Hazlitt Magazine

Good Reads Gone Bad

When it comes to erotic work by female authors, users on critical online forums can have trouble separating artists from their art.

The Gift of the Border

Borders don’t really exist. They’re imaginary spaces, semi-porous membranes whose only power is collectively imbued by the citizens and governments they separate. They can also be opportunities.

'A Pep Talk for People in the Grip of Decay': An Interview with Dan Bejar

Talking with the Destroyer songwriter about his new album, Poison Season, how his writing evolved past “ranting in a notebook,” and the uncertain state of aging indie-rockers.


The Gift of the Border

Borders don’t really exist. They’re imaginary spaces, semi-porous membranes whose only power is collectively imbued by the citizens and governments they separate. They can also be opportunities.

The layout of urban Busia, Kenya, isn’t so much a grid as it is a fuzzy line segment. There is no radial symmetry, only a tight sprawl of houses and roads hugging Kenya’s last ten kilometers of the B1 highway before it reaches Uganda. The road is Busia’s one artery, pumping oil, sugar, bananas, coffee, gold, guns, and more back-and-forth across the border. Some towns in Western Kenya are dependent on the sugar industry; others, fishing. Busia, whose population has quadrupled to more than 60,000 over the last 20 years, is booming because of the border industry.Aside from a stretch of coastline along Lake Victoria, Uganda is landlocked. The country’s manufacturing economy is growing, but its strength is still in producing raw coffee, tea, and tobacco for export. The closest and largest port to the rest of the world is Mombasa in southern Kenya. Uganda must conduct most of its trade by the overland route, and according to a few border guards I talked to, about 80 percent of this traffic comes through the Busia border before heading to the coast. Uganda is also Kenya’s largest export partner; almost all of those exports come through the border here. Busia nucleated around the kernel of activity that is the border, turning itself into far more than just a remote checkpoint.There aren’t any tall buildings in Busia, but the stationary line of shipping trucks, protruding kilometers back from the border, is something like a terrestrial skyscraper. They snarl traffic on the B1 to a halt, making movement on the road impossible and forcing matatus and boda-bodas to weave between them. Hotels, cafes, and dingy bars line the street to service truck drivers who have to wait for hours, sometimes even overnight. They are the natural resource the town’s economy runs on. Busia never sleeps—not with a steady supply of men with money rolling through for less than a day at a time.My travelling partner and I were trying to make it into Uganda from Kisumu, Kenya, but we had visa problems and didn’t want to risk crossing the border illegally. So we were marooned in Busia until we met with a crossing agent with whom we had a mutual friend. In a small cafe along B1, a Quebecois prank show from the 1990s played on the TV while he agreed to help us out for a nominal service fee. It would, however, take all night.Entering Busia, you pass massive signs proclaiming “YOU ARE APPROACHING A NO CORRUPTION ZONE.” Despite the wishful thinking, there are more little opportunities for extra-legal wrangling than can be regulated, from mismarked shipments to incorrectly dated visas to smugglers looking to grease the wheels. If the purchasing power of the crossing agents with whom we interacted is evidence, business is good.After the handoff, we followed David (all names have been changed) through a labyrinth of barbershops, currency exchange booths, and snack shops to a small porch. Across a short, dark field, 100 meters away, the road terminates at a grouping of dingy streetlights and a few chow stands. Uganda is right there, no fence in between. People ride motorcycles in between countries, nonchalantly crisscrossing the border at their leisure.A tall fence barricades the road, but here, another country’s soil is within walking distance without a barrier. None of the border guards who come to say hello seem to mind the traffic. They’re here to chill, not work. One of them owns the barbershop we’re in, the phone store across the street, and mentions how he wants to buy the restaurant next to us. We chat about the trip, Kisumu, and the English Premier League.Regardless of their break-time attitude, though, the life of a crossing agent is a nimble one. They must process nonstop traffic from both sides. Kenyans and Ugandans can cross without a visa, and technically there aren’t tariffs or duties on goods shipped between the countries. This would seem to make most transactions fairly simple, but in practice, getting across is trickier. Upon entering Busia, you pass massive signs proclaiming “YOU ARE APPROACHING A NO CORRUPTION ZONE.” Despite the wishful thinking, there are more little opportunities for extra-legal wrangling than can be regulated, from mismarked shipments to incorrectly dated visas to smugglers looking to grease the wheels. If the purchasing power of the crossing agents with whom we interacted is evidence, business is good.Those hotels and cafes spanning the length of B1? All owned by crossing agents. On a tour of Busia, David and his friends pointed out kinyozi (barbershops), stores selling cell phone data packages, and hotels that their coworkers owned. Over beers at a rooftop club later that night, each man talked about saving up to buy some businesses of their own. One of their friends opened the club four months earlier to huge fanfare, and it’s apparently packed every night. Couples grind glacially as we settle in. David and his friends introduce us to all their friends.They show us how to dance to Ugandan pop, which is great, and tell us about the subtle yet important differences between Ugandan and Kenyan songs. We get the grand tour of the club, all four floors of it. Ernest, the owner, is planning to fill the building out with a hotel, two restaurants, and a pair of clubs. Whenever one of us finishes our drink, another one materializes in its place. There is a National Geographic show about bears on all the televisions. A storm rolls in and knocks the power out, and everyone patiently drinks until it comes back on and the party resumes. Every third person seems to be a crossing agent or someone’s good friend. One of them has khat. Others come and go, to work, from families, from other clubs. We meet girlfriends, get shown pictures of families on cell phones, and David offers us a place to sleep at his house.A swarm of sugar shipments from Kampala are scheduled to start the crossing process at 2 a.m., so Ernest leaves us to head to work. David will join him after the night ends too. I ask if being a border agent is hard work and they describe it as a hustle. You work long hours, meet people of all stripes, but you have autonomy to make the job what you will. Most want to make it into a side career in real estate.While these kinyozi and clubs are technically the spoils of corruption, their moral valence isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. Corruption is often seen as endemic to Kenyan political society, and across institutions, bribes are built into the cost of doing business. Our neighbor back in Kisumu told us he was paying for the required lessons to get his driver’s license because he didn’t want to pay for the bribe. Joining a civic body, for example, most notably the police, tends to take an exorbitant bribe. After the Westgate mall attack in 2013, soldiers were caught on CCTV looting stores while they were supposed to be securing the building.There’s a kind of positive feedback loop that comes with the corruption introduced during British colonialism—a warped, accelerated capitalism that incentivizes watching your own ass rather than doing your duty. It’s not an intrinsic feature of Kenyan society, but rather a structural neocolonial holdover from a recently bygone era where Kenya was property. Kenyans are frustrated about it and want to loosen its grip, but the British wove it in as deeply as they could. In Busia, the crossing agents at least invest their cut back into the town. And as in our case, having a fixer on your side can be a mutually beneficial alliance.There’s a symbiosis to how Busia functions for everyone involved. Matatus from Kisumu, Eldoret, and elsewhere around western Kenya haul in people to the open-air markets next to the fence and then head back laden with sacks full of cheap clothes. Because of the weak Ugandan shilling, everything is cheaper in Busia—Kenyans get access to cheap clothes, and Ugandans get access to the healthier Kenyan market. Supply and demand are in something like regulated harmony, with the crossing agents as referees.We never got to cross the border on this trip, suspended as we were in visa limbo. For those on the right side of the law, crossing is haphazardly simple. You have to shuffle through a scantily demarcated construction zone between the fences before you pop into a simple building. Outside the fence, Uganda has its own Busia, a town of equal size that I heard functions the same as its Kenyan twin. The tilted economic gradient between the two is gradual at a country-to-country level, but on the ground, the topography is sharper. The minor transgressions and side hustles going on in Busia don’t register at all in Nairobi or Kampala, but in each Busia, they matter to—and help—almost everyone.For all their implied importance as agents of separation, borders don’t really exist. They’re imaginary spaces, semi-porous membranes whose only power is collectively imbued by the citizens and governments they separate. Sometimes, they are heavily militarized zones, inhospitable and contentious. Sometimes, they’re just signs on the road. And sometimes, they’re opportunities.
Intercept - Trump/Ramos

What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sitting by quietly and pretending to have no opinions on any of it and that “both sides” are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity?

