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You're dealing with nothing but bigots (New York Review of Books edition)

Friday 1/24/20

See this here? Letters to three bigots at The New York Review of Books. Love the quality of the ideas, right? Fascinating, yes? Is there anyone more qualified in the world to write on these worthy ideas? Look at how well-written even the pitches are. Look at what this man is doing in his work elsewhere. Look at the quality, depth, range of his mind.


Not a single response, because this is a closed system of bigots who only look after their own.


I'll number the letters, which go in reverse chronology. But these are bigots in a dying business that has killed off reading because it is concerned primarily with 1. Bigotry 2. Cronyism 3. Mediocrity 4. Envy 5. Hate 6. Incompetence 7. Ego 8. Power 9. Sexism 10. Racism 11. Entitlement 12. Sloth 13. Pretentiousness.


Call it the Evil 13.


Here is just one small sample with these people. It goes on for years, would go on for years more. Publishing is a totally closed system, unless you are one of these people. If you make your way, somehow, by some miracle, a series of miracles, and you are not one of them, they will hate you and try to completely freeze you out.


Which is why I can say this, because it does not matter. A place like The New York Review of Books is ultimately going to need me more than I need it.


In each instance here, the co-editors Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost, and senior editor Michael Shae, were included on the same emails. There was not a single response, and there never is and never would be, unless Shae were to send one of his occasional boilerplate emails, because I am not one of these people.


1. Hello. I know you have some ideas of mine, so I will be brief (I do not believe any of the ideas have been responded to, though I have an outwash of email to catch up on). 2020 marks Charlie Parker's centennial. Two Parker-related ideas occurred to me. I thought either would work well for your purposes. The first: Parker not only changed the history of jazz, with his ascent, we can mark a distinctive change in how jazz was written about. It's an interesting connection, and what we'd do is look at how Parker's approach to his horn influenced the manner in which critical jazz prose was fashioned. He represents the demarcation point from writing about a kind of dance music, to self-endued art, via Parker-influenced art. Secondly: Parker was every bit the Modernist a James Joyce was, and in one single session--in November 1945--he birthed an entirely new kind of music. The war halted the release of commercial music product, the result being that we are able to hear Parker, live in the studio, in take upon take, invention upon invention, hit various ne plus ultra points that no other musician ever had, including Armstrong. I have the particular tape of the session. Could be a fascinating exegesis. 

Here, too, is a new piece from The Daily Beast on the Netflix's Dracula series--an attempt--though not successful--to create a post-sexist Stoker-derived work. https://www.thedailybeast.com/netflixs-dracula-from-mark-gatiss-and-steven-moffat-is-a-blood-sucking-disappointment?ref=home 2. Some items from the past few days. A piece in JazzTimes on Bessie Smith, a feature in The American Interest on one of the most significant concerts in this country's history, a personal essay--via a film--in The Smart Set on navigating a difficult holiday, and a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the folly of New Year's resolutions and a better alternative. https://jazztimes.com/features/columns/a-bessie-smith-christmas/ https://www.thesmartset.com/the-sad-state-of-holiday-affair/ https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/12/24/the-jazz-magi-of-carnegie-hall/ https://www.wsj.com/articles/dont-wait-a-year-to-make-resolutions-11577750681?mod=opinion_lead_pos9

In the early days of 2020 I have composed a new work of short fiction, a piece on an early dramatic undertaking by Orson Welles for the TLS, and another WSJ op-ed asking the question if it is okay to be weak. Things are surging--another 500+ subscribers signed up for my popular blog, covering all manner of culture--art, sports, film, literature, ballet, music--and politics and publishing, in the past week, and I am writing and proofing at the moment, which is why I am also up at five in the morning on a Saturday to send you this letter. I thought I would quickly mention some new ideas for possible New York Review of Books pieces, should you be amenable to me writing any of them. March 5 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Norris, a kind of forgotten American master. Not, doubtless, by the likes of you and staff, but by the general intelligentsia, I should say. I began reading Norris while in college, having come to McTeague via Erich von Stroheim's 1922 silent epic, Greed. Most people who read Norris begin and end with McTeague. (In fact, the 15-year-old Boston Arts Academy student I mentor has a copy of this book she came by, which fairly blows my mind.) But what I would really like to focus on is Norris's 1901 novel, The Octopus, was its the most resonant with our age of all of his works. In brief, the octopus, as such, is an Amazon, we might say, a Facebook; many-limbed corporate behemoth, not only dictating terms of commerce, but terms of culture, terms of how we think, the scaling back of critical thinking, and identity. Individualism might be the rarest attribute of our age. Norris anticipated this. In spring 1970, Miles Davis unleashed Bitches Brew on the world; the world, naturally, had never heard anything like it, and as I listen to the album of late, I think of Davis's intentions, which are so far afield with the intentions beyond most endeavors of art making--I call the making of art-lite--here in 2020. I'm thinking of the creepy, inauspicious term of "fan-service," which we see trotted out with ever-greater frequency. What fan-service really means is we are about to be cudgeled with retreads, with imitations and reference to the past, what an editor of mine, when I contributed to Rolling Stone, gleefully called "pressing the nostalgia button"--though he meant this in a happy way, which was both sad and depressing. What the fan-service approach means is that there will be nothing fresh, new, compelling, as if we are all too obtuse to thrill to something new, which is, of course, hogwash. We, I would argue, crave such freshness; we rarely get it. Davis gave it, and the freshness of Bitches Brew all of these years later extols the merits of this approach. I've also never really been satisfied with the various critical approaches to the music; you tend to get misguided breakdowns from people who are rock people, and the same from people who are on the jazz side. I am, in my multiplicities--which are myriad--both. Finally, the LOA is putting out a four-volume set of Westerns from the 1940s in June. The Searchers, The Ox-Bow Incident, Shane, Warlock. How curious that this decade of the gumshoe and noir saw a rebirth of the Western genre--but the rebirth was a matter of stripping away the old trappings of genre, to forge a kind of accessible art that had, paradoxically, avant-garde leanings at time; call it avant-garde via naturalism. There's even a kind of magical realism to something like The Searchers, which has never been noted, and was stripped from the John Ford film. Sincerely,

