In Defense of Sport

A few days ago, I posted to twitter (shameless plug: @jtjarzemsky): “Part of growing up: when you see somebody you respect say something foolish and can’t change their mind, leave them be.” Well, I decided to go back on that bit of advice, since this is something’s that’s been bothering me for a while now.

 I wasn’t always into sports. Like most creative, maladjusted teenagers, I considered myself above things that everybody else liked, and since I grew up in Dallas, Texas, sports definitely fell under this heading. The thing was, I topped six feet tall at fourteen or fifteen, and definitely caught the eye of all our football and basketball coaches. In the end, I wound up dabbling a bit in track and cross country, but I still never held athletics in very high regard.

 This changed, partially, when I went off to college in Boston. The year was 2004, and for anybody with passing knowledge of baseball, the year that the perennially unlucky Boston Red Sox finally bested the New York Yankees in the post-season and went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918.

 I wanted to fit in, since I knew only one other person from back home, and since I was living outside of Texas for the first time in my entire life. If you’re from outside the area, let me shed a little light: the northeast, and New England in particular, is crazy about baseball. Back in Texas, the name of the game was football, and I had mild interest in basketball after Mark Cuban rehabilitated the formerly embarrassing Mavericks. Still, a group activity that I could bond with my floormates over? Something that cost no money? Perfect.

 At first, I only watched games out of some sort of social obligation, but as the Red Sox moved deeper into the post-season, the fever started to grip me in earnest. I had rotted in right field the few years I played baseball in middle school and junior high, had only a passing knowledge of the rules, and knew nothing of the rosters of any team, not even my own Texas Rangers. Soon though, I was looking forward to every game with real anticipation, obsessively reading commentary on ESPN.com, and reveling in the sometimes friendly, often bitter fights and arguments that broke out between the native New England kids (Red Sox loyalists all) and the decent New York contingent (take a wild guess).

 Anyways, that fall was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Baseball is an amazing sport to watch by virtue of the bone-crushing tension that mounts when two incredibly talented teams and coaches take aim at one another, and the tall order of coming back from a 3-0 deficit cranks that tension to 11.

 So, wrapping up a very long intro, I had found good cause to enjoy sports: the camaraderie, the social aspects, the excitement, and the pleasures of fandom. However, getting back to the original “something foolish”, not everybody feels this way. The tweet I quoted at the top was in response to a friend of mine, somebody whom I respect a great deal, and thus shall remain anonymous. He fired off a number of tweets basically supporting the now fashionable position that sports, athletics, and athletes are at the very best, trivial, and at the worst, a waste of time and attention. The undercurrent seems to suggest a widely held view that sports are not for smart or otherwise cultured people.

 It wasn’t always the case. In literature especially, a great number of very intelligent and gifted authors often wrote obsessively and intelligently on the subject of sports or were themselves athletes at one point in life (Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, John Irving, et al). As time’s gone on, we’ve seemed to forgotten that sports are culture.

 In fact, I’ve even detected a certain animosity, less noticeable in the older and more intelligent, towards athletes or even those with a particular affinity for enjoying sports. More than one person in my social media feeds rolled their eyes and made pithy comments about the apparent worthlessness of this year’s Olympic Games, arguing that the “deification” (their word, not mine) of athletes was shameful when taken in conjunction with the relatively poor treatment of teachers, scientists, artists, et al.

 First, a point of order: it is true that appreciation of sports requires perhaps a less trained and educated mind than say, appreciation of interstellar travel or the Hadron collider. Isn’t this cultural elitism of the worst kind? Correlation is not causation, a fact that those who deride athletics and sports fandom as contributing to the “dumbing down” of American culture would do well to remember.

 Secondly, the supposition that reaching the zenith of athletic accomplishment is somehow less difficult or worthy of praise than say, being a great artist, is incorrect, and reflects poorly on the intelligence those who hold such a wrong-headed view. The general (inaccurate) consensus is that sports are unimpressive because sports are games of chance, that mastery of the body precludes mastery of the mind, or that athletic prowess is something anybody could accomplish if they put their minds to it.

 Let’s tackle the first, and most obvious misconception. Sports, at least, the most popular American sports, are not games of chance at all, but games of skill and strategy. Those who excel at simply “putting a ball in a hoop” or “hitting a ball with a stick” are not extremely lucky, they are extremely talented and committed to physical excellence. The coaches who oversee these athletes are not taking shots in the dark (most of the time), they are strategizing based on hours upon countless hours of painstaking research, analysis, and relying on their ability to read and respond to situations  with fully developed tactical changes within minutes. Chance and randomness, is of course, an element of sports, as it is with almost any facet of life.

 Anybody who has even spent time in a gym knows how incredibly difficult even staying in moderate shape is. It doesn’t take a master of critical thinking to realize that maintaining the physique required for professional sports is not only physically demanding to an absurd degree, but it requires a steadfast conviction that one is a master of one’s own body. Psychological resilience is key to any great athlete’s legacy, and even if most professional athletes might not possess the shrewdness, introspection, or education available to those who aren’t spending six days per week in a gym, the sheer willpower and toughness needed for athletic greatness is, if nothing else, a great indicator of character. And, as we all know, intelligence can exist without character.

 The idea that “anybody” could ascend to the upper echelons of professional sports is akin to the philistine who looks at a piece of abstract art and declares that “anyone” could have painted it. While technically true, both statements belie an ugly jealousy and shame of one’s own inability to achieve.

 While sports and athletics do unfortunately come packaged in a culture that is largely geared towards the lowest common denominator, this should be expected of any enterprise generating as much revenue as the sports industry does in the United States (I would get into debunking the argument that most athletes are “spoiled millionaires”, but this essay is already running long). However, the achievements of athletes should not be lost amidst the noise of brain-dead beer commercials.

 Sports and athletes are valuable in that they are a reflection of the potential of human beings. The linebacker who comes off the block as quickly as an Olympic sprinter, the gymnast who contorts her body in ways that would seem impossible if one weren’t watching with their own eyes, these people are no less indicative of the pure, awesome power of the human spirit than someone who paints an extraordinary picture or reads a poem that moves one to tears. The critics of sports, on the outside looking in, often deride fandom as the celebration of one team of strangers beating another team of strangers, but that’s really only part of the equation.

 When I was in Boston during the “four days in October”, I felt elated partly because Boston was my new home, the Red Sox my new team, and it always feels good when your team does an incredible job. However, the reason a kid from Texas with little use for baseball before 2004 cheered was not only so he’d have an experience to share with his roommate from Sharon, MA. The 2004 Red Sox, and so many other amazing athletes and coaches before them, elicited cheers and elation and awe because they make us realize, again and again, that we are capable of anything.

The Killing Floor

The streets of Dallas always had a peculiar scent in the summertime. It became tantalizingly noticeable in the late days of April, weeks before any school children would be released for a three-month reprieve. By July, it was an overpowering bouquet of baking hot concrete, fresh grass clippings, and lingering hints of chlorine.  But here, deep in the bowels of 2853 Exposition Way, the comforting summertime smell was only a distant memory that Ray W. Hattfield clung to as he brought up the rear of the pack. Directly in front of him was Eddie Carson, a lumbering beanpole of a kid who already topped six feet at fourteen years old. Next, huffing and puffing, was Barry Herman, a “husky” kid (if Barry weren’t ill-tempered and strong more kids might have described him as “fat”) who encouraged people to refer to him as “Bear” but instead got stuck with the moniker of “Babs” after his older brother revealed that Barry had slept with a stuffed Babs Bunny until he was twelve. Tyler had point. He always did.