What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sitting by quietly and pretending to have no opinions on any of it and that “both sides” are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity?-Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept: "Jorge Ramos Commits Journalism, Gets Immediately Attacked by Journalists"
Featuring Kazuo Ishiguro
Exploring the dark with Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Buried Giant.
Good Reads Gone Bad

When it comes to erotic work by female authors, users on critical online forums can have trouble separating artists from their art.

“Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamor of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive.” – Susan SontagI fell in lust with Tampa by Alissa Nutting because Amazon uses great algorithms to generate its lists of “You might also like.”The domino effect began with my reading Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger (great, read it), which in turn led to Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (gross, great, read it), which brought up the hilarious and brilliant How to Train Your Virgin.Finally, there was Tampa, its cover a close-up image of what first appeared to be a cunt hole (what else can I say? Writing about sex is hard. Vagina describes the inside; vulva, though preferred by those wishing to be appropriate, refers to the chops; and this was neither), but upon closer examination turned out to be the open buttonhole of a pink chambray shirt.Trusting the robots, I downloaded my free sample and minutes later paid for the whole thing because the opening pages were dazzling. The entire book turned out to be dazzling. I laughed, my cunt hole throbbed (sorry), I forced my best friend to read the passages aloud over drinks without any forewarning about what they entailed because I wanted to make gin and tonic explode out of her nose (success!), and at home I forced my husband to listen to me read entire pages (which was hard for him because he’s a comedy writer, so when I laugh at other people’s writing it’s like watching me have sex with that person in our bed—presumably).Here’s the gist:In 1996, Mary Kay Letourneau, a very pretty 34-year-old teacher, raped her 12- year-old student Vili Fualaau, and now they’re married, and she still looks great. This is real life.In 2013, Nutting released her erotic novel, Tampa, inspired by the crimes of Nutting’s real-life high school classmate, the very pretty predator Debra Lafave. In 2004, LaFave was found guilty of raping a 14-year-old. But she was deemed too pretty for prison. This is also real life. Tampa is not.The novel is told from the point of view of Celeste, a middle school teacher who tries to seduce her students with varying degrees of success. Her outlook is so cynical, so refreshingly sharp and despicable. Her unlikability is exactly what made me like her.To her great frustration, Celeste often has to satiate her desires via bizarre and inventive fantasies—imaginings that left me open-mouthed with sheer awe at Nutting’s ingenuity, and often breathless from giggling at the sardonic contours of Celeste’s dark mind.Celeste on her husband Ford, who repulses her because he is an adult:The thought of Ford dead didn’t necessarily arouse me. But the idea of pert adolescent males singing around his corpse, removing their colorful jerseys and swinging them above their heads in celebration, as though his death was a victory of sport and a crucial step to their winning a divisional high school championship—there was something greater than comfort in that image. It had the feel of Greek myth. I began to fantasize that the boys on television had been tadpoles who grew in Ford’s stomach until the day they were strong and large enough to rip their way out in a violent mass birth. It was almost enough to make me feel a hypothetical sympathy for Ford. If his body, torn in half, were indeed a spent cocoon that had incubated four lovely young men, I would kiss him on the cheek and mean it. Thank you, Ford. But there wouldn’t be time to linger. These new adolescents, sticky from their residence inside him, would need me to give them a shower shortly after arrival.Nutting captures the way Celeste’s sexual fantasy becomes inextricably entwined with the idea of her husband’s death in such a weird and inventive way that I wanted to stand up on my bed and clap.Later in the novel, Celeste is in her car, spying on her underage object of desire as he plays videogames. She is masturbating, and in order to come, she imagines the boy as a giant, unbuttoning his pants above the convertible where she is hiding.“If horizon-colored pants began to bunch and fall and his teenage sex of skyscraper proportions was freed, I would drive my car into his toe so he would kneel down to investigate and accidentally kill me when the sequoia-sized head of his penis came crashing through my windshield.”Celeste is hilarious, and in her sex scenes (which I have not included here, not because I'm trying to be polite—please, I said "chops"—but because I don't want to give them away) she is arousing. Yes, arousing: a problematic and self-incriminating but ultimately important admission. Vicarious titillation at these encounters implies that approval is somehow woven into our revulsion. Naively, I went online expecting to find more articulate confirmations of my admiration for Tampa. Instead, I found a slew of reviews slamming Nutting for writing about someone like Celeste. Historically, erotic writing is wedded to social critique and satire. But these reviews reflected an enduring puritanical tendency within American culture to dismiss women who write about sex. Consumer ratings were vitriolic (and misspelled, but whatever). When I mentioned them to a friend of mine, who is a novelist, he said, “Well aren’t they always?” He seemed casual about it, the subtext of his comment being that sites like Goodreads are for plebs.But here’s the thing: Goodreads is important. Its members are taken seriously within the publishing industry. They receive free books. And given their rising status within the business, justified or not, we cannot dismiss them as simple consumers. They are modern critics. And they must be held accountable in turn.*Goodreads is a social cataloguing site that as of 2013 boasted 20 million users. It allows members to access an enormous database of books, annotations, and reviews.11It probably bears noting here that I have an admittedly muddled relationship with Goodreads. In order to look at the reviews of Nutting’s book, I had to borrow a friend’s account. The site banned me last fall after I wrote a personal essay for The Guardian about being a bad girl—not in the sexual sense, as was referenced here earlier, but in the sense that I am prone to bad behavior. Amazon purchased the site for a reported nine figures, but as of now little research exists to corroborate if activity on Goodreads leads to purchases on Amazon. Non-active users perusing Goodreads seem much more likely to use the site as one would use Wikipedia—that is, either to learn more about the context of a book they’ve already read, to qualify their opinion of that book, or to summarize for themselves a book they were already planning on not reading.In the same way that Twitter users probably won’t show up to a protest because the simple act of having disseminated a social justice hashtag makes them feel productive, Goodreads members often “shelve” (that is, categorize within user-named categories) books they haven’t read and will not read. If “Did Not Read” or “Did Not Finish” shelves on Goodreads tell us anything, it’s that (as with TV recaps) consumers are happy to be informed about art via free recapitulations rather than via direct engagement. Reiterative opinions have become as gratifying as original ones.One learns very young that fiction isn’t real—that actors on a sitcom, for instance, are not tiny elves inside the TV—and yet Nutting’s fiction is considered a memoir, one that, if liked or disliked, accordingly indicates a reader’s virginity or whoredom.Goodreads members have become high-status players in the book world, though the precise relationship between ratings on sites like Goodreads and actual book sales remains murky. Book publicists make advanced copies available to “active Goodreads users,” whose audiences comprise mostly other active Goodreads users. Evidently part of the idea here is that guaranteed reactions, no matter who is reacting and with what kind of credibility or impact, are worthwhile.As a platform, Goodreads enables knee-jerk responses that theoretically would not be considered relevant in more carefully considered, traditional, edited reviews. But democracy hinges on the linchpin of such knee-jerk response. Goodreads users have become powerful because their opinions, by sheer number, lend incredible insight into the ways that contemporary readers read. The site itself is a democracy. It is free and open to anyone.22Well, except me. The most revered reviewer’s thoughts are less valuable than the aggregated opinion of the masses.As of today Tampa has more than 8,000 ratings on Goodreads, 1,753 of which are one- or two-star reviews. (Almost 30 percent of the book’s ratings on Amazon are one or two stars). Here are a couple Goodreads entries that I’ve found are representative of the majority of Tampa’s negative ratings.Daily Billy [Goodreads]: The author is clearly encouraging this kind of behavior. This book was basically child porn with a weird fascination with shitting.33All usernames have been changed.Donald [Goodreads]: Even more disturbing is this reader's gut feeling that [Nutting] has written her own fantasies. Like a previous reviewer, I was compelled to glance at the photo on the author's page each time Celeste alluded to her own appearance. While it seems the rule rather than the exception for today's crop of young female authors to cast themselves in their main roles, the context makes this instance more unsettling than most. Lock up your sons, indeed.My issue