Colin Fleming 3. Hello. Quick update. I ended up writing that Scorsese essay detailed below earlier this week, and then sold it to Salmagundi, which features, of course, a number of your regular contributors (they also have a short story of mine to run, so that's two pieces on deck). They termed it radical and brilliant. It's 3100 words presently, and they want me to add another 500 or so, which I will do this weekend after I complete a piece for the TLS, but if you had any interest in seeing how it turned out--even though it's off the books now--it is attached. Or, rather, has mostly turned out; still a bit of the way to go, in terms of some aspects to fill in. I do have this idea, though, which I think is strong. I have written on F. Scott Fitzgerald quite a bit in my career, and I will actually be discussing a work of his called "Pat Hobby's Christmas Wish" this coming week on a radio station who gets guests the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Brian Wilson, Ken Burns. I have been mulling this for a bit. Check it out?

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise. Paradise is a misunderstood novel, a kind of Pickwick Papers for the college set. I think it's arresting to look at it now, with what is happening in higher education, as the forms of education in this so-called definitive college novel become pressed more and more to the wayside. Does the work still hold up? Or, did it ever really hold up that much for starters? It has a fantastic energy to it, which you'll sometimes see with debut novels, and an energy unlike anything else in the Fitzgerald corpus. Not that he wouldn't, often, write better works, because of course he did. But it bristles with urgency, of a talent trying to locate and master itself, and also a young man trying to woo a would-be bride, for Zelda would not take his hand--talk about a power dynamic--unless he had sold this book, which Scribner had at first turned down.

The takeaway point for a lot of people over these ten decades is that the book glorifies the liberal arts education, when I would argue that it pointedly--even acidulously--critiques it, satirizes it. Fitzgerald was something of a liberal arts fan boy, while also reviling the rigid dogma of the liberal arts tradition. He was more of a bucking Modernist than people usually think, and that's what Paradise was, a brand of tart Modernism. 4. Dear Emily, Gabriel, and Michael, How are the three of you? I had an idea for a piece for you. I sold a novel and story collection the other day. My fiction has recently appeared in Harper's, Glimmer Train, Conjunctions. Op-eds have run of late in The Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News. I speak on network TV about various things, do a lot of radio, and my critical pieces appear in The Washington Post, TLS, ARTnews, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and so forth. I've been in most places with most things. My website is probably more useful (colinfleminglit.com) than a laundry list here. A book on cinema is due next year, as well as an entry in the 33 1/3 series on a Sam Cooke album. I want to write an essay on Scorsese's The Irishman, looking at it through the lens of what I call situational predilection, a form of liking something--and that something gaining an audience and approbation--for reasons that have nothing to do with the work itself, or little, anyway, and often occur now in spite of a work's flaws in what I view as a phasic post-art, post-entertainment time period. I find the film prolix and predictable--a lethal combo--and passive. Three bad P's, one might say.

It is also to my thinking sexist--women are mere props, if that--with camera techniques sourced from the sitcom milieu--and every move it makes is as telegraphed and expected as a rudimentary beat in a 4/4 rock song. There are no surprises, and it is someone doing the same moves they've done for an entire career. And yet...the mash notes tumble in, but I don't believe anyone really feels that strongly, one way or the other, about the film. It's as if we are all a collective Robinson Crusoe, on our island, and we have our sea cucumbers for sustenance, and up washes an orange. We revel in consuming it, but again, it's situational--it's but an orange. Rescued, back home, with a stocked larder, the orange scarcely rates. We don't notice it. The Irishman is a very companionable film. You're listening in on people interacting, the way you do at the bus stop. It's human that way, and it's an easy three and a half hours to get through, because it asks so little of our emotions. Again, that passivity. You don't really care about the characters--you know the tropes; you know when the head shots are coming. You know how it ends when it starts, just as we might know what is going to be the sum result of, say, a Steinbeck novel, when he has some tacky, bulky symbol at the start like a turtle trying to cross a road. It's the opposite of venturesome art, but it is also an event, a kind of cod-intellectualism, where we can put on our "I am a cultured person" caps and feel tied in to a zeitgeist in a more significant way than, let us say, watching videos of corpulent people unable to get out of the sea because of the waves that knock them off their balance, which, alas, is a big thing at present.

It'll be good. I am thinking like 2000 words. I need very little time to do it. A day or two this week. This is me on the radio the other day, having been asked the question what ails publishing in 2019, as we head into 2020: http://www.downtownwithrichkimball.com/2019/11/26/colin-fleming-11-26-19/

Here is a segment from Wednesday from a popular radio station in Chicago about two recent WSJ op-eds; the segment begins around the three hour and eleven minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6l3Zv_o0woI And this was an interview I gave for someone's podcast on Billie Holiday: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/songs-of-note/id1488884489?i=1000457521399 I appreciate the time. Best,

Colin