“Won’t be much longer now!” the fearless runt declared, his still-high voice echoing through the innards of the ruined building. He had been the leader of their little group for as long as Ray could remember; the kid who had the ideas you knew would get you in trouble, who wanted to sneak out of the house during a sleepover, and the one who always, somehow, made everything sound like the greatest adventure that had ever crossed your path.

“You still haven’t told us where the heck we are,” Babs wheezed.

“Or where we’re going,” Ray piped up.

“Won’t be long now,” Tyler repeated. Ray began mentally kicking himself. A surprise from Tyler was never very pleasant. He flicked his flashlight beam up towards the ceiling and traced a zigzag pattern down the wall. He still had no idea where they were. It was dark, nearly windowless, and gigantic. They had been walking for ten whole minutes and Ray had been unable to form any opinion concerning their whereabouts. He was so lost in his own fact-finding that he failed to notice the expedition had come to a halt, and walked right into the small of Eddie’s back. The giant glanced back with good humor, and then lifted his chin towards the front of the line. Ray looked and saw light spilling in through large windows situated high up in the ceiling. They were open, the glass nearly opaque with dust.

“Here it is,” Tyler shouted, running into the cavernous room. His feet clanged on the floor and a flock of startled grackles scattered out the open windows as the boy hooped and hollered around the pools of light that spilled in from outside.

“What is it?” Babs asked, stepping gingerly out onto the floor, seeing if it would hold his weight. Ray squinted his eyes against the sunlight and saw that most of the ground was made up of steel grating, in a pattern that left enough space for his foot to slip through.

“They used to kill cows here,” Tyler said, crossing his arms with pride. He tapped the rusty grating with his shoe. “My dad told me about it. They had these big machines in here that cut ‘em up, and then the guts and stuff slid through and got sorted out down there.” All of them looked down through the grate, but only dull blackness stared back at them. “Let’s go find a way down!” Tyler nearly shouted, wasting no time in forming a new adventure.

“I’m tired,” Babs grumbled, collapsing to the floor with a grunt.

“Me too,” Ray chimed in. Following Tyler into the depths of a slaughterhouse looking for stale guts didn’t sound like his idea of a good time. Eddie only looked at Tyler with a shrug.

“Suit yourself, babies,” their fearless leader shrugged, taking the setback in stride. “I’m going to find a way down there.” He ran off through a rotting doorway.

Babs watched him round the corner, then grunted and sprawled across the grated floor once he had disappeared from view. Ray worked his way as close as he could to the absolute center of the room, feeling safer the further he got from the decaying walls. He flicked his flashlight over the dark corners, hoping to settle his mind, but the piles of broken down machinery did little to calm his nerves. Eddie shuffled around the perimeter of the grate, his ratty old Vans kicking up tiny mushroom clouds of dust and debris as he took everything in from his superior vantage point.

“How long do you think he’ll be gone?” Ray asked. Babs ignored him, his gently rising and falling belly the only sign of life. Eddie looked over with the goofy, bashful grin he wore whenever he was forced to speak.

“It’ll be a while,” he mumbled in his deep, cracking baritone. They had all gone through the changes, all except Tyler, but Eddie’s voice had never evened out. The pitch of his speech would jump wildly at random intervals, and anything he said sounded muffled, like he was talking underwater with his mouth full. Babs had made the mistake of teasing Eddie about it during a birthday party, and they had all learned that the beanpole could pack a punch, despite his spindly arms.

“Kid’s a spaz,” Babs muttered, struggling to a sitting position. He reached into his cargo shorts pocket and pulled out half a candy bar, carefully unwrapped it, and took a bite before offering it to Ray.

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

“What’s the matter?” Babs mocked in a singsong voice. “Scared you’ll poop your pampers?”

“Not everybody needs a fucking chocolate bar every five minutes,” Ray shot back. Once he saw Babs huffing and puffing to his feet, he immediately regretted it, but then he heard the metallic clang of Eddie swiftly coming to his aid.

“Stop,” Eddie mumbled, looking Babs directly in the eye. Babs flushed scarlet, and pulled himself to a standing position, but remained where he was.

“You calling me fat?” he spat in Ray’s direction.

“I’m not sure he needs to,” Eddie mumbled, looking away, but keeping his body between the smaller boys. Babs glowered impotently at Eddie, thought better of it, and then turned back to Ray.

“Fuck you,” he said with finality.

Ray balled his fists, the knuckles turning white. He didn’t really want to fight, and knew he would almost certainly lose, but the rush of adrenaline that came with the escalating confrontation was preferable to the creeping dread that had blossomed in his belly like a flowering seed. He took several shaky steps towards Babs and Eddie, surprising them both.

“Fuck YOU,” he shouted, trying to will his body into believing. The tremulous bleat drowned in the wake of a larger sound that ripped through the building, boiling up from the bowels: a deep, rattling boom that silenced all three boys. They stared in the general direction the noise had come from, down the same open hallway Tyler had disappeared into minutes earlier. The echo lingered for a second or two, then vanished, leaving a silence that hung in the air, thick as a humid breeze. The three boys stood in the shadow of the great hallway for a moment, and then Eddie began to march towards the direction of the sound.

“What the hell are you doing?” Babs shrieked, his voice shrill and girlish.

“Tyler?” Eddie called, cupping his hands to his mouth. His voice bounced around the big empty room, and he paused, listening for a response and finding none.

“I’m not going down there,” Babs declared, plopping down in the center of the grate. He took a huge chunk from the candy bar.

“Suit yourself,” Eddie mumbled, barely giving him a second glance. “You coming?” he asked Ray. It wasn’t an easy choice, but Ray eventually decided to jump on the opportunity to prove he was tougher than Babs. He didn’t like his chances of escaping unscathed from alone time with the fatso anyway.

“Tyler, you there?” Ray shouted, imitating Eddie’s cupped-hand call. The two of them walked deeper into the catacombs of the slaughterhouse, flashlight beams cutting nervous swathes through the darkness.

Once Eddie and Ray had begun their descent deeper into the building, they found that the hallway narrowed almost immediately, shrinking down to a corridor so small they could barely walk abreast of one another. It was lightless and claustrophobic and smelt faintly of a rotting substance of indeterminate origin. Eddie walked a few paces ahead, in the center of the passage. He did this with charitable intentions, accurately assuming that Ray, being smaller and more easily frightened, would be more at ease with someone else taking point. However, the boy’s size blocked Ray’s view of what lay ahead, and left him exposed from behind, creating a sense of compounded vulnerability that he dared not attempt to correct, lest he be labeled a sissy. Every now and then Eddie would make matters worse by letting loose a warbling “Tyler?” call without warning, and Ray would nearly jump out of his skin.

The floor, had disintegrated in this part of the building, leaving nothing but loose, sand-like dirt. Ray flicked his beam up and down the walls: they were made of a smooth, pressed metal, shiny but not quite reflective. He had never been inside of a slaughterhouse before, but he was an intelligent young man, and he wondered what function such a long, winding, metal corridor could possibly serve. Soon he began to notice that there were random scratches and nicks on the walls, all of them at roughly the same height. He thought about the men who must have worked here, their daily routine, and what purpose this twisting corridor could have possibly served them, when all of the sudden, the realization struck with devastating force, knocking all of the doubt and fear out of him for a moment.

“I know what this was for,” he whispered, mostly to himself.

Eddie glanced back. “Yeah?”

“This was the chute. Where the cows came through, before they died.”

