Adam Cavanaugh, and which J.W. McCormack chose to publish. It is like everything he decides to publish. Pure garbage.

But that feels misleading, as if pure garbage might be better than other forms of garbage; less pure garbage, for instance, as if the latter were cut with impurities that make the garbage itself worse. Well, whatever form of garbage that second kind is, that's what this garbage is.

And the funny thing is, there isn't anyone who can begin to argue otherwise. There isn't a single person among even these people--those who choose to publish it--who can say anything to the contrary, once you show that work out in the open and call it what it is.

What could you possibly say? There's nothing. It's actually funny. A guy like this publishes this garbage, and he couldn't say anything to suggest why it's good. That's the thing: whether it's this garbage in The Baffler, or it's Salman Rushdie garbage in The New Yorker, it's always so bad that it's not possible to seriously argue otherwise. You can't do that. Think of how bad something has to be for that to be true. How obviously bad it has to be.

Who is this for? What is it for? What is the purpose? What ability is displayed? Who could possibly think this is good? Why is it good?

Again, give me a single concrete reason. Tell me how the prose works in a way that makes it effective. Do you think, "Whoa, it's amazing that someone could do something like that"? How is this effective as narrative? How is it a compelling story? What did you think was stunning about it? How did it impact your life? Who can even get through it?

Let's get ultra basic and pretend we're in a high school creative writing course: How is it remotely creative? How is it remotely impressive if it were something trotted out by a teenager?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Because maybe you're about to be dazzled, right? I can play along. Sure. Let's say that. Maybe you're about to behold a masterpiece. Let's have those first four paragraphs, shall we?

I AM HERE TO WATCH my subject rot. That is my job. The subject died ten days ago, when I received the call that the time had come to fulfill the duty for which my family will be paid, for which I have been preparing these last three years. My moment has arrived to be, along with my subject-employer, permanently interred in the estate mausoleum.

On the marble slab, the body appears to have found a well-earned rest. The body’s breathing slows, chest heaving slightly. The look upon the body’s face during the final stretch of life, the countenance of determined focus, now gave way to the serenity of release. For the first day, the face remained this way. On the second, the expression shifted as fibers in the face and neck loosened, and the face, as a collection of muscles holding the memory of the contortions and contractions defining the expressive potentiality of a person now relented to uncanny configurations. The metaphor of rest must now be put to bed . . .

Their body has lost its affinity with the domain of life. In the months approaching death, they ate only dried fruit and small portions of bread. I am here to observe that they were human to the last, as well as witness the slow process of transitioning into matter. My task is to write the final chapter in the most physiologically thorough biography ever written.

My subject is on the marble slab. Its supports are carved with neoclassical flourish. A knowing grin seems to widen across their face each day—a rictus formed by tightening skin around the lips, exposing teeth. This was an undoing phase, where the subject’s personal features wore away. You could see their humanity adrift. First from the color of the flesh, which gave way to a gray pallor, then sagging and a hollowness in the eyes. The hair, quite brittle now, I would take in hand, measuring centimeter by centimeter as it continued to grow. These were necessary annotations that would contribute to my final manuscript.

Did you love that? Did you think it was amazing? Do you want to read thousands more words of that? How about books' worth of it?

I feel like you probably don't. Right? Probably wouldn't be what you'd be thinking about at work, how you can't wait to get back on that train and finish reading that amazing story in The Baffler.

You want a couple more paragraphs? Okay. Here's one:

He was indeed my antecedent, but the plan was hatched well before his arrival. The idea was a meager one, a method for passing idle time in the darkness of the imagination. But in those same dark recesses, the plan bored deep into his mind as soon as he read it, and finally could not let go until he tried. It had been him who killed the schnauzer. He had reluctantly eaten its flesh only as a means to dispose of rot and avoid suspicions. He discovered the plan in one of our predecessors’ journals. The dog’s bones, adequately but not entirely cleared of flesh, would be left out, excluding the skull, which he put aside and then showed me. It was heavier than one would imagine! The sustenance would enable him to survive beyond his allotted period. When he heard the door being moved to withdraw his remains, he would snuff out the light and place the bones near enough to the slab that it would appear he expired in a desperate attempt to move it. This would obviate suspicion to verify the taxonomy of the remains. He covered himself in the pelt and lay motionless on the animal’s slab. The second part of the plan was convincing the next clerk to participate in the escape. He had come to his point.