with the views expressed is not that they conflict with my opinion of the book (whether we laugh or don’t is a matter of taste) but rather that in aggregate they echo the prevailing assumption that Celeste’s desires are Nutting’s. The majority include weird caveats like, “Now I’m no prude, but…”—implying that any opinion of the book naturally indicates something about the reader’s sexuality. In an anthropological sense this offers a disturbing view into modern literary discourse. One learns very young that fiction isn’t real—that actors on a sitcom, for instance, are not tiny elves inside the TV—and yet Nutting’s fiction is considered a memoir (perhaps women are incapable of creativity?), one that, if liked or disliked, accordingly indicates a reader’s virginity or whoredom.Celeste is bad, so the book is bad, and the author who wrote it must be worse.Lisa: … I'm not the kind of chick who judges a book by its icky content. I say bring on the sex, incest, murder; the more scandalous the better! But yet....This book just gives me the eebie jeebies. It's like as if the authoress were trying to be as vile as possible…for a totally sane rational woman to be writing the way she does?... letting us know that if you are bothered by this, you had best close this book before things get any more...creepy…Here, “Lisa,” like so many other users, includes caveats about her own sexual openness before launching into a critique of the book. Her comments about Nutting’s mental health and her imperative that readers “best close the book if bothered” further underline the prevailing notion that by not shutting the book a reader somehow condones Celeste’s actions.And then, she adds a little bit of ingrained sexism (it’s okay, Lisa, us ladies succumb to it constantly):I'd like to say that not even men are so crude/disgusting in the private sex corners of their mindAnd:…knowing that it was a women writing the book I felt myself feeling almost disappointed with her! Sure, it's a tricky subject to tackle but she could've done it better. It felt to me that like she, in order to write about pedophilia had to try and and think/write like a man.Reviews like Lisa’s are pervasive. There are thousands of defensive, disgusted, dismissive readers whose negative reactions to Tampa are couched in confusion and outrage at that confusion. The implications are upsetting. The prevailing notion is apparently that thought-provoking art vitiates its own worth.Right-Thinking Woman: It made me feel uncomfortable and sick in a way I've never experienced from a book before.The writing in this is beautiful. It is excellent.The subject is not.Thanks, but I really couldn't read this.(I received a copy of this for free via NetGalley for review purposes)Right-Thinking Woman echoes this idea that a book’s ability to make a reader feel bad cancels out its literary virtues. Many other users also admit to likingthe book, saying that they couldn’t put it down, that the writing is great, but that Celeste’s behavior made the book terrible.Catarax: Before you think I gave this one star because I'm a "prude", I actually gave it one star because I simply did not like it. The writing itself was lyrical and I think Nutting has some talent, but this book to me was the equivalent of painting the Mona Lisa with excrement.Celeste is bad, so the book is bad, and the author who wrote it must be worse.*Tampa’s consumer ratings reflect a prevailing sexism even among those who are, presumably, paid for their opinions of the book. “Professional critics” are no better than Right-Thinking Woman.“You're gorgeous; you're young,” an interviewer from Cosmopolitan remarked to Nutting. “How much has your own experience of being a young, attractive female played into creating this book?”And this, from a Tin House interview conducted with Nutting in the year 2013 (ah, 2013—a time when humans were so edgily throwing around the phrase “post-feminism”):“Have you ever had a fixation on a certain age or type of person?”Evidently Tin House, much like Donald, Lisa, or Daily Billy, could not comprehend how Nutting might be able to write fiction about pedophilia without actually being a pedophile. Or else the interviewer assumed that because she was “that kind of woman” who writes about sex, Nutting must also be the sort to discuss her sex life with strangers. This rankled me, because Humbert Humbert can rape Dolores Haze to eventual acclaim. But with Tampa, there seemed to be only one question—echoed again and again, implicit in every interview, every one-star rating, every critic’s self-servingly virtuous tone:Was Nutting a good girl, or a bad girl?“Have you ever had a fixation on a certain age or type of person?”“I like men with beards,” Nutting responded gamely, clearly used to the bullshit by now. “There’s something kind of closer-to-nature for me about beards that’s pleasant. My husband has a really great beard and the other day at the park, a bunch of those white fuzzy dandelion seeds were blowing around in the air and got lodged in his beard.”Perhaps while reading this you noticed the word “beard,” which Nutting repeats four times. You don’t have to be an English major to grasp the subtext: by reiterating her preference for “beards” she implicitly emphasizes her attraction to male humans of a certain age—not guys who are only slightly capable of growing facial hair (like those wispy, despondent, Vili Fualaau-style-circa-’96 mustaches), not adolescents, in other words, but fully bearded post-pubescent-hyper-masculine-lumber-jack-type men. Specifically, her husband. She is not a pedophile. She is monogamous. She is good.When men write 100-plus pages of erotica, it’s a novel, but when women do, it’s smut that, with every (often brilliantly executed) sex scene, denigrates itself and the author, because the world is bullshit and sexist.I called Nutting to ask, among other things, how it had felt to write a hilarious novel replete with smart social commentary, and almost exclusively face reactions about her presumed pedophilia.“I think a lot of interviewers and readers really wanted to engage with this character and were hoping that they could do that through me,” she said. “At times it got a little frustrating … because at times it got a little hurtful … some of the accusations, where people really didn’t see any distinction whatsoever between this as a novel of fiction and a memoir, were pretty scary and upsetting for me.”*While talking on the phone with Nutting, I scrolled through some more of the one- and two-star reviews, hovering over one left by a user called David. “I am pretty sure the intent of this book was not to be funny,” he wrote, going on to complain that “a woman wrote this book and got it published where as a man would probably get arrested.”I narrowed my eyes at the faceless David. A man would probably win awards. In general men who explore the grey areas surrounding consent and pleasure and perversion, men who write about fucking and murdering women—men who acknowledge women’s bodies as being public—these men are interesting writers. They write literature. I’m thinking specifically of Lolita, American Psycho. Of DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Ian McEwan, Henry Miller. When men write 100-plus pages of erotica, it’s a novel, but when women do, it’s smut that, with every (often brilliantly executed) sex scene, denigrates itself and the author, because the world is bullshit and sexist. Nobody asks Dick Wolf, the creator of Law and Order: SVU, whether his show goes into such gory detail regarding imagined rape (of children, women, men, animals) because he is a rapist. But when a woman navigates illegal sexual acts in her writing, someone needs to call the police.Johnny: All writers write from experience, whether actual or from a deeply imagined preoccupation with the subject matter and, in the case of Tampa, no writer could describe the lusting after fourteen year old boys, as Ms Nutting does in great detail on almost every page, without having personal experience of being a hebephile.To avoid screaming I shoved a chocolate bar in my mouth.“The disturbing aspects of life. That’s male territory,” Nutting told me, “that’s for the male imagination. Male writers get to go to all the dark corners, right? Whereas female writers, they get the domestic or the emotional landscape and that ... that’s our territory. We can only write our own desire and what we want to happen to us or to our bodies.”She admitted she’d been rattled by the reactions to her book, that it took her a while to recover from the slew of accusations that she was some kind of sexual deviant because she’d made up a world where one existed—but that she’d since reached “a place of gratitude for all of it.”“How long did it take you to get to that place?”“I’m at that place right now, but in like, five minutes?” She laughed. “It’s not always a stable place, but it did take a while. I’ll say maybe like half a year? Maybe six months out of publication.”She explained that part of the personal tumult probably stemmed from the fact that Tampa was her first novel. She’d expected blowback, certainly. But what she encountered was not what she’d anticipated. It was much more personal.“It still is, in some sense, a trauma,” she said, “and an assault because writing is such an isolated, solitary action in a lot of ways…I think a lot of writers certainly are very anxious obsessive, insecure people. I certainly am.”I asked if she ever looked at Goodreads.“Oh god ... I did at first,” she said. “And I had to stop … If you have these insecure, masochistic tendencies like I do … I just don’t ever feel like I can punish myself enough ever. Like ever. Like, I never feel like I can feel bad enough about myself. I think if that’s your nature, Goodreads is probably not the site for you … my therapist banned me and I conceded to her wisdom.”