Eddie continued walking forward but looked from one side of the corridor to the other, measuring the width with his arms. “About right,” he muttered. “They had to keep ‘em all in a single file line, or else they’d freak out.”

At last they came to the end of the chute, where it opened up into another holding area, smaller than the killing room, with the same dirt floor as the corridor. It was tall and barn-like, and the metal walls curved in towards each other to form a dome high above, where their flashlights barely shone.  “There,” Eddie said, pointing. Ray looked, and saw that one of the four walls was broken by yawning blackness that lay behind an open and massive sliding steel door. There were footprints in the sand that ran parallel to the threshold, and then disappeared down a narrow staircase on the West wall, near where they had come from. Across the fresh tracks lay a length of chain, fastened somewhere in the dark that lay beyond the door. The chain was enormous, as big as those used to secure ocean liners, and rusty with disuse. It snaked over towards the staircase on the West wall, and then disappeared from view down another corridor, far taller and wider than the metal chute they had emerged from.

“Tyler?” Eddie called as Ray wandered about the room, shining his light up the sides of the silo. He inadvertently kicked up sand as he walked, and the tiny particles tickled the inside of his nostrils. He tried to hold it in, but eventually let loose with a chest rattling sneeze that blew a fine mist into the cool, dry air.

“Jesus,” Eddie muttered, jumping slightly at the sudden burst of noise.

“Sorry,” Ray sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his wrist.

“You hear that?” Eddie whispered sharply. The two of them tensed. Ray heard nothing. “Tyler?” Eddie called again.

Then Ray heard it: a soft, nearly inaudible hiss, like the sound of leather rubbing gently on leather. His eyes flicked through the room, looking for the source, and found none. He stared at the great rusty chain, peering through the dark, barely able to differentiate it from the dusty earth it lay in…and then it moved.

Ray blinked, unsure of himself. His heart began to thud against his breastplate, and he was sure that Eddie could hear it echoing through the silo, but he was still walking the perimeter, calling for Tyler, his voice submerged and far away. Ray stared at the chain, forcing himself not to move or cry out, his eyes burning into the great links of rusted brown steel, waiting for something, anything to happen. He heard Eddie’s ask him what he was doing, and then both boys gaped in horror as the chain shot through the dirt, screeching and rattling around the edge of the open steel door as something on the other side yanked it forward. The chain rushed past like a subway car, a terrifying blur of steel and noise, booming against the sides of the aluminum-walled corridor and sending deafening echoes careening through the empty dome. Ray stood on rubbery legs, his mouth open as hot tears of shame snaked down his cheeks, the warmth matched by the stain forming in the worn-out crotch of his jeans. Eddie grabbed him under the elbow, nearly pulling his arm out of the socket, and they lurched towards the staircase.

They ran down the narrow passageway, even tighter than the slaughter chute. This corridor was clearly designed for one person at a time, with barely enough room for a grown man to turn around in. It was pitch-black, but they tore through with blind panic, led only by the bouncing beams of their dying flashlights. Their feet clanged on the ground, and Ray dumbly noted that it was a grate, similar to the one out in the killing room. Eddie slowed in front of him, and gradually, the two boys ground to a halt, huffing and puffing as quietly as they could. Ray’s legs quivered as he rested his hands on his knees, grimy sweat running out from his temples and stinging his eyes. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, listening for any sound other than his own labored breathing. Eddie looked over his shoulder, his eyes wild. He glanced up pointedly several times, and Ray craned his own neck skyward, surprised to find that they were, in fact, directly under the large, grated killing floor where they had left Babs. Ray opened his mouth to call for him, but Eddie shook his head gravely, and mimed listening towards the wire ceiling in exaggerated fashion. They both stood there holding their breath for several minutes, ears primed for any sign of the dull, heavy dragging sound, but there was nothing, until they heard the sniveling.

“Babs?” Ray whispered sharply.

“Who’s there?” Babs wailed, in a voice so loud it made Ray cringe.

“Down here,” he hissed. “Quiet .”

There were erratic footsteps, and then Babs was directly above them, pressed himself as flat as he could against the grate. “How’d you guys get down there?” he asked in a blubbering whisper.

“Where’s Tyler?” Eddie asked, ignoring the question.

Babs began to shake with new sobs, his voice rising uncontrollably in both pitch and volume. “It got him. He came in here and it got him, and took him away. I heard it. I couldn’t see it but I heard it.”

Eddie was about to continue with his line of questioning when the entire party was silenced by an immense, crushing echo, the sound of something monstrous and heavy heaving itself into soft earth, and drawing near. Eddie and Ray quickly snapped off their flashlights, and even Babs’ crying disappeared as all remained frozen, listening as the noise came closer and closer. Each step rang through the building, the deep crumbling punch picking up hypnotic rhythm as it drew closer and amplified in volume.

Ray looked up at Babs’ fleshy cheek against the wire grate, his slightly open lips trembling and dripping with drool. His eyes were locked in the direction of the approaching steps, watering and unblinking.

“Babs,” Ray hissed. “Run!” Babs didn’t move, but the vibration of his lips increased in time with the pace of the approaching calamity; the space between steps had grown maddeningly short.

“Run!” Eddie and Ray both screamed, and this time the daze was broken as Babs twisted himself into a sitting position, and then began to haul himself upright faster than he had ever done anything in his life. Go! Ray urged in his head, pleading with every ounce of will in his body and mind that Babs would get away. This light, airy rush of hope fell suddenly and when Ray heard the unmistakable sound of bone twisting and splintering, followed by Babs’ inhuman shriek of pain. Ray looked up, and, just as he had suspected, Babs’ foot had slipped through the loose wire grate of the killing floor as he began to run. The force of all that weight propelling forward had snapped his ankle like a dry twig, bringing the boy down to the grate with a clang. Ray didn’t have a chance to process the grief and horror before the booming had entered the room, shaking the rafters of the dusty old building. It was too dark to see, but Ray watched, mouth agape, as Babs was ripped from the grate, his wails growing tinny and distant as he was lifted into the air by an unseen force. The metal above them squealed and bent angrily, and both boys scrambled away, eyes fixed to the dark, churning shadow that held Babs, somewhere up above.

Ray’s eyes tried to trace the outline of whatever he was looking at, but the only thing he could make out was a few feet form his face: a massive, roundish object that lay flat against the surface of the grate. It was worn, cracked and splintered in various spots, and a trickle of condensation ran off of it and dripped through both grates into the blackness below. It’s a hoof, Ray thought with absurd, clinical detachment. Moving a bit to the left, he clicked his flashlight back on, much to the horror of Eddie, and traced it up a tree-trunk of a glistening, sinewy leg, wrapped in fierce, pulsating muscle. He wondered if he dared to track the beam further upwards, but the colossal appendage lifted into the air and moved out of sight, the damaged grate underneath the hoof springing back into place with a metallic groan.

It was only then that he noticed the smell. It hung in the air, thick and palpable, producing a nausea that tickled the back of the throat and nose but stopped just short of producing a retch. It was a stench so foul he could taste it, salty and bold on his tongue, like rotting meat. It was too much for Eddie, who planted his elbows squarely on his knees and vomited through the grated floor beneath them as quietly as he could manage.