Here's another:

I sleep on the dog’s slab. Sleep is believed to be counterproductive and reserved for absolute necessity. This morning I woke abruptly when a hunched slender figure was attempting to drag me from the dog’s pedestal. I chased him into the darkness of the perimeter, but it was hopeless. The light from the desk barely extends beyond the slab so, as I felt my way around the room, I knew that my aggressor had the upper hand. I proposed a truce, for the figure to join me in the light since the element of surprise was now lost. In time, he acquiesced. He was wearing a suit that, given its oversized dimensions and the skeletal figure contained by its folds, suggested to me my predecessor.

And what are you going to say in response to me? If you're one of these people, what could you could you possibly counter with?

These people are dumb and they're crazy and they're broken, but there isn't a single one of them among their number who can say, "Actually, Colin, that is a remarkable story, and it's remarkable because..."

They know it sucks. You can't not know this sucks, no matter how much of a crazy, sinecure-loving bigot that you are, like a J.W. McCormack.

They didn't count on anyone shining that light, though. Let alone the person who writes better than everyone. And the person with the matchless track record.

Worst enemy possible. And definitely the last guy in the world it was a good idea to discriminate against.

And let me tell you, it's so easy showing all of this for what it is. They make it so easy, because the work is always absurdly bad. It's lower than absurdly bad. It's not even anything.

Absurdly bad suggests that maybe, somehow, whatever is there could be improved a little. This is so bad, so pointless, that you can't even say that. It's sufficiently terrible, that it's almost like it doesn't really exist. Ultimately, it's a piece of writing--time and time again--that can be more accurately described as a non-entity. A form of nothingness. Not any real thing. An absence of anything. There is nothing there.

There's more utility in looking at a blank page. A blank page has more going for it. If you had an actual piece of paper in front of you, or a blank book, there might be some pattern in the page, or a discolored mote that was slightly less white than what surrounded it. That would be more of a thing--noticing that, looking at that--than the writing--the nothingness--that these people constantly put forward, as if nothing else exists. You can get more discovering and examining the mote, than you can in that above story. What is less than a mote? Nothingness.

And again, this is not a special case. All of it is this way. You have an entire subculture that operates in this fashion, where that is what's put out. It's what's given MacArthur grants. It's what is given all of it. All of the bullshit, none of which happens because anyone here honestly believes that anything is any good. Obviously the last thing any of this writing is about or for is readers. This isn't about giving anyone something they want to read, and/or that is worth reading.

It's all published simply for the system. As part of the system. The system runs on shit that no one cares about, no one likes, not even the people of the system. It's never for an actual reader, with readers in mind. A single legitimate reader. A single human reader. There is nothing less relevant than a reader to people like this.

The writing isn't meant to be read. Let that sink in for a second. The writing isn't meant to be read.

It's writing. How the hell is that even possible that there isn't a thought given for a reader? Why have the writing at all, then?

I'll tell you: so these broken, talentless freaks can feel important. That is the reason why this subculture and this industry exists. For these people to live in fantasy land and indulge their egos, their pathetic egos, and live a life of unchallenged, dysfunctional delusion.

They don't even go through any motions of trying to cover that up with work that is passable as a slightly less obvious version of shit.

Their entire system is based upon total apathy and the non-existence of readers. They had to kill off readers in order to have this ego gravy train. How pathetic is that? You need writing that is a non-entity to kill off reading and readers in order for this system, set up for these freaks, to continue as it does. That's why they publish what they publish. Then they're free to indulge themselves, and get away with anything they want. That's what is happening.

A man like J.W. McCormack is a nothing in life. Not even a single head louse. Like the work he publishes, he's more akin to the absence of anything, than anything at all.

But to these people, to have that title--fiction editor, in his case--they're so delusional that they stretch that in their diseased minds into this fantasy that they're important. They need this, because they don't have anything else. They don't have ability. Judgment. Knowledge. Purpose. A clue. There's no legitimacy. There isn't even any effort. Any commitment.