*So many of the reviews of Tampa dismissed it on the basis that it tried to “shock” readers. Thousands of users called it child pornography.But isn’t all art attention-seeking? And ultimately, isn’t pornography versus erotica an issue of semantics? Etymologically speaking, pornography means “writing about prostitutes.” And so on that level, the label doesn’t fit here, at all. Gloria Steinem published an article in Ms. where she not only laid out the differences between erotica and pornography, but also discussed the right-wing implications of dismissing as filth those stories that explore women’s desires. And while Steinem would rightly accuse me of taking her discussion out of context, her argument regarding “that familiar division: wife or whore”—“good” woman … or “bad”—and how “both roles would be upset if we [women] were to control our sexuality” is applicable with Tampa, if only in a theoretical sense.“The disturbing aspects of life. That’s male territory,” Nutting told me, “that’s for the male imagination. Male writers get to go to all the dark corners, right? Whereas female writers, they get the domestic or the emotional landscape and that ... that’s our territory. We can only write our own desire and what we want to happen to us or to our bodies.” Throughout her essay, Steinem distinguishes pornography as being about an imbalance of power, but only on the condition that that power is used against women in particular. And so Celeste, though indisputably criminal, “bad” and more powerful than the boys she rapes, is also inarguably in control of her sexuality, making her a monstrous but feminist figure. She calls the shots, she subjugates males in violent ways that, beyond simply and intelligently speaking to societal double standards surrounding rape and victimhood, simultaneously reverse (and therefore disrupt) the typical model of masculine violence that we’ve grown accustomed to. So the vitriol directed at Nutting via her character, in this case, could be interpreted as a sexist rallying cry against the power and pleasure that Nutting has granted Celeste.“As it is,” Steinem writes, “our bodies have too rarely been enough our own to develop erotica in our own lives, much less in art and literature.” Ultimately, she concludes that pornography depicts women pretending to enjoy themselves, whereas with erotica, the pleasure is real. And whatever one might think about Celeste as a criminal, she certainly enjoys herself. Thoroughly.And even if we label Tampa as pornography, then to be consistent we must also dismiss Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and Henry Miller (among others), and if we do not dismiss these men as pornographers, then we must consider the sexism inherent in our semantic distinctions. Accusations of pornography are reinforced by what Susan Sontag called society’s “demonic vocabularies” used for describing the human need for art as a vehicle of pornographic imagination. But I would argue that those vocabularies now extend more to women than to men.*Such arbitration stems naturally from its inverse: self-judgment. Statistically, consumers of erotica and romance indulge on e-readers so that others can’t see what they’re reading. It is not uncommon for people to be humiliated by their own arousal. And Tampa produces morally ambiguous titillation that, if repressed out of mortification, drives self-unaware readers to project that self-loathing as moralistic judgment onto whatever or whomever “caused” it.Ralph: One star probably isn't fair. It is not written badly. And really I skimmed it. Perhaps because every page brought some new embarrassment.Tim: I kinda hate myself for compulsively reading it and so quickly, so there's that.The self-consciousness that goes hand-in-hand with enjoying erotic material implies that the novels we read say something about us as people, perhaps that we are sexually carnivorous or perverted or secretly unsatisfied with the sex we are having. Arousal, revulsion, or arousal that is entwined with revulsion—these reactions are incredibly visceral, and if art can provoke strong reactions then it has obviously succeeded. Taste is irrelevant here. We don’t have to like something to acknowledge its success. But embarrassment and anger cloud judgment, causing people to lash out against the provocative.It follows that part of the reason people are so generally uproarious about Tampa may be that it turned them on, and they didn’t want it to.Getting excited by that which repulses actually doesn’t make us weird. In a study published the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, James Check and Neil Malamuth found that pleasure turns us on regardless of context—even with depictions of rape. “Portrayals that depicted the woman as experiencing sexual arousal, irrespective of whether they portrayed rape or consenting interactions, were reported … to be more sexually stimulating than those depicting disgust.” Although sex crime is manifest in almost every scene of Tampa, whether in terms of fantasy or action, both Celeste and her victims also experience ecstasy, and this shared pleasure, at least in the moment, overwhelms the violence that defines Celeste’s cravings and might otherwise categorize the book as pornographic. Yet instead of talking about how female pleasure mitigates the revulsion we might want ourselves to feel, men like David, Donald, Ralph, and Tim (and that guy who is Billy every day) demonize women for turning them on. It’s the old dichotomy of wife or whore. And what seems like a high percentage of readers take to the Internet, waving torches, talking about Nutting’s sick mind.“Do you miss writing Tampa?” I asked Nutting. I told her I missed reading it.She said that yeah, she had gotten to know the character well, and she missed the clarity of that familiarity. But Celeste’s cynicism was also a dangerous thing to get drawn into, Nutting continued, because Nutting had drawn that cynicism from within herself, which had forced her to explore an aspect of her own personality that she wasn’t necessarily proud of.“Though I don’t share any of her sexual proclivities,” she hastened to add.*A creative writing teacher once told me that it doesn’t matter how evil our character is—if we give him one clear desire, we make him vulnerable, and vulnerability garners a reader’s sympathy. “Example: Begin with a thirsty-as-hell character,” he said, “and no matter how stupid or weird or monstrous he is, we’re going to read on until he gets that glass of water.”While reading Tampa, I found myself reflecting on my former teacher’s advice, because when Celeste wanted to have sex with little boys, I wanted that for her too. It reminded me a little of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire, in which a brother and sister are sexually attracted to each other, and Irving creates so much build-up between them that eventually I was cheering for incest. Their desires were not my desires. Celeste’s desires are not my desires. I have never raped a little boy or had sex with my brothers, nor do I want to, nor do I plan to. But why do I have to say that? Why is there this impetus to differentiate myself from the fiction I read? It’s not an uncommon defense mechanism. Getting turned on by a grown woman fucking a pubeless boy is a difficult thing to admit over dinner. But the only way to combat evil is to stop thinking of it in black and white terms, to dismiss the notion that it’s born and that good people can’t become bad, to shake off naiveté, in other words, and instead to viscerally grasp the insidiousness of what we see as vile: the shadowy magnetism of evil that makes people, perhaps all of us, complicit.Erotica isn’t a flimsy paperback to read on, and discard into, the toilet. It’s a useless term that ghettoizes good writers and perpetuates deep-seated sexism that prevents women from getting the artistic recognition they deserve. In order to right wrongs and catch criminals and prevent crimes and educate potential victims, we need to talk, we need to discuss uncomfortable things. Humor sheds light on darkness. And by ignoring that fact, we’re shutting down the conversation. Sex writing is important. Arousing a reader with depictions of rape is important, because the only way to combat evil is to understand it, to feel some part of it ourselves.“How many people have admitted to you that the book has turned them on?” I asked Nutting.She laughed. “Well it’s funny, a lot! A lot. And the ways that people admit that are really different and interesting. Usually it’s like this almost whispered confession, Like, it’s something that is not the first thing that's brought up in conversation … [but] after a few drinks or something.”I did some verbal nodding. We mused over how the shame involved probably stemmed from the same inclination to call Nutting a pervert. Leaps to judgment start with judgment of oneself.“Every kind of reader is coming in with their own experiences and forming a projection and it is a fantasy,” she said. “That’s part of the trouble with the subject that the book wants to engage. That, often, we do fantasize about these older authority figures in our life. And that that’s encouraged and lauded when it’s young men thinking aboutit,and it is kind of seen as misguided or troubled or troubling or slutty, I think, when female students are thinking it, who are minors. That’s just a social judgment. Like, of course … boys are horny and that’s just fine!”“Right,” I said, excited to riff. “Women are not supposed to find teenage boys attractive—and I know that the boys in your book are much younger than that, but there is something ... something sexist to not allow for the fantasy of male virginity because that is such a sensual and formative experience. Like, a bumbling boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing? There’s something sort of sexy about that. So I don’t know, I guess I was just sort of...”I stopped myself, embarrassed. Despite everything I’ve argued here, I felt mortified, rattled to the core over what she might think of me. I thanked her, we got off the phone, and as penance I drowned myself in the most non-sexual writing I could think of off the bat: a full week of Franzen.
Banner for Swim Thru Fire Part 6
Swim Thru Fire Pt. 6