“Let’s go,” Ray whispered as softly as he could, one eye on the dented grate, searching in the darkness for any movement of the thing that roamed above. Eddie nodded weakly, wiping bile from his face with the back of his hand. He began to turn to lead the way out, but then stopped and stared, the color slowly draining away from his face. Ray opened his mouth to ask for an explanation, but then felt it on his forehead: a slightly warm, wet drop had formed just below the middle of his hairline. He gingerly put a finger to it, and the flesh came away stained a brilliant red. Ray frowned, wondering if he had sustained an injury, but then he felt another impact, and looked up into the darkness. The drip grew steady, and spattered his face lightly as he stood frozen in the corridor. A panting began, deep and rumbling, like some sort of wheezing, dying engine, and suddenly, Ray realized that Babs had stopped screaming.

An otherworldly bellow crashed through the building, and a torrent of blood cascaded through the grate like a burst dam, soaking the boys from head to toe. Ray tried to scream, but the sound was muffled as the flood of copper-taste invaded his mouth. Objects thudded dully against the grate, pieces of Babs, raining down from the jaws of the beast, guts and entrails oozing through the loose framework. Eddie shook ropes of blood away from his face, revealing brilliantly blue eyes wide with terror. “Fuck this,” he managed to squeak out, before turning bolting down the corridor Ray watched him go with numb fascination, and then turned zombie-like to peer out of the grate.

The thundering footsteps had returned, and now Ray saw that the thing was walking away from him, the giant chain dragging behind it like the leash of some monstrous, forgotten dog. He could begin to make out the form of the beast, for the first time, once it had dragged itself to stand directly in front of the large, open window that took up most of the far wall. Ray crept forward, daring to crane his torso up and out through the torn grate in order to get a better look.

The creature was bigger than anything Ray had ever seen, in person or in photographs. It reminded him of an elephant standing on its hind legs, but with a body that was eerily reminiscent of a man’s. The trembling flashlight beam danced over the creature’s back, an expanse of corded muscle pockmarked with scars and other wounds that nearly blocked the fading sunlight spilling from the dusty window. Each pulsated with twitching ligaments as the beast lumbered awkwardly towards the day. Ray could barely make out a fine layer of hair, glistening with sweat, that covered the monster’s backside and legs, not unlike the coat of a hog. It matched the cloven feet that dented the grated floor with each step. The head and face were turned away and obscured from view by the glare of the sun, but Ray could see the right hand, covered in a coarser black fur, with white knuckles clenched tightly around a terrible blade that gleamed in the sunshine, Babs’ blood drying on the ends of serrated teeth. The beast stood before the open window, stock-still, its heavy breathing producing a sound more akin to a great mechanical procedure than any sort of biological function. Ray watched, transfixed, as the beast took another step towards the window, and then pulled the great chain taut around its waist, letting loose another blood-curdling roar that stood every hair of Ray’s body on end. The giant thrashed at its bonds, lurching clumsily this way and that, dragging the chain across the metal grated floor with the sound of a thousand clanging pots and pans. Ray stood frozen, forgetting for a moment all of his fear, forgetting Babs, and Tyler, and Eddie, who had disappeared into the unknown depths of the corridor. For a moment, all Ray W. Hattfield could think about was this magnificent, grotesque creature that loomed before him, larger than anything he had ever seen in his life, more beautiful and terrifying than even his myriad books on dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts had ever prepared him for. Until that day, the most exotic animal he had ever laid eyes on was a longhorn steer at the Fort Worth stockyards, and it had been sleepy and half-doped for picture-snapping tourist families like his own. Now he stood mere feet from an abomination, the result of some unholy union between behemoth and man, and for a moment, there was not a trace of fear in his heart, but only a deep, paralyzing wonder.

The creature pawed at the lip of the window, grunting and snorting with building frustration, but its bindings would not yield. It gave one last lunge and then settled back, the slack in the chain clanking to the grated floor. The beast’s head turned slowly, only a shadow from where Ray stood. Sinking sunlight cast a halo around the edges of the shapeless bulge, and then it froze stock still, the bellowing breaths grinding to a halt. Ray’s blood turned to slush, and he could feel the monster’s eyes settle on him, somewhere beyond the impenetrable silhouette. The beast took a shuddering step forward, and the hand that held Ray’s flashlight trembled, dancing the beam over the creature’s head. There was no face to be seen, only a massive bulge covered by some sort of burlap material, worn and frayed at the edges, caked with dirt and mottled brown blood. The beast blew a snort of air out through its’ nostrils, sending a visible plume of dust up into the air. Ray willed himself to move first one leg, then the other, in the general direction of the front door. The beast followed, each step quaking the building’s foundations. When Ray finally broke into a run the monster let loose a roar that shook dust down from the rafters and gave chase.

Ray ran as fast as he could towards the hallway, knowing that if he was fast enough, he would be safe. Ray knew he was fast. It was a skill he had learned to rely on  Ray reflected, moments before he slammed into something large and hard, that he could have sworn hadn’t been there before. A wail of defeat ripped through Ray’s head, and he looked up, certain he would see some other foul deformity looming over him.

It was a man. He was large, and dressed all in black. Ray studied the details of his human body with newfound wonder and appreciation, unable to croak out a word of explanation to the very confused gentleman. He was bald, and a thick mustache covered most of his mouth, which he scrunched up towards the side of his face as he squinted down at the boy.

“Who are you?” the man asked, in a voice that far less comforting than Ray would have preferred. Ray told the man his name, moments before a shuddering boom brought him back to the reality at hand. The bald man looked up and calmly raised his arms, aiming some sort of fat, stocky rifle into the dark. Ray winced as the man pulled the trigger, but no report followed, only a puff of gas and a quiet hiss. “Who are you?” the man repeated, more sharply this time. Ray struggled to find the words, amazed at the man’s cavalier nature. He fumbled for his voice, but only sputtered. A second beam of light shone into his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” a second voice demanded, invisible in the glare of the flashlight. Ray opened his mouth to speak, but the voice cut him off before he could make another pathetic attempt: “Is this your friends?”

The flashlight beam flicked away. Ray saw spots in front of his eyes, but they faded slowly. He could make out the bald man, standing right next to him, looking grave, and the second man, thin and tall, like Eddie, who was pointing with his flashlight to a section of the concrete floor a few feet away. There was a white shapes there. Ray took a step towards what he at first thought was a pile of clothes, but then it dawned on him that it was a body, the skin pale and clammy, blending in with a plain white t-shirts. Eddie. Ray knew it even before he saw the faces, mouth open in shock, eyes fixed to the ceiling.

Tears flowed from Ray’s eyes. He wept quietly.

“What’d you see in there?” the bald man asked, a hand perched on his belt, brow furrowed suspiciously. Ray was unable to respond. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, smearing his cheeks with dirt.

“Got to be sure,” the tall man said, and Ray didn’t have time to scream as the bald man’s gloved hands closed around his throat. The tall man turned away with distaste, welcoming the distraction of the arriving cleanup crew. The tall man jabbed his thumb in the direction of the killing floor, and an army of white coats trotted in, leaving the two men in black alone once again.

“Third time this year,” the bald man muttered, wiping his hands on his pant legs. The two of them walked out at a leisurely pace. They would be there for a while.

Once they were outside, the tall man fished a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, and found two that were salvageable. He passed one to the bald man, lit it, and then did the same for himself. Together they leaned against the rusted aluminum walls of the slaughterhouse, watching the rest of the team roll in. Several unmarked police cruisers had blocked off the traffic on the nearest road down to one lane, and curious motorists peered from their cars as they drifted past. The tall man turned away and looked up at the faded sign, the early evening sun sinking just behind it. The text and image were indecipherable. He took a drag on his cigarette, and watched as another tech nailed a larger, more new looking yellow sign to the front of the building, It read: DANGER. KEEP OUT.

