I loved Roger Ebert’s wit and lack of pretention. His movie reviews in The Chicago Sun-Times often struck a delicate balance between honesty and generosity. He had a great sense of film history and he’d contextualize Hollywood stinkers in ways that made them interesting as artifacts of a silly and unforgiving industry.
Over time, I found his approach to be applicable beyond the movies: first accept that there will be a lot of garbage in a given field or system. Then understand that garbage can teach you as much, if not more, than quality if you’re willing to pay attention. That is, if you can continue watching, if you can manage to withstand it and keep your lunch down.
Sometimes, I have a near visceral reaction to pretentious media, especially when it comes to literary fiction and nonfiction. I can trace it to when I was getting a master’s degree in writing and every other literary novel seemed to be about an attractive young woman on the east coast exploring bisexuality and working in an art gallery. Most of the stories submitted in my workshops were also about that or something very close to it. I spent my MFA depressed, alienated from a literary scene steeped in cloying trendiness.
Besides, I didn’t know how to write about that stuff, even if it was required reading in my classes. My characters, as one of my instructors put it, were rather from the “low end of the service economy.” And that dog wouldn’t hunt if I wanted a career as a writer. So she hoped I had plans after graduation. Maybe sell some insurance or, you know, the Navy. Half-drunk at a faculty party, I laughed and said something like, “Don’t do me any favors.” She didn’t.
The formula was ubiquitous in those years and seemed to whip my professors into a lather whenever one of the Big Six offered up another clone—probably because my professors were working writers trying desperately to stay in step with what their agents and editors demanded. Then Candace Bushnell anthologized her New York Observer columns, which applied the formula to a type of harder-edged, jaded, status-anxious Manhattanite and everybody wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw.
I tried to channel my inner Ebert when writing critiques of the new Bushnellian short stories coming across the table. I drank my Milk of Magnesia and tried to learn. And I did learn at least one thing: marketing is rarely about art even when art is being marketed. But the artists don’t always realize this. Everyone’s just trying to do their best. Everyone just wants to be loved in a world that won’t love them back. So what’s it gonna take? Go ask Candace.
By the time Sex and the City hit HBO, 9/11 had already seared itself into the national consciousness. So naturally the usual illicit love triangles, existential crises, career failures and ineffectual husband stories that had been previously set in five-bedroom homes, fancy restaurants, galleries, and uptown lofts—with an odd chapter sometimes taking place at a resort in Vail or, saints preserve us, on a boat off the coast of Mallorca—now featured explosions.
I was advised to rewrite my current novel and make the protagonist a fireman. A well-known British novelist, who I’d previously considered above all this, published a divorce novel almost identical to his previous divorce novel, save that the new one was set not far from ground zero at the World Trade Center. My former classmates, now selling insurance, preparing to ship out on aircraft carriers, or working in the low end of the service economy, were suddenly writing stories that read less like quotidian Nobel Prize Alice Munro and more like overheated radio dramas from the 1940s.
Maybe Ebert got his compassionate take from “Sturgeon’s Law,” formulated in 1957 by science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, who declared in a column for Venture Science Fiction that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Subsequent writers reformulated this as: ninety percent of everything is garbage meant to hold up the ten percent that isn’t.” Sometimes, this is referred to as “landfill theory.” Still, if we’ve learned anything from modern horror movies—a genre that seems densely compacted with trash—one does not take the landfill for granted.
So I tried to embrace the new NPR-coffee-table terrorism fetish like every other young writer planning on attending the next AWP conference, but it was hard. Hard to keep down. Hard to contextualize as just another trend. Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close helped because I thought it was really good. Maybe I’d read it differently now, but I remember thinking Foer’s 2005 novel was the only good thing I’d read with 9/11 as a backdrop. I started to wonder whether the New York publishing industry had the potential to become less squeamish, less trendy, less risk-averse.
Nevertheless, when David Foster Wallace killed himself three years later and Little, Brown, and Company jumped at the chance to publish his unfinished Pale King, it seemed like a new low. The marketing around the book wasn’t about pushing units anymore or the possibility of an HBO special somewhere down the line. Maybe no one knew what it was about. Maybe the reptilian DNA of Little, Brown’s sales reps had finally asserted control and the lizards were running amok in a wild frenzy, fucking and consuming everything in sight. Then again, maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention.
I had a Skype meeting with an agent around this time who looked very much like the students I used to see coming out of the London School of Economics when I’d get off the Tube at Holborn: impeccably clean, flinty expression, driven, deeply unhappy. She asked me what the books on either side of my novel would be in the bookstore and didn’t smile when I said, “Well, that depends. What bookstore are we in?”
I should have said, “On one side we have The Pale King. On the other, of course, is Emperor’s Children—it culminates on 9/11, don’t you know.” She knew. I knew she knew. And she would have approved. Messud’s Emperor’s Children is the Sex and the City of 9/11 literary opportunism. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t say anything like that. We simply looked at each other for a moment and she wished me good luck.
We’ve come a long way since then; though, it seems like we’re doing the same dance to different music. Much has been made of the wokification of publishing, whatever that means, and the censorship of Roald Dahl, whose work in its untreated form has now been adjudged dangerous for the youth. I suspect this has something to do with Millennials and Gen Zs being really, really, really, really sensitive and therefore risk averse. More than we ever were. In some ways, I suppose it’s good to be that sensitive. In others, perhaps not so good. And Roald Dahl’s estate better watch out. Because now they’re saying the Oompa Loompas are the “subject of some racial controversy” and I have no doubt they’ll be evaluating the corruptive influence of Switch Bitch and Esio Trot before long.
Still, the cynical insensitive Gen X voice in the back of my head says commerce will undermine equity, safe spaces, and sensitivity readers in the end. The scaly reptiles of the publishing industry are mostly nocturnal, preferring to stay hidden during the day. But when they catch the scent of profit, they invariably rise up and stop doing good so they might do well.
Then into the landfill will go yesterday’s social justice homilies along with the newly expurgated Bond books and whatever Dahl stories were rewritten by an administrative assistant at Penguin Random House using ChatGPT. And there will be a new renaissance of insensitive fiction and non-inclusive speech. Well, the grave’s a fine and private place. If Fleming and Dahl are turning in it as a result of all this bad noise, who really wants to know? Maybe the AI rewrites will improve between now and the next big thing.
I’m reminded of one of Ebert’s funniest reviews: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) which, in the first sentence, he called “a horrible experience of unbearable length.” Unwilling to pull punches, as this seemed like one of the few movies Ebert really hated and resented having to watch, he wrote that “the movie has been signed by Michael Bay. This is the same man who directed The Rock in 1996. Now he has made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Faust made a better deal. . . . The two most inexplicable characters are Ron and Judy Witwicky (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), who are the parents of Shia LaBeouf, who Mephistopheles threw in to sweeten the deal.”
That always makes me laugh. Yet, this was not one of Ebert’s most compassionate reviews. It was one where the balance shifted conspicuously from generosity to blistering contempt. Maybe it was his age or the fact that he was definitely of a less sensitive generation, less concerned with being non-offensive, and it was starting to show. But there’s no denying that his serrated wit could sometimes reach neoclassical dimensions. And that may be why we read him—not for how much safety and inclusivity his ingenium could provide, but for how dangerous he could be.