Ada encounters an anglerfish and a mysterious agreement is reached.

Oxford American - Nude Swimming

I hadn’t skinny-dipped in public since I was twenty, the night I lost my virginity in Washington, D.C. That night I felt certain and brave in my new body, not immodest but natural, and freshly in love. How had so much time passed?

I hadn’t skinny-dipped in public since I was twenty, the night I lost my virginity in Washington, D.C. That night I felt certain and brave in my new body, not immodest but natural, and freshly in love. How had so much time passed?-Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Oxford American: "Ode to Swimming Naked"
‘A Pep Talk for People in the Grip of Decay’: An Interview with Dan Bejar

Talking with the Destroyer songwriter about his new album, Poison Season, how his writing evolved past “ranting in a notebook,” and the uncertain state of aging indie-rockers.

In rock music, destruction comes in many forms. There’s Iggy Pop’s scorched-earth “Search and Destroy;” the ribald excess of Kiss’s Destroyer; the Soft Boys’ melodious “I Wanna Destroy You.” Then there’s Dan Bejar, the protean singer-songwriter who, for almost twenty years now, has gone by the puzzling moniker of Destroyer.When you think of Bejar’s music, mass carnage is hardly what comes to mind—even if his acerbic wit and anthemic bent can make for an unexpected kind of violence that amounts to an intellectual gut punch. Yet the Vancouver indie-savant is constantly dismantling and reinventing his music, from the charged folk-rock of 2000’s Thief and 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction to 2004’s synth-opus Your Blues and the steely blue-eyed soul grooves of 2010’s surprise hit Kaputt.The forthcoming Poison Season recasts the 42-year-old Bejar yet again, this time through a series of slow-burning ballads largely inspired by the Great American Songbook and golden-throated crooners—albeit with some oddball touches to remind you that even in the midst of creation or formation, Destroyer never fails to live up to its name. As usual, no one can explain the album better than Dan Bejar himself. And in keeping with his uneasy, lightly mysterious persona, even for Bejar dissecting Poison Season is its own kind of adventure.*I wanted to ask you about “Dream Lover,” since that was the first thing I heard from the record. The line “I think I used to be more fun” really stuck with me.That’s kind of the crux of the whole song.Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I really believed that might inform the entire record.I find “Dream Lover” pretty strange. It seems to stand apart from the other songs on the record. It’s pretty ratty, you know? But I think that middle break in the song is like a curtain that parts, because most of the rest of it is just the band kind of blasting through. There’s a certain amount of bravado in the presentation of the song, even though I think it’s mostly a song about, I don’t know, sickness, really [laughs]. And kind of a pep talk for people in the grip of decay, you know? It’s not really a song I recognize myself in all that much but I thought that’s kind of why I like that one little line that peeks out. You know, it’s kind of a joyous, miserablist song. There’s something so loud, yet so decrepit about it.I thought it was going to be a centerpiece of Poison Season but it ended up as an outlier.Yeah, I think, as far as the album goes, it kind of had to come out of the gates strong, especially after the introduction of the initial, classical motif of “Times Square.” I just wanted something that blasted forward. I thought it was a novelty song. Then it came out just way louder and way more rock than I ever intended. We maybe practiced it twice and took two stabs at recording it at the very end of the session. It kind of just busted loose. But there’s kind of a sneering quality to the vocals, which I like a lot and which is different from a lot of the other singing going on [on Poison Season]. There wasn’t too much work done on it, which is generally a good sign.Outside of “Dream Lover,” there’s this feeling of deliberation. There’s nothing casual or off-the-cuff about the way this record presents itself.I carried the songs around with me for a long time. I kind of stewed on [them] for a bit; I’m not really used to living with songs for that long. In my head, they kind of wavered in form before I even got to the point of trying to sing them. That’s one thing I’m always careful not to do: sing songs before I get into the studio. I want them to be as live as possible, you know? That was a real conflict with the musical traditions I was thinking of here. But even though the music seems to insist on a certain level of grandeur, the actual songs themselves, and the singing, are more composed of these small, intimate, questioning moments.I have to ask: Have you mellowed with age?Looking back, I think I was very confident making records before. They definitely seem harder and harder the more I make them. With records like This Night or Your Blues, I just kind of lucked into them. That’s good, that’s exciting. There’s also this rush that I would get from images and words kind of pouring out onto themselves, and my voice is trying to keep up with them. And that is over, those days are done. I feel like there is always, in my mind, a sort of confrontation between the words and the music, or the singer and the band, and I’m not really that interested in that element now.Let’s face it, my voice, as gently as I might want to croon, still sucks, and the words, even though I don’t write as much as I used to … it’s not like I’m spitting out these things in the same way, they’re still weird. As a genre workout, it’s a failure.Poison Season is musical in a different way than everything else you’ve done. It’s very musical in the old-school sense.Yeah, I think so. I think Poison Season’s got a real twentieth-century vibe. My touchstones haven’t really changed too much. I’m still listening to Richard Harris and The Style Council [like I was with Your Blues]. I had been just doing really quick sneak attacks on that kind of aesthetic, but never thinking of myself truly in that tradition. At this point, I posit myself one hundred percent in the tradition of a Richard Harris or a Paul Weller. But none of that shit’s really changed. I mean, maybe I listened to Scott Walker more back when I was making Your Blues, and through Scott Walker, I discovered Sinatra, in my typical backwards way. It’s me going into classicist mode and just finally immersing myself in this version of American music.Don’t take this the wrong way, but is Poison Season the indie rock version of a standards record?As a move for a singer-songwriter in his early- to mid-forties or whatever, it couldn’t be more hack. It couldn’t be more basic [laughs]. It’s totally Aging Rocker 101, but that’s not a good enough reason for me not to do it. After I got off the road from Kaputt, I got really, really obsessed with the song “Mack the Knife.” The first thing I wanted to do was cover it. When I listen to Poison Season, I feel like it’s so obvious that I was obsessed with that song and different recordings of it.I was literally just about to bring up Kurt Weill.By the way, I didn’t mean to call you old. You’ve just progressed your sound in a way that not many of your peers have. There’s no playbook for indie rock middle-age in the same way there was for previous generations of musicians.It seems like it’s a lot different being an aging classic rocker. The aging indie rocker is kind of a different scene [laughs]. I think you’re supposed to kind of just slowly fade out. There’s no, like, tragic falls, really, or people who want great records making just terrible records. It’s just more that you just become less relevant or less spoken of, you know? But in the end, it seems something very independent from the record that you make. At some point, in the last five years, I realized that what I do is I do show business, which is a different version of Destroyer from the one that came before it—when I thought I was somehow attacking all of those things.Attacking … show business?Yeah, attacking that, attacking all of the things that I didn’t like. I thought that Destroyer was an attack on show biz [laughs], even though I was as much of a song and dance man as anyone else. And the songs, when you boil them down, are very much traditional pop songs or traditional folk-rock songs. There’s nothing too revolutionary about the music. It’s more of this attitude of like a pamphleteer. I’ve never done too much more than just write about what I have at hand, or whatever my scene happens to be. That was never really my ideal of writing or art-making. It’s always something more elevated than that. I’d rather just capture the way the light dances on the water, right?Do you think you’re doing that more now?I hope so. I mean, if you say “I hope so,” it means you’re probably not. But I feel like the music’s less agitated in some ways. At the same time, it seems to be a much darker and much more foreboding record than any Destroyer album I can think of. When I listen to it, even though the sounds are very lush, I feel like there’s a sense of dread in the record, and a sense of someone lost in the world. It feels more real than other Destroyer albums.I mean, you did call it Poison Season.I do wonder what people who don’t have the historical references are going to make of this record.I don’t really know. I mean, I can’t really say that I’ve thought about it. I think the last Destroyer record was kind of a strange crossover moment. In an accidental way, I made a record at the age of 39 or 40 where I seemed to line up with what is, from what I can tell, a certain, weird zeitgeist that went down in 2011. And it’s not like this record is a rejection of that, but I think it’s more me really going along a course where I’ve always been going along. I can’t imagine this record really having too much appeal to casual listeners.Someone who reveres the stuff I had in mind when I was making [Poison Season] will probably despise this record. Because, let’s face it, my voice—as gently as I might want to croon—still sucks, and the words—even though I don’t write as much as I used to … it’s not like I’m spitting out these things in the same way—they’re still weird. As a genre workout, it’s a failure. Even within specific songs, very fucked up things butt heads—there’s a song, “Hell,” that’s a Michael Nyman-style chamber quartet that then kind of goes into a refrain, like a kind of end-chorus, that’s essentially like a Salvation Army version of Sinatra at the Sands, or maybe just full-on talk show walk-on music.A lot of it was accidental because for all of the meticulousness of making the record, it was done in a super-bizarre way where the person who was writing the arrangements and the band that was recording the songs didn’t really have any idea of what each other were doing. And they all kind of took the songs in these different directions, and in the end, the sounds kind of just got heaped onto the songs. And we tried to find a path through all of it that made sense. In that sense, that’s a very Destroyer way of working. I had no idea what it was going to sound like. But in the end I realized it was going to be much more of a fusion of different things that I only had half-control over instead of it being like some kind of perfect, twilight Nelson Riddle record.The reality is that a lot of the older records were just me ranting in a notebook.I could ask you about the whole concept/cohesiveness of it, but I will be totally honest, I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the bottom of it.You would probably be able to tell about twenty seconds in that I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I would just be making it up as I go along, so I don’t know, it sounds like you’ve got my number.Well, the press release they sent me digs into it pretty hard.I think it was mostly based around some rambling email not even intended for a press release. When I finally got around to reading it, I didn’t really recognize [the record] that they’re talking about.And in some ways, Destroyer has always been as much about how words sound and feel as their literal meanings or linear progress.The reality is that a lot of the older records were just me ranting in a notebook. Just, like, furious writings that I would then try to cram into some songs, and, you know, I would try and find what I would think would be the most melodious language in those rants, and they’d end up in a song, but it just does not happen that way anymore. Little phrases kind of just drift out of the air with melodies attached to them and there’s much more space between the words now, probably because there’s a difference in the way that I’m making songs. It’s more of a musical adventure than this kind of fucked-up literary project with music.I’m assuming you want the press release stuff kept out, right?Oh, no, I don’t give a shit. You really can write whatever you want.[[{"fid":"6690336","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"class":"file media-element file-media-original"},"link_text":"dream-lover"}]]
Sweet Silence and Day-Old Water