ADMIN NOTE:

So I’m experimenting with how to best set up this site, but for now, I’ve grouped all of my more formal, published writing under the category of “samples”. All work is stamped with the first publication date and the name of the outlet.

A Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

First published at LitReactor on November 1st, 2011:

Author Chuck Klosterman is a man of many talents and many jobs: journalist, essayist, critic, sports podcast co-host, and most recently, novelist. The Visible Man is his second foray into fiction, following the release ofDowntown Owl in 2008.

I caught up with Chuck while he was here in Austin on his promotional tour, and it immediately became apparent that he was ready, willing, and able to discuss anything from sports (the conversation took place in Chuck’s hotel room so that he could glance at ESPN every now and again) to the subjective nature of reality. We talked about the new book, his own origin story, the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing, and his thoughts on the future of the industry. He even had a few helpful tips for aspiring writers. So strap in and get ready, because Chuck pulled no punches for this one.


JJThe Visible Man is your second novel. Where did the idea for this story come from?

CK: I was teaching in Germany three years ago, and while I was there I was working on Eating the Dinosaur. One of those essays is about time travel, so I wanted to re-read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. When I bought it on Amazon it came packaged with The Invisible Man, so I ended up reading both of them, and I was really fascinated by the personality of the Invisible Man. As a kid, I didn’t realize what a jerk he was. But that, to me, was a very prescient thing that H.G. Wells had done, because if you think about it, the kind of person who would have both the intellectual and mental ability to create a way to be invisible, and the lack of morality he would need to use it…he’d be someone who is sort of brilliant and also confused about social boundaries and the way society works. So I thought ‘that would be an interesting thing to write about.’ I was also very interested in interviewing. At that point I’d been a journalist for almost twenty years, but I’ve also had the good fortune of being interviewed, so I really see the inherent drawbacks of it. I was trying to think of a way it could be better and I thought, ‘I guess if you could watch someone and they didn’t know they were being watched… while that would be incredibly unethical, it would show someone’s true nature.’ I do believe people are only really themselves when they’re not self-editing, when nobody else is in the room.

JJ: The minute we meet Y___ we know something’s off about the guy, and as the novel progresses, the more we learn about him and how he sees the world, the more it troubles us. But it also forces us to consider how much we identify and share with him. How did he evolve as a character?

CKIn many ways he was the primary thing I was interested in writing about. I like writing about personalities, and I really wanted the novel to feel as though it were someone’s attempt to document an impossible experience. So the qualities Y___ has represent my attempt at creating what I think a person like this would actually be like, in the same way that Vicki, the therapist, is kind of insecure, not necessarily brilliant, easily dominated by men…

JJ: And a really bad therapist.

CKAnd a really bad therapist. But here’s the deal: if a good therapist had faced this situation, I don’t think the story continues, and I certainly don’t think that anybody would later write a book about it, so that character had to be flawed as well. So I had two characters that I don’t, in all honesty, imagine the reader relating to. And…[pause] from a commercial perspective, that’s probably dumb (laughter). People want to read a book and think ‘I love these characters! I wish they were in my life!’

JJ: You’re most well-known for your work in non-fiction as a journalist, an essayist, a pop-culture writer…what spurred the jump into fiction?

CK: I spent the first part of my life writing about how other people see culture, interviewing musicians, filmmakers–artists, I guess–about how they perceived culture and what their experience with it was. Then I started doing a lot of memoir writing. The first three books [Fargo Rock City, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, andKilling Yourself to Liveall have very strong memoir aspects to them, so I spent that period writing about culture the way I experienced it. Then at some point I wanted to write about culture in a way that would sort of be a hybrid of those two things without being either. In other words, I wanted to talk about ideas but not have those ideas directly attached to me. In The Visible Man there are long stretches when Y___ is sort of pedantically lecturing about his ideas about the world and for the most part, I suppose, it’s written in my voice, and not that distanced from my essay writing. But if I write those things in an essay, even as thought experiments, they immediately become attached to me because frankly, people have a hard time reading an essay and separating the writer from the work even if the writer is saying: ‘this is a thought experiment, I don’t necessarily believe this.’ So I wanted to have characters say things that I think of as interesting even though I don’t necessarily agree with them. Sometimes when I was interviewing somebody and they were talking about an idea, they just wouldn’t say what I knew they felt. I wanted to say ‘this is what you mean’, but you can’t do that. So I wanted to be able to have people in this novel say things in the way I always sort of dreamed that they might. Plus, it’s just fun to create a reality like that.

JJ: Reading the book, it sometimes seems as though Y__ is a manifestation of one side of you- a sort of Mr. Hyde to your Jekyll- and that maybe in your darker moments you sometimes drift more towards his way of thinking about how people are and how they should be. Is that a fair assessment?

CKIt’s interesting that you say that, and I totally get it. A friend of mine who read a very early version of this novel came back and said ‘I read the book and at first I just assumed you were the therapist, but now I realize you’re the invisible man.’ I was like ‘I’m not really either.’ I guess I’m both though, because I made them up and these characters have certain qualities tied to me because I made them. In some ways, I suppose, the answer’s yes: that character is what I view as the worst version of myself, the worst qualities I have, amplified. It’s kind of like if the person I was when I was 20 had lived the next 20 years without changing, only maturing.

JJ: That sounds like it would be horrible for anybody.

CKWell, yeah. If the person that I was when I was 20 had continued to get smarter and more confident but kept the same myopic view of life that I had…

JJ: Had no informative experiences?

CKYes. Or rejected them. Or believed with certitude that his ideas were right and continually tried to prove them. I want to be careful about how I say this because it could come off in a very unlikable way, but (pause)… I’m very lucky in the sense that… to me, the most important thing about having your writing resonate with people is having a voice. That’s the one thing you can’t learn, and can’t be taught: it exists or it doesn’t. Though my writing has lots of flaws it seems like it has a lot of voice. That becomes a slight detriment in fiction because I don’t know if it’s possible for people to read my work without injecting the pre-existing notion of my voice into it. I have to admit, I was a little bit disappointed at how many people said the characters in Downtown Owl sounded exactly like me, because I don’t really think they do at all, but I’m probably the worst judge of that. It will probably be an issue with the way I write any fiction, if I continue writing fiction. I don’t even know if it’s possible to change it. If people are going to perceive every piece of dialogue as me talking, regardless of what the content is, I don’t know what I could really do about it. But then part of me thinks that the reason I write these novels is because I want all the people in them to talk the way I want people to talk. If I have this ability to totally create a universe of people or create this reality that doesn’t exist, the people in it are going to think and talk the way I’d like people to think and talk, so maybe I’m doing it overtly.

JJ: Some of the themes in The Visible Man are present in a lot of your work, especially the idea of personality construction. It seems like one of the things to take away is this idea that not only can we never really know what someone else is like- we can’t even really know what we’re like, to a certain extent.

CKThat’s totally accurate. All my work is kind of focused on one question, which I think is the central question of this time period: what is reality and do we still have the ability to know? I realize this question has always existed, and for most people, it’s a question you stop asking around 20 or 21. You go through this kind of stoner period in college, think about reality a lot, and then you’re sort of like ‘well, we’ll never know, so I’m just going to move on.’ But I never moved on. To me it’s the most interesting thing about being alive, trying to figure out what it means to be alive. In some ways, this kind of worries me, but I can’t imagine writing about anything without that question being part of it.

JJ: Did the experience of writing your first novel, Downtown Owl, have any impact on the way you approached writing this novel?

