Monthly Archives: September 2008

A terribly sad thing I never want to hear again

Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about six years. I made it through the first 80 pages two or three times, but never mustered the willpower to plow through the whole thing. I read Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also about six years ago, but don’t remember them well other than that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews were depressingly impressive.

So I can’t properly speak to the importance, quality, or influence of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. But, boy, his nonfiction was good.

Some of the essays and articles — okay, all of them — collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are incredibly pretentious in parts. But Wallace still somehow managed to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, observant, and absurdly smart writers I’ve ever read.

He took the cliche of cultural essay writing — the discovery of grand meaning in banal American minutia, or in a movie, or in an athlete, or in anything — and repeatedly made it true, through sheer force of intellect, imagination, and accumulated detail. I agree with John Seery: “Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.”

After Stephen King and Stephen Hunter, Wallace was probably the biggest influence on my own formative writing and thinking. (In college that influence expressed itself as blatant copycat pieces. I hope by now his influence is more a part of my thought process, and shows up in my writing primarily as purposeful homage, like using the word “tummies” in this post.) And I’m really, really sad that he’s dead.

I wish I could write more of a tribute, but I’d have to reread all his stuff to do it justice. You should just go read those two nonfiction collections (some of the essays in them are available online: a dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival; an article on Roger Federer; a piece on David Lynch).

Anyway, writing about the suicide of creative-genius heroes sucks. So I’ll just end with the beginning of an appreciation of Elliott Smith I wrote in 2003. Replace the word “musician” with “writer” (and ignore the addiction part, I assume) and the sentiment still holds.

There’s a terrible irony to suicide. In too many cases when overwhelming loneliness and self-loathing ultimately end in death, it turns out that love and appreciation were there in abundance. They just couldn’t get through the barriers built of depression and addiction.

It’s even worse to think about musician suicides: They were unable to accept or process not only the affection of family and friends, but the joy, pleasure and awe they inspired in their many fans.

The truth is, I didn’t just want to be as good a writer as DFW — I wanted to be as smart as he was. But if this is the price of genius, I’m happy never to know what that’s like.

Blarg.

On politics and blogging

Hmm … two posts about politics in one night. I’m not usually that fired up.

Maybe it was the rape kits that pushed me over the edge. Ezra Klein explains:

Eight years ago, the Alaskan Legislature had to pass a bill that banned towns from charging rape victims for the kits used to prove the crime and capture the perpetrator. These kits cost between $300 and $1,200 a piece, and are an essential portion of the investigation. There was only one town in the state doing this: Wasilla, where Sarah Palin was mayor. This was the same town that received tens of millions of dollars in pork, and had the money to hire a high-priced lobbying firm to bring in yet more. Shame Ted Stevens couldn’t appropriate some money so rape victims weren’t hit with a $1,000 bill.

Journalism’s trouble with lies

Why oh why can’t journalists call a lie a lie?

The question has come up repeatedly in this campaign season of depressingly typical he-said-she-said news stories — with increasing frequency since John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In an ideal world, as Dylan Matthews points out, “When Sarah Palin claimed she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, the AP headline would be ‘Palin Repeats Lie about Infamous Bridge’.”

In the real world, even a Washington Post story that’s ostensibly about campaign lies has to resort to wishy-washy phrasing:

Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies. Almost every day, for instance, McCain says rival Barack Obama would raise everyone’s taxes, even though the Democrat’s tax plan exempts families that earn less than $250,000. (emphasis added)

Notice how the story won’t call McCain a liar — it’s McCain’s “opponents” who say he lies. But in the very next sentence, the Post reporter accurately describes one of McCain’s lies. The facts aren’t in dispute: Obama has a detailed tax plan, and McCain has repeatedly falsely described that plan. He has lied about it. So why can’t the story just come out and say so?

The reticence to call a lie a lie is perhaps the most pernicious example of how modern journalism’s objectivity fetish has been taken to such extremes that it’s become meaningless.

Objectivity is no longer (if it ever was) a means to reporting the truth. It has become an end in itself. If the facts can be interpreted to reflect negatively on a subject (at least if that subject is a Republican or allegedly conservative candidate for office), then they must be avoided. Indeed, this twisted notion of objectivity has turned facts into mere subjective interpretations.

But facts are facts. The interpretation comes after. And journalists should not worry about how the facts will be interpreted.

For example, simply pointing out that someone is lying is descriptive, not normative.

“John McCain lied about Barack Obama and sex education” is a statement of fact. It does not render judgment on McCain — it merely points out that what he said about Obama was intentionally false.

Now, it’s true that in American culture in general and presidential politics specifically, people generally don’t think highly of liars. But that’s reason for John McCain to stop lying — not for the media to stop pointing out when he lies.

If the facts reflect poorly on a subject in the culture’s eyes, that’s the subject’s business — not the media’s. (The whole point of objectivity was that the media shouldn’t be in the reflection business!)

The good news is, there’s been so much outrage in certain quarters about the media’s fear of lie-detection that maybe things will change. And if a new AP story on McCain’s lies doesn’t quite reach Dylan Matthews’ ideal — the still-too-tentative headline: “Analysis: McCain’s claims skirt facts, test voters” — at least it’s a start.

What this election is about

There are any number of reasons why someone might not want to vote for Barack Obama.

I get that. But I also agree with Andrew Sullivan about what’s at stake in this election.

We need to think about: Who best can win the war on terror? Who best can extricate us from Iraq? Who best can handle Pakistan? Who best can manage the financial meltdown? Who best will rid us of addiction to foreign oil? Who best can unite the country? Who best can tackle the enormous debt the Bush-Cheney years have landed us with? Who best can restore America’s core abhorrence of torture?

Now watch these videos.

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Richard Blais’ Home: The nicest restaurant in America

I usually hate restaurant reviews that spend the first 11 paragraphs talking about decor or service. Sure, tell me if the tables are all cubist shapes that make the food fall in your lap, or if the waiters kick you in the shins each time they bring out a plate. Mostly, though, I just want to know if the food is good.

This, however, is not a review of Home, the Atlanta restaurant featuring Richard Blais from Top Chef Season 4. I’m not qualified to do that, other than to say the food was terrific overall: fresh bursts of cilantro in the rich silken corn soup with lump crab relish; perfectly cooked shrimp over creamy, almost rice-puddingish grits (though I’m not sure I want to know what the “she-crab butter” is that presumably gives the grits their surprising sweetness); do-I-really-want-to-taste-it-okay-I’ll-eat-some-more ranch ice cream. The sour cream pecan cake was kind of dry, but the peaches, cream, and sweet tea ice cream that accompanied it matched the rest of the meal.

No, this is an appreciation of an underrated quality, in chefs as well as our culture at large: being nice.

In fact, Home just might be the nicest restaurant in America. (Ed. Note: I have, surprisingly, not been to every restaurant in America.)

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