My brother made an impromptu visit to Toronto two nights ago on a business trip. He still lives in our hometown, Calgary, 20 minutes from the house I grew up in and the one he moved to at 12 when I was born, with his wife and five-year-old daughter. We don’t really talk, not because we’re estranged or fighting, but mostly because we have little to say to each other. If I want to know something about him, I’ll ask his daughter, who once summed up her quiet, somewhat crabby father to me by saying, “Daddy’s just sleepy.” Probably for the best. I can’t remember the last time we spent any time together without the blissful buffers of other family members, or TV , or a heaping portion of food. We met after dinner…

My brother made an impromptu visit to Toronto two nights ago on a business trip. He still lives in our hometown, Calgary, 20 minutes from the house I grew up in and the one he moved to at 12 when I was born, with his wife and five-year-old daughter. We don't really talk, not because we're estranged or fighting, but mostly because we have little to say to each other. If I want to know something about him, I'll ask his daughter, who once summed up her quiet, somewhat crabby father to me by saying, "Daddy's just sleepy." Probably for the best.I can't remember the last time we spent any time together without the blissful buffers of other family members, or TV, or a heaping portion of food. We met after dinner for a drink near his hotel downtown. "Why do people visit this city?" he asked me. It was sweltering and he was wearing thick jeans and a long-sleeved button-up. ("Shorts are undignified for an adult man," he said when I asked why he thought it a good idea to cover every part of his body on what was a very, very hot night.) We walked to a bar while he complained about the smell of the city ("Like an open diaper") and how the CN Tower was a pretty lame tourist trap.I used to desperately want to be my brother's friend. When I was eight or nine, I'd try to learn new words and employ them in casual conversation so he'd pause and think, You know what, I've been wrong about her this whole time. It's the only reason I know what "quixotic" means. I still haven't used it correctly once. We decided to visit the bar connected to Hazlitt's offices, on the main floor across from the dreaded CN Tower he hates so much. We followed the waiter to a table but ran into our editor-in-chief, Jordan Ginsberg (who I have been calling "Gabbo" pretty consistently for the last two months and will continue to do no matter what he says) and a few other coworkers. I laughed uncomfortably for what felt like a full 15 minutes, and my brother and I decided to join them.With the exception of my boyfriend, no one in my current life has met my brother. Having Gabbo meet him was particularly jarring—I talk to him more than anyone else which is, honestly, now that I think about it, very depressing. He clinked glasses with the most influential man from my childhood. My brother made fun of Gabbo with ease, he brought up the time I was suspended in the first week of the 7th grade, he complained about Toronto. He does not like Toronto.Gabbo asked my brother what he did like. "Silence," he deadpanned. "And day-old water." It was never entirely clear if he was being glib, clever, cutely depressive, or if he was actually like that. It's the balance I've been trying to make sense of with him since I was conscious of his existence: are you having a good time, or are you having a terrible time, or are you just pretending to be miserable because you're not sure it's okay to be happy?This lively, talkative version of my brother isn't the one I remember. When I visit home, he's happy to slide into the background, let his screaming daughter take up the attention and grab me for hugs and pinches. When he comes over for Sunday dinners, he doesn't greet anyone, just makes a beeline to the pantry to stare into its nothingness, because he's never all that hungry anyway. (He's off sugar these days, but drank a Guinness. We explained that Guinness did, indeed, have sugar. He cursed softly and drank deeply.) But this version of him was quick on his feet and aggressive and funny and terrifying. I felt like I was nine. Wait, how do I use "quixotic" again?"I get it," Gabbo messaged me after we had all gone home. "I thought you were exaggerating." Whenever I try to describe my brother, no one believes me: how can someone be equal parts class clown and subdued depressive? Were we closer in age and didn't both have that exact same formula pumping through our veins, we'd probably find a way to be friends.This morning, I got to my desk and noticed a glass of water I poured for myself the afternoon before. I drank half of it, bubbles forming on the sides of the glass, my old lipstick stain fighting with a new one I was trying to make. And you know, he was right. Day-old water is pretty good.
‘I Am Attracted To The Hope Of Finishing’: An Interview With Jason Polan

The artist and author on trying to draw every single person he sees, the Taco Bell Drawing Club, and how many Ikea hot dogs he can eat.