CKOf all the books I’ve written, Downtown Owl was the hardest to write by far. I knew I was writing about North Dakota, that there had never been a book about rural North Dakota in the ‘80s, and that the only one that would ever exist would be the one I wrote. So I knew that if I did a bad job I would be misrepresenting this time and place that would never again be written about. More so, I was very worried that I would write this book and it would not only not be good, but it would be so bad that I would embarrass myself in this profound way. When that book came out, even though you could argue that the response was mixed, it was great for me, because I didn’t get any response like ‘this is embarrassing’. The Visible Man, by contrast, was extremely easy to write. In fact, it was so easy it almost seemed like something was wrong. I feel like the ideas are more interesting, and I feel like the writing is better because I feel like I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten a little older.

JJ: How did you get started as a writer?

CKI went to college in 1990 at the University of North Dakota. I didn’t have a major or any plan about what to do with my life. I guess I assumed I’d become a lawyer, because people always told me I should. I’m walking around campus the first week of school, at this sort of career fair for different extracurricular activities, one of which was the college newspaper. I was absolutely shocked to find out they paid people to write for the school newspaper. I couldn’t believe it! It blew my mind! I knew I was going to all the football games, so I thought ‘I’ll just cover the football team and this will be how I avoid having to get a job.’ So I started covering the football team as a beat writer. I had to pick a major at some point, and because I was working for the newspaper it seemed like an obvious choice to major in journalism. Once I had picked a major, I got a job on the editorial staff of the college newspaper and I just loved it. It was a very satisfying experience to suddenly realize that the one thing I was good at doing was also something I loved doing: interviewing people, thinking about writing, and thinking about ideas. So I just assumed I would be a newspaper writer my whole life. I worked in Fargo and Akron, and when I moved to Akron I had no friends. But for the first time in my life I could afford a computer, so I decided I would try to write a book, which became Fargo Rock City. To say I fell into writing would be inaccurate, but… it wasn’t a dream of mine. When I was a kid I would read novels and think that I would like to write one but…

JJ: It wasn’t a singular obsession?

CKWell, I also come from a town of 500 people. I’m the first writer my town ever produced and in the whole state of North Dakota, if you were looking for 10 professional writers who made their living that way I don’t know if you could do it. I never had any relationship to people who wrote books, so I didn’t know how it happened. When I got a job at Spin, everybody from college remembered that I used to read it constantly, and they were like ‘Ah, your dream has come true!’ I never dreamed of working for Spin because I never thought of that as a job you could get. I knew people worked there but I had absolutely no idea how that happened. So many things that have happened in my life are things that I never even fantasized about, and that’s a very weird thing. The things that have happened in my life are so much more interesting and so much better than what I had ever even hoped for. When I was in college my fantasy was that I would get hired by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune or the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, and if I worked really hard, maybe in my 50’s I would be able to write one book that would exist. And that, to me, seemed implausible.

JJ: Can you describe your writing process a bit? Does it change if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction?

CKWorking in newspapers probably helped my process because you get used to the idea of writing every day, or if not every day, three or four times a week. I pretty much just come up with an idea, think about the idea constantly until I know how to start writing it, and then I just do. I look at an idea as a ball of twine in your head, all knotted together, and the writing process is straightening the ball out. Usually when I’m writing something the idea is almost entirely formed in my mind, it’s just not organized, so when writing is going well, it’s just the organization of my thoughts.

JJ: Considering the increased amount of writers on the web, social networking, eReaders… do you think the industry of writing is changing? Is it a negative or positive change?

CKIt depends on how you look at it. It’s much easier to become a writer and more difficult to make a living as a writer, in the same way that the Internet has changed music. There’s never been a better time to start a band or have people hear your work, but it’s much more difficult to make a living as a musician and certainly much more difficult to get rich at it. If you look at writing from the perspective that it’s not in any way a commodity, then things are much better because there’s no one who can stop you from publishing: there’s almost unlimited freedom because there’s unlimited bandwidth. But if you look at writing as something you want to do that fulfills certain criteria that creates a life, it’s more difficult. It’s hard to make money, and in the future it’s going to be almost impossible to get a book advance. That’s going to have a downside, because the only people who are going to be able to write books are going to be people who are already rich. When eBooks become the dominant form, what’s going to happen is publishers will say ‘well, we’re not going to give a big advance, maybe we’re going to give no advance and you’ll just start making royalties immediately.’ And what if you want to write a book where you spend two years at the base camp of K2? The only person who can write that book is somebody who is so rich that selling books doesn’t matter to them. So I fear that what might happen in the future is the only books that will exist will be books by rich people, memoirs of unfamous people (because you can always write a memoir), and whoever the new Kafka is, who’s going to write regardless of whether they get paid or not. So maybe, on balance, it’s not that bad. To me, there’s a big difference between writing and publishing. Writing I love doing and I would do it even if I made nothing. Publishing I do solely so that writing can be my job and not something I have to make time for. If publishing disappears it might make the life of being a writer less plausible.

JJ: Is there anyone you’d consider an influence or inspiration as far as your own writing is concerned?

CKThis is a weird answer but (pause)… I don’t like giving a response to that question because I really feel that when people do that it’s a subtle way of bragging. They mention people who they hope are connected to their work and somehow that connection will elevate it. There are of course writers I read that changed my life, but if I say who they are it almost seems like I’m putting myself in that class.

JJ: Do you think you have another novel in you?

CKMy next book is going to be a long-form non-fiction project. I don’t want to talk about it too much. I would like to write more novels but (long pause)… I also have to be realistic. People like or at least buy my novels way less than the non-fiction I write. I still want to write them, but maybe my publisher won’t want to publish them. And if that’s the case, maybe that means I have to go to a different publisher or some other route. That would be a dramatic change. I’ve had the same editor my entire career, I’ve had the same agent for quite a while now, and I like how my life is and how my life operates. It might be that some time in the future I’m writing novels for the 10,000 people who care. That would still be great, but there are other things to factor in. Part of the reason I decided to write novels was that I always wanted to and I got myself in a position where I could. Scribner basically said ‘OK, you want to write a novel, you’ve never written one before, but if you deliver it we will publish and promote it and let you write novels under the same sort of parameters that you write non-fiction. You’ve got a track record of succeeding at this [non-fiction], you can try this [fiction].’ I wrote Downtown Owl and it sold…OK. I wrote this book which I think is better and it doesn’t really seem to be selling at all. So if I keep writing novels I’m going to have to do it with the understanding that not many people are going to be interested. But I’m still interested, and that’s got to be enough.

JJ: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

CKThat’s always so tough…because of technology and other things I almost feel less qualified and I definitely feel less qualified to give advice to say, journalists. Whereas ten years ago, if someone were to ask me ‘how do I make it as a journalist?’ I would have a very clear description of what to do, but now I don’t know what I would tell them. It just seems so different. If you want to be a writer you have to… this sounds so clichéd, but you have to really like it because the single biggest factor that will dictate your success is chance. Nobody wants to admit that. Everybody who’s successful wants to somehow think that it’s earned. The success I’ve had… while I’m not saying I’m not talented, talent didn’t matter as much as chance. Here’s the weird thing: success at writing is personal but success as a writer is totally dependent on strangers. I think there are three important things: being interesting, entertaining, and clear. Everything else is important, but really just a detail. If the writing is interesting it makes people think about themselves or the world or the topic at hand slightly differently. If it’s entertaining, that means the process of consuming it is pleasurable and propulsive and makes your audience feel good about the experience in and of itself. Writing is a communicative art, so clarity is really important: you need to be able to get your ideas across. So if your writing has those three qualities, it’s good. In fact it’s probably great. For the most part writers tend to be able to do two of those three things, but it’s hard to do all three.