But there is nothing that terrifies and disorders these people and deranges them like someone who is legit, and is everything good that they are not, and could never even dream of being. Anyone who is not like them, because of talent, character, and legitimacy, threatens their egos, which is why you have a system where pretty much unilaterally, it's people like this.

All you have to do is cite any of this work in public, in a setting like the pages of this journal, and call attention to it, and by calling attention to it, anyone who looks at it will know how irrefutably awful it is.

Think about that. The entire system is based on no one ever actually doing what I'm doing right now.

How do they try and assure that no one will? They made it just about impossible for anyone who is not one of them, who is not as unstable, broken, talentless as they are, to be in their system. Or to interact with the system if they're not a member of it. To do business within the workings of the system, in conjunction with the mechanics that are in place. The theoretical mechanics of commerce (publication, marketing, distribution, etc.)

They had to drive away everyone who is not like them. Every person who is not this screwed up. And might actually have something to offer. Or everything there is to offer, for that matter.

They drove them away early in their twenties, by making it plain that they wouldn't be welcome here. And they drive them away late, the people who still write in their corners of the world, usually in academia, where they try and pass on what knowledge they do have to other people. That person in their corner of the world could get up tomorrow and write the best work in the history of humankind, a work that can change the world. Heal the world in part. A work that the world needs more than anyone other work. a work to be beloved by millions. It won't matter. They know it won't matter.

They likely wouldn't even be able to publish it for free in a literary journal that no one reads, no one has heard of, because of the system people who oversee it. People like J.W. McCormack.

But really he's no more broken or hateful or disgusting, talentless, fraudulent, intellectually and morally bankrupt than Christopher Beha at Harper's. David Remnick and Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker. Emily Stokes at The Paris Review. Luke Neima at Granta. And it's the presses, too. It's all the same.

Very soon in these pages we will look at how corrupt, how bigoted, how backwards, the likes of Craig Popelars and Masie Cochran are at the book publisher Tin House, which also used to have its own pointless literary journal to go along with the book press, and then folded because the rich person who pays for Tin House to exist (which is the reason the press exists) didn't want to anymore. There was a never a real reader in the world who cared. In this case, we have bigots. We have people who are awful at their jobs. Or should I say, "jobs." Who are also sexists. And racists. More on that soon enough, though.

Right now, in this precise moment, we can go to the websites of any of those periodicals just mentioned above, click on the very first story we see at each of them, and be assured that it will suck. It will suck as much as what we just saw for the latest time in The Baffler. It will be there for reasons that have nothing to do with the work, which, again, isn't even a thing; it's a non-entity. Want to do it? Okay: Here's "Tantrum" from Lucie Elven--a connected, box-checking system person, of course--in Granta.

Granta is supposed to publish the best fiction in the world. Or, I should say, by reputation that comes entirely from what the people of the system say, not what anyone out in the world thinks. Do you think that's the best fiction in the world? Do you think anyone does? Do you think anyone thinks that doesn't suck? Anyone anywhere? How boring is that story? What is the point of that story? How flat is the language? How blah? How sterile? How vanilla? Limp? Can you read further than a few lines? Why would you? What reason does the story give you to keep reading? How is it special? What makes it outstanding? Why is it necessary? Why should people read it? Why should anyone? Why should a single person on this earth read that story?

They shouldn't. And they won't. Not to read it, read it. You'll get system people who skim it, and pretend it's something that no one thinks it is. But that just speaks to how pathetic and broken and unserious these people are.

Once they got rid of anyone who wasn't like them, they had a system where no one was around within that system to object to what was happening. There was no one in the building, so to speak, to shine any light, or say, "Hey, um, is that really so awesome? Should we be publishing that? Why, exactly, are you publishing that again?"

You had and have a system where everyone in it is there for the illusion of power, the illusion of importance, for their pathetic egos.

Again, think about that. How is that not plainly what this is?

How many hundreds of examples have we looked at in these pages? And it's every time. You never think, because no one could ever think, "Hmmmm, well, that's a pretty great example of some fiction that Fleming just showed me from that writer."

These people are vulnerable right now. There is nothing they can do to protect themselves, because they are that filthy, that bigoted, that corrupt, and every word in an entry like this isn't just true, it's objectively, demonstrably true, and it's all so obvious.

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