When Jason Polan decides to draw everything—every person listed in a town phonebook, every kernel of popcorn in one bag—he does it. With his largest project to date—an ongoing blog and most recently, a book, Every Person in New York—Polan knows the conceit is pure fantasy. He can draw until his hand aches, but that lush determiner, in the case of a city like New York, is code for infinity.In spite of or because of this, Polan has numbers to his name, having drawn more than 36,000 people since 2008. Some of them are repeats (Jon Stewart in a ball cap on Broadway; Jon Stewart with his two kids at Kmart) and many of the figures are so gestural, they seem to be composed of airborne spaghetti. The effect is of scrolling, and now turning, through a dimension where people are always in the middle of something interesting. Even sleep and palpable boredom seem elevated to quasi-events by Polan’s hand.Every Person in New York marks the human anatomy of a city in black ink. Each drawing vibrates with momentary life: from a woman sleeping on the downtown E, to a man playing Pétanque in Bryant Park, to “Tracy Morgan with Cops Petting His Dog on Lispenard.”From his Manhattan apartment, Polan spoke about who he likes to draw, what he’s learned from following New Yorkers for eight years, and his international art society, the Taco Bell Drawing Club (it’s exactly what it sounds like).*First of all, paint me a picture: where are you right now? And do you have a snack?I am in the new apartment I just moved into. I got Internet yesterday so that’s nice. I have some graham crackers, so I should be okay.Graham crackers, classic. Okay, first question: it seems like one aspect of your drawing practice is vigilantly accounting for people and things—like the project where you drew every single student at your art school, or every unique kernel from a bag of microwave popcorn. Can you talk about what attracts you to this kind of extreme inclusion?I think I am attracted to the hope of finishing. For the popcorn project, it took me about three hours to draw every piece and every kernel in a popped bag of popcorn. For the art school project I drew everyone in the art school—kind of,I didn't know what everyone looked like but I tried—and showed the work as a set. If particular portraits sold, the person whose portrait sold got the money. I really like sets and I like finishing. But with Every Person in New York, I totally will not finish. And I’m okay with that. I guess I never really thought I would finish—I just thought it would be something to work on forever.I guess people keep being born, too. It’s hard to keep up with that kind of production. What you said about liking sets, and liking to finish things—do you like doing puzzles?I like puzzles sometimes, but I think it’s a little different than that. I like the feeling of a puzzle being finished, like most people. I studied biological anthropology in college, and we had a really good lab; [lots] of bones, and a bunch of interesting skulls relating to our evolution. I really liked drawing them—and collecting them by drawing them. I like collecting stuff, which is another way of looking at this project or other related ones I have worked on.You mention in the introduction to the book that you started Every Person in New York for a couple of reasons—wanting to learn more about the city, and wanting to get better at drawing people. Can you see or feel yourself having done either of those things since you began?When I started compiling things for the book, I did look at some of those earlier drawings and think "yikes," a bit. I tried not to edit something out just because I thought it wasn't a very good drawing, which hopefully means I am improving—though I am a little worried about the more recent drawings that I’ll look at in six or seven years. But yes, I feel a little more confident in the drawings now. I hope I have improved, although I always feel a little weird judging that. I have gotten around the city more, which [this project] has forced me to do. Even just getting me out of certain habits/rotations has been good for me.There are things I will usually draw if I see them, like accordion players. And people walking together on the sidewalk.I wonder if you're able to articulate something you've intuited—a quality, or feeling—through drawing New Yorkers?I think about movements a lot. I’m usually pretty good at knowing if I’ll need to wrap a drawing up because I can feel when someone is about to get up from a bench—beyond them packing things into a backpack—or walk away. I guess I’ve realized things about how parts of the city are different, and at different times. Maybe they’re somewhat obvious things—people move faster when they’re trying to get home kind of things—but I hadn't thought of them before.It seems obvious when you say it, but it’s not a fact you ever take note of until something requires you to—like trying to draw people who are on their way home. I imagine it must help to mark the rhythm of a given day or area. Are there certain features that make you want to draw someone?There are things I will usually draw if I see them, like accordion players. And people walking together on the sidewalk. I also like drawing people that are on TV shows I like. But it ends up being somewhat random.Do people every resist if they notice you drawing them?People very rarely notice.I saw a video of you drawing and I laughed because of how obvious and discreet you looked at the same time. You're standing in the middle of all this activity, completely still except for your hand.Yes, when people film me it totally changes the project.Because you're not so invisible anymore, with a camera on you? Or is it something else?People want to know what they’re filming, so they look. Without a camera I’m usually, hopefully, fairly invisible. The drawings are better if people don’t know I’m drawing them.Makes sense. Now that the book is out, are you thinking about new projects?I’m thinking the same. The book required a lot of energy, but it hasn't really changed how I look at this project. Since a lot of the drawings ended up on the blog, I already had the idea that people would hopefully see them. This is just a different format for that. I do hope that with the book more people will see the project. I like the idea that a person will be exposed to the project for the first time and realize I’ve already drawn them.How did the Taco Bell Drawing Club get started? I was spending a lot of time drawing at Taco Bell and decided to invite people to do that with me. It’s more than 10 years old now and there are over 250 members around the world.There's a Taco Bell at the end of my street, but I've never been to Taco Bell before and I'm slightly obsessed with maintaining that. Otherwise, I’d join.What is funny, a lot of the members are not big Taco Bell eaters—I always buy things so we’re proper customers—but people attending the drawing clubs don’t have to.I have one final question for you based on your Instagram: am I right in thinking that you are a fan of hot dogs? What is your perfect hot dog and condiment combination?I do like hot dogs! I like them grilled a little extra with ketchup and mustard, and sometimes chopped onions and dill relish. Ketchup is, I guess, a little frowned upon on hot dogs, but I like it! What is your favorite kind of hot dog/condiment combination?I love a picnic-grilled hot dog on a sesame bun. Slashed but not too slashed. Then mustard, relish, a bit of ketchup. Sometimes onions if they're not chopped too finely. If I go to Ikea, I just do a straight-up mustard squiggle. I go real basic on an Ikea dog.I can eat, like, seven Ikea hot dogs.Me too. [Sighs]
Banner for Liquid Planet Battle Pt 9 by Ryan Cecil Smith for HazlittBanner for Liquid Planet Battle Pt 8 by Ryan Cecil Smith for Hazlitt
S.F. Liquid Planet Battle Pt. 9

“Look! He’s waking up now!”

Our Tarts, Ourselves

Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. But like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.