Another thing I would say, that is almost impossible, but if you can get anywhere close it helps: you need to be able to hold two thoughts in your head simultaneously that are contradictory. You have to believe that what you’re doing- what you’re writing, what you’re thinking about, the ideas you’re trying to address- are the most important things in the world and that writing is the biggest part of your life and that it really matters what words you choose at the end of this sentence. How you punctuate it and how it all comes together. It has to be the most important part of your life, but you also have to recognize that it doesn’t matter at all. That it doesn’t matter in any way. That if you never existed and if your book never existed and no one read it, or all the reviews were bad, or if it didn’t sell at all, or if it sold just enough to be ridiculed… none of that matters. There’s no real import to anything in that regard. There’s no book that if it didn’t exist would change the world. Even the Bible or the Koran… something would have replaced those things. If Catcher in the Rye had never been written there would be another book that we use to describe the adolescent experience. So when you’re working, writing has got to be the most important thing, and as soon as you’re done, it almost has to be this release for you to realize that it didn’t matter at all. Which, of course, is an almost impossible thing to do, but it’s the only option.

 

Contents Unchanged

First published at LitReactor on October 3rd, 2011:

Shortly after the new year, when it became apparent that Borders Books and Music would be shuttering its doors, my father wrote me an e-mail and reminded me that I might want to spend any unused gift cards I had laying around (these being a favorite of outer-orbit family friends and relations). Once the chain had sunk for good, they would be worthless. It wasn’t until months later that I happened upon a still-operating location here in Austin, and scoured the shelves with my roommate Peter.

I was amazed at how packed the place was and how thoroughly it had been picked over. Large signs throughout the interior announced that every article had been slashed by 60% off cover price, and that each bulk purchase would be cut by an additional 10%. Needless to say, the gift cards I had accrued over several years would stretch for miles, if only we could find anything worth reading. Our first few forays into the stacks for specific titles told us in no uncertain terms that a less discerning plan of attack would be necessary. We spent the next two hours slowly walking the Literature, Biography, Science Fiction, and Horror aisles. Anything that was 1) a classic 2) was written by someone we had heard of or 3) looked interesting got pulled from the shelves. Soon, I had a mighty stack of books tucked under my chin, and was thumbing through a horror anthology when I saw something on a nearby shelf that gave me pause. It was a copy of The Inferno, a book I had read excerpts from in high school and had always wanted to read in its entirety. Everything about this purchase met my criteria: a well-known classic, and one I had been meaning to get through for ages. Nothing about the work within the pages or the time it would take to plow through Dante’s epic made me hesitate. The problem was packaging.

Anyone who keeps up with video games might remember the “Dante’s Inferno” title that Electronic Arts released not too long ago (I haven’t played it, but it received middling to low reviews from what I remember): a sophomorically EXTREME blood ‘n’ guts romp that was loosely built around a plot that kind of had something to do with hell. This book I held in my hands was a “promotional” copy that had been printed to coincide with the video game release: the cover was plastered with shiny concept art from the game, glossy screenshots were buried within the middle of the binding, and above the title, bold font identified the book as “The literary classic that inspired the epic video game from Electronic Arts.”

Awful, right? I thought so. Then I bought it anyways. My reasons for doing so were wrapped up in the events of the previous few weeks, when I had suddenly, and without practical motivation, become a vicious proponent of eBooks and eReaders. As a  writer and a lover of the written word, I feel it is my duty to take up arms. Simply put, the case against eReaders is couched in arguments that are selfish, inane, pretentious, and dishonest.

In order to understand the true reasons behind the anti-eReader movement, it’s necessary to first look at what I understand to be a relatively new phenomenon: the transformation of books into talismans. Be forewarned, I am not a sociologist or a statistician and I don’t have any hard numbers to back any of this up, only my own limited observations and my understanding of the world that surrounds me and what people seem to agree on. That being said, there are a few broad observations I think we can make. The first is that people, on average, don’t read books as much as they consume television, movies, and music. When comparing book sales to album and ticket sales, and when comparing the popular reaction and spotlighting of authors versus directors, actors and musicians, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith to assume that the average American spends more of their leisure time consuming media other than books. As a result of this, reading has, in its own sad way, become something of an unusual activity. One of my favorite headlines in The Onion once screamed “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book”, and a popular survey that made the rounds on Facebook once invited users to check off how many titles they had read out of a list of 100 books compiled by the BBC (the survey always notes the low number “most” Americans have read, and respondents almost always post that they have read more than this number). This, in my opinion, has everything to do with the rise of other forms of media that require less time and money of their audience, two resources that are in heavier and heavier demand as time goes on, and less to do with most Americans being unread slobs, but I digress.

The point is, books, in their physical form, seem to have been given an almost mystical quality. A friend of mine from Los Angeles recently showed me a website dedicated to publishing photos of attractive men reading in public. In this case, the book has quite literally become a fetish object, imbuing these anonymous men with newfound status and a qualifier: I read, therefore I am interesting. Another friend in college once refused my offered loan of a title she wanted to read, claiming that books were “just too personal” to pass around in such a fashion. This same friend also claimed I “ruined” her copy of an Ibsen play by scrawling some nonsense in the inside front cover of the paperback.

My opinion has not changed in years, and, given the recent reactionary comments in my friend-circle towards eReaders, has only become more galvanized: books are collections of ideas and experiences bound within pages and covers. The most important parts of a book, in fact, the only important parts of a book, are intangible. Sure, there’s no denying the inherent pleasure of holding a novel in your hands or of beaming with pride at your fully stocked shelves, but ultimately, the physical form of a book is little more than dead trees smeared with ink. It is impermanent and wholly unrelated to the most transcendent aspects of reading, literature and art itself. What is shared between two people when they read or write a book has nothing to do with the binding, the print, or paper stock: all of this is useless window-dressing and the emphasis on such trivialities is inane. It is however, not without motivation.

As with many other forms of media, books, perhaps as a direct result of their niche status in terms of popular appeal, have become signifiers of cultural capital. Like it or not, in our modern world and certainly amongst younger populations, ownership of books makes a statement about one’s self to the outside world. What exactly this statement consists of remains open to debate, however the more cynical side of me guesses that individuals who make a stink about the alleged superiority of Books (traditional) versus books (eReaders) see themselves as part of the cultured elite: the few and proud who cling fast to valuable cultural artifacts as the very essence of culture crumbles in the wake of disconnecting technology. They find their identities, or at least parts of them, in rising up against imagined adversity, namely, the imminent destruction of the written word at the hands of eReaders. This logic hinges on the belief that as printed books go, so goes reading and writing in general. Thus, once the Book has been extinguished by the eBook, it will only be a matter of time before quality literature, and even reading as an institution, crumbles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of why printed books will not die the universal death that some see on the horizon (though chain bookstores may be doomed), but I will reiterate that the pose being struck by book-toting, would-be academics worldwide is selfish and contradictory. eReaders do not spell the death of reading. Aside from their status as a luxury item, which is sure to dwindle over the next decade or so, everything about eReaders makes books and reading more accessible and widespread than ever before. These wondrous devices hold hundreds upon hundreds of titles at a time, and many works that have long since gone out of print have been made newly available in electronic format. Thanks to innovations like Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/), a dizzying array of masterpieces that might have previously been prohibitively expensive or extremely rare can now be acquired with the click of a button, and for free. To discount these truly astonishing advancements in accessibility, ease of transport and affordability is foolish and hypocritical. E-readers advance the cause of reading. The method by which one chooses to consume literature is a matter of taste, but to deride a wonderful and exciting new way to read and share books simply because there’s no more paper is staggeringly stupid.

The truth behind why some people have such visceral reactions to eReaders is a bit more depressing than many might surmise. Those who create their identities in books and use their book collections as cultural capital are not actually interested in the advancement of reading and literature. They have a vested interest in keeping reading firmly entrenched in the ghetto of eccentricity: an act reserved for the educated and culturally superior. In short, the cultural capital of books must be maintained. As technology advances, and culture is spread to more people more cheaply, the capital of that culture is diminished. To put it bluntly, many who deride eBooks as “the death of the written word” are in fact terrified at their identities crumbling once reading becomes “normal” and books lose their totemic status (of course, there is the very real possibility that printed books will create a new class of consumer comparable to modern-day vinyl enthusiasts, but that’s a different post).

Coming back to my adventure in the cleaned-out Borders, I realized that, considering my opinions on eBooks and eReaders, I HAD to buy this gaudy, cheap-looking edition of The Inferno, because it met all of my criteria for books that I wanted to purchase and enjoy. Would I have preferred a beautifully crafted, leather-bound tome with gilded pages? Naturally. But to throw away the opportunity to read one of the most lauded literary achievements in history for a great price because of bad packaging would have been ridiculous.

 

Generation Active

First published at LitReactor on December 13th, 2011:

I want to make a promise to the readers of LitReactor: I, John Jarzemsky, hereby solemnly swear that my next column will not involve technology, and how it will or will not affect the worlds of books and storytelling. I also promise that I’m not a robot hell-bent on making The Matrix into a reality.

Now that we have that out of the way, I have a few things on my mind: namely, the difference between active and passive narratives, and how they are most often dictated by medium. To clarify, when I say “passive” and “active” I’m referring to the level of agency and involvement afforded to the consumer of a particular narrative. Nearly all narratives fall within the former camp. Be they films, novels, plays or television shows, most media takes the form of a passive narrative: the storyteller tells his story, and the audience listens. His or her reactions to the story have no bearing on the work itself. It was only very recently that active narratives began to enter the collective consciousness in the form of video games.

Heavy Rain is what got me thinking about this (I know I’m late to the party, bear with me). Like many of their peers, the designers of this particular title started with the notion that they wanted to craft a narrative experience that hinged on choices made by the player. While I would argue that Heavy Rain leaves its peers behind in terms of execution, the basic conceit has been alive in the gaming world for a few years now: players are intermittently faced with different choices that have rippling effects on the game’s branching storyline. In theory, this means that any two people who play the game are likely to have completely different experiences, and that anyone should be able to replay the game a number of times, receiving a varied story each time. Practically speaking, the results tend to be a little more clunky, but Heavy Rain is perhaps the closest thing to a playable film noir that is currently available.

With a few exceptions, nearly all other forms of media have steered clear of giving the audience such agency. I’ve been wracking my brain for examples of active narratives outside the medium of video games, and I can only come up with a scant few. Certain forms of live theater use audience participation to change the final outcome of a staged production. There was a brief period in the 1990s when the idea of “graphic adventures” was on everybody’s minds, although these seem laughably bad in hindsight (one example, Dragon’s Lair, constitutes one third of all video games present in The Smithsonian), and despite the use of full-motion-video sequences, they tended to be lumped into the “game” category of entertainment. The closest thing we have in television is the avalanche of “reality competition” shows that hinge on audience voting, although this is a big stretch, since there isn’t really a “narrative” as much as there is “drama”, and it’s impossible to verify the degree to which the audience’s choices are being consciously or subconsciously manipulated. In the world of literature, the only thing that springs to mind are the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, and these are targeted exclusively towards children.

Could it be that the very notion of an “active” narrative is considered juvenile and artistically irrelevant in and of itself? Video games, despite having advanced leaps and bounds in terms of both content and presentation, are still not considered “art” by the mainstream media (see Roger Ebert’s fire-starting article, in which he incorrectly uses the term “art” as a signifier of quality), and in the minds of most, are considered little more than a hobby of overgrown children. Ebert’s arguments notwithstanding, it seems that the very notion of inviting the audience to be a part of the craft negates a narrative’s importance in the minds of certain critics.  Those who deride the relatively poor and simplistic dialogue, stories, and characters in video games often unfairly overlook the inherent challenge present in attempting to tell a story that is at once engaging and simultaneously modifiable, not to mention the fact that the medium by which game narratives are delivered is constantly changing. If publishing houses were consistently one-upping each other with a new way to present books every two years or so, you can bet that the world of novels wouldn’t be nearly as complex. For the time being though, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a work of near unimpeachable quality, likeCitizen Kane or The Great Gatsby or The Wire, and imagine that when it was first completed, instead of being a stand-alone, start to finish passive narrative, it sprang into being as a branching, multi-faceted story with different endings available. Imagine that the quality of writing, the richness of the characters, and the quality of the prose hadn’t changed a bit (I realize this may be difficult), but there was only more of the work to explore each time you consumed it. Would the public still regard these pieces of art as favorably, or would the very notion of allowing audience members to influence the unfolding of narrative events taint the work forever?

Perhaps the more important question to ask is this: given the pace of technology and the tide of public opinion, is this the direction that all narratives are eventually headed towards? Design by committee tends to yield unmitigated crap, but if recent trends are any indication, consumers are feeling more and more empowered by technology, and it’s not altogether far-fetched to imagine that the public’s demand for involvement will spill over into the world of storytelling. In a sense, Hollywood has been listening more and more to the demands of its audience over the years (somewhat paradoxically, or maybe predictably, nearly everybody I know tends to agree that most movies nowadays are terrible). Snakes on a Plane comes to mind, as does the abominable X-men 3: The Last Stand (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”). It’s still not the norm, but as time goes on, more and more producers and show runners seem to be going back to the age-old adage of “give the people what they want”.Lost had a very prominent feedback loop going in its heyday. That show’s fan base was so loud and strong I remember discussing it in more than one media studies class, and it’s pretty hard to argue that the series wouldn’t have been radically different if nobody who was involved in its creation or consumption had access to the internet, but I’m beginning to digress.

If this indeed is the place that popular entertainment is heading, what does the future hold for books? As recently as five years ago, I would have said that it was hard to imagine books embracing (or being ensnared by, depending on how you look at it) this kind of novel approach to storytelling, but with the advent of the eReader, it seems less than impossible, and maybe even downright likely. Even in their current rudimentary form, it seems like an easy leap to reinvent the “choose your own adventure” line of books into something more adult and contemporary by way of eReaders. The most pressing related question is, will authors be interested in embracing this new storytelling medium? It’s hard to imagine somebody like Cormac McCarthy writing a multi-branched eBook and selling it exclusively on the Internet, but given the pace of current events, the tactics publishers are using to react to technology, and the rate of success that unknowns are having with self-publishing online, it’s more than likely that the next generation of authors who achieve the same literary status as McCarthy (or any other semi-household author) will do so via less traditional methods. And, if audiences continue to want a larger say in the creation/execution of the art they consume, then an altogether new class of writer may very well emerge.

Make no mistakes: this is all very speculative. However, in the current age of RSS feeds, iPads, eReaders, and “games” resembling playable films more and more each year, it’s no exaggeration to say we’re living in the Star Trek era, and the Holodeck is definitely on the horizon. The question is, what role will human beings (you know, the folks who brought you everything) play in all of this, and how do we want to proceed?