The hall was perfumed with syrup and lard. There’s this manner people pick up after eating six or seven butter tarts, a wanly smiling listlessness. They move in trembles and jolts. My body felt like the sack crumpling around a bag of sugar. But degrading, delirious gluttony was what brought us all together. Midland, Ontario’s third annual butter tart festival had drawn nearly 20,000 people, more than the town’s entire population. I was watching celebrity judges work their way through the homemade category at a local cultural centre, or half-watching them, since competitive baking turns out to be light on spectacle. Volunteers brought leftover pastry chunks out to the audience, each sample amending the standard sugar, syrup, butter, and eggs to follow this year’s “freestyle” theme—we had citrus, raspberry coconut, tarts embellished with pumpkin or pecan, another combining chocolate and peanut like a sturdier Reese’s Cup. Midland’s lone drag queen did her rounds, caramelized by bronzer.There was a debate about the propriety of eating one baker’s little Canadian flags. The artist Jillian Tamaki tried a cherry almond butter tart—very light, nicely browned crust—and called it “classy.” Like me, she was here because of the cartoonist (and Hazlitt contributor) Michael DeForge, who successfully pestered the festival into making him a judge via Twitter: “I am a New York Times bestselling author and the subject of at least one Wikipedia entry. In the time it took me to type out these responses, I ate two and a half butter tarts.” A squad of friends had traveled up from Toronto, including Michael’s publisher Annie Koyama and the other young cartoonists Ginette Lapalme and Patrick Kyle, and eating nothing but desserts left us unable to sit still for longer than three seconds. DeForge wandered over, official duties ended, and peeled the judging smock off his Prince T-shirt. “I feel like I just rubbed grease all over my body,” he said. The sugar coma was descending. “I think I soiled my apron the most.”DeForge had been running 10 miles a day, but his main form of training was an exhaustive survey of local butter tarts. The @TartQuest Instagram account documented dozens of subtleties in pastry recipe, Michael’s black nail polish posed against golden filling. He captioned one photo: “That a bakery that already offers a perfectly fine regular butter tart would also sell this crumbly, crummy pecan variation reflects a sort of pathology, I think. Reviewed for completion’s sake.” Jillian Tamaki, DeForge’s partner in both food criticism and life, served as the unseen artistic director. Months later he was able to draw a map of Toronto’s tarts, complete with one sad little cartoon tooth. There was something perversely funny about treating desserts like work. Before leaving for Midland I mentioned this adventure to a mutual friend, who laughed that the whole project was “deeply fucking weird.”[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"6607106","attributes":{"alt":"Michael DeForge","class":"media-image","height":"950","title":"Michael DeForge","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"950"}}]]You could say the same thing about butter tarts in general. Even that name is mystifying: The filling of a typical recipe contains far more sugar than butter. They share certain similarities with the francophone sugar pie, or those British desserts teeming with treacle, or an American pecan pie, minus the nuts and the extreme sweetness, but butter tarts have long been associated with rural Ontario—Jillian told me they were much scarcer in her native Calgary. Butter tarts sometimes get used as a signifier of “Canadian-ness” in the same lazy way as ancient CBC programs, where the truest Canadian is always Anglo—a habit Anupa Mistry recently called, on this website, “this basic binary of national identity: white, hockey-playing Tim Hortons guzzlers and an indistinguishable horde of immigrants.”In a rapturous Guernica essay about chicken tenders, the Eater editor Helen Rosner called them a “perfect food,” and then went on: “Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland.” Butter tarts court blandness too, but they exist at the inverse of perfection, forever irking or disappointing somebody. How much crust is too much? Should the filling be richly clotted, as liquid as pooling caramel, or sit inside its shell like a demure pudding? Some call tarts without raisins false and schismatic, their obscure grievance akin to those Catholics convinced the papacy has actually been vacant since 1958. And sniping at each other about tiny arbitrary differences is still a popular Canadian sport.Butter tarts seem oddly nebulous for a national dish, generic name and all. They lack the symbolic silhouette of a muffin or a donut; imagine bagels divorced from their communal lore. When I was growing up in Toronto, the local bakery had its birthday cakes shaped like football fields or candied ziggurats, and my own family would sometimes travel miles for the ideal croissant—that crisp crunch revealing warrens of dough—but we got butter tarts six to a pack at Loblaws. I can’t remember if they came with raisins or not. It didn’t matter. The flavour never changed.The display of eating-as-identity has helped to circulate historic recipes that some Canadians never tried before, rewritten to modern tastes. At the anachronistic Toronto restaurant Boralia—one of this country’s rejected names, which also included Ursalia, Vesperia, Superior and Transatlantica—you can order bison “pemmican” bresaola, red fife bread, stuffed onions, or pigeon pie. Several years ago Arsenal Pulp Press published Andrew George’s cookbook A Feast for All Seasons: Traditional Native Peoples’ Cuisine, with moose rib soup and deep-fried bannock. And in many North American cities, poutine now congeals into a sponge for liquor at night’s end. Last autumn I went to Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon and had their foie gras version. The restaurant serves working-class Quebecois food at decadent extremes, from entire pigs’ heads to duck magret looking like the last island in a drowned world, but this mutation felt almost intuitive. Quivering atop warm fries, the liver, curds and gravy melted together into a lusciously quicksilver form.As far as I knew, butter tarts still came in brittle six-packs from the supermarket, maybe a little bakery up near cottage country if you were lucky. There were no dessert menus promising “deconstructions” of them. You can buy poutine-inspired kimchi fries in Toronto, but you can’t find butter tarts filled with red bean paste or pulped plantains. So when I followed Michael and Jillian on a survey of my own before going to Midland, I was struck by the number of bakers tinkering with a very familiar snack. The butterscotch tart I brought home from Bakerbots, which collapsed upon leaving its box, was sweetly insipid, but several blocks away at Karelia Kitchen I got one crowned by a perfectly sugary top crust, the thick goo inside flavoured with rum and blackcurrant. In 2014, over 50,000 butter tarts had been sold at that festival. I had the feeling that it wasn’t simply nostalgia fuelling the demand.*Canada’s food history has always bent to a dialectical tension between scarcity and abundance. The first humans who lived in this land were hardly arrived before megafauna creatures, their primeval bulk heedless of spears, began to disappear with the glaciers. North America’s indigenous peoples learned how to hunt other animals, the hares and foxes and seals and caribou, but they also developed elaborate techniques of preservation, realizing that one bison carcass might need to last a long time. Traditionally a mixture of dried meat, grease, and berries, pemmican packed huge amounts of energy and nutrients into a chewy jerky; passed to Europeans through the Canadian fur trade, it remained vital on polar expeditions centuries later. (Chocolate was a more incongruous staple of that era, since it kept nearly as well and traveled the vast distances between trading posts lightly.) The fur voyageurs would gather at Fort William for frenzied banquets every July, drinking like they were already back in Montreal.Elizabeth Simcoe was an artist and writer married to the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, as the British called it then. He gave the family name to Ontario’s Simcoe County; she left behind a diary. During 1793, this emissary from what would soon become the most domineering empire in the world cheerfully described the taste of porcupines, squirrels, and raccoons (like lamb with mint sauce, she wrote). Another entry suggests the settlers could find few alternatives: “At the close of the day they came on a Surveyor's line & the next morning saw Lake Ontario. Its first appearance Col. Simcoe says was the most delightful sight at the time they were in danger of starving & about 3 miles from York [now Toronto] they breakfasted on the remaining Provisions. Had they remained in the woods another day it was feared Jack Sharp would have been sacrificed to their hunger. He is a very fine Newfoundland Dog who belonged to Mr. Shane."In its cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians, our government tried to uproot their tables as well; many treaties blocked access to traditional game and crops. A ruptured family has no recipes to pass down. Between 1815 and 1855, one million people followed the Simcoes to British North America—often after reading travel accounts that exaggerated the colony’s riches and leisure. According to the recent anthology Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History, once their rations ran out, many settlers subsisted on dishes similar to the local First Nations diet: “herbs, roots, bark and berries found in the woods,” soups, game and fish. Their European backgrounds became an ever more distant abstraction. Under the new national identity these colonizers created, blueberries or wild rice had always already sat there waiting for their hand, just like the continent itself. The Anishnaabeg and the Haudenosaunee first collected maple sap in birch bark containers to sweeten their food, and later used kettles to boil it down, but maple syrup is, invariably, merely “Canadian.”In its cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians, our government tried to uproot their tables as well; many treaties blocked access to traditional game and crops. A ruptured family has no recipes to pass down. Long after she was taken from her parents and sent to a residential school, the Carrier leader Mary John recalled: "I was always hungry. I missed the roast moose, the fish fresh from a frying pan, the warm bread and bannock and berries. Oh how I missed the food I used to have in my own home. At school, it was porridge, porridge, porridge, and if it wasn't that, it was boiled barley or beans, and thick slices of bread spread with lard. Weeks went by without a taste of meat or fish. Some things such as sugar or butter or jam only appeared on our tables on feast days and sometimes not even then."Meanwhile, as Canada’s cities grew in size and wealth, hotels and taverns competed to offer the most absurdly indiscriminate menu. In 1864, the British journalist George Tuthill Borrett described his breakfast at Montreal’s St. Lawrence Hall: "I found myself in about two minutes surrounded by a multitude of little oval dishes, on which were fish, steaks, chops, ham, chicken, turkey, rissoles, potatoes (boiled, roast and fried), cabbage, corn, cheese, onions and pickles, besides plates of hot rolls, buns, crumpets, toast and biscuits, flanked by a great jug full of milk and an enormous vessel of coffee ... There was a Yankee next to us who ordered much the same as I had thus unintentionally been burdened with, and what was our astonishment to see him take six soft-boiled eggs, and breaking them on the edge of a tumbler, drop in successively their respective yolks, and then, after two or three whirls of his spoon in the glass, gobble them up as an 'appetizer,' with a gurgle of delight that was quite musical."If that sounds almost suspiciously generous, it bears mentioning that nobody seemed to like Canadian food too much. From 1886 to 1948, this was the only country in the world that banned margarine entirely, an insecure attempt to guard its own pitiful dairy industry. During the 1870s, common butter from Quebec and Ontario sold for much less than American, French, or Irish varieties. In his historical study A Propensity to Protect—definitely the most entertaining book about Victorian dairy policy—W. H. Heick writes that, aside from the best Eastern Townships product, Canadian butter “was considered in Britain as useless for anything other than greasing axles or shearing sheep,” the complaints including dubious cleanliness, “a lack of uniformity in colour, taste, texture, size and shape of package,” and our use of coarse local salt rather than fine English stuff. The Conservative MP Darbey Bergin, who called margarine a “highly purified kind of soap,” warned the nation: “This compound of pork, of diseased animals, is also made from the various fats that are picked from kitchens and gutters and the vilest purlieus of the different cities."Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. They don’t have frescoes of icing, or decorative cherries, or a macaron’s need to be fussed over and indulged. They wouldn’t want to make a spectacle of themselves. Like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.The earliest extant butter tart recipe was published in 1900 by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital, attributed to Mary MacLeod of Barrie, then as now the largest city in Simcoe County. Implying that the crust will always be secondary, it was simply called “Filling for Tarts.” She made sure to mention raisins, but MacLeod didn’t specify the type of sweetener—few people could afford sacks of cane sugar in the 19th century, when all those proto-tarts were baked, so most cooks used maple sugar instead. You still see it on recipes today, as nostalgic homage. Our national dessert: A confection of Canada’s famously shitty butter and the sugar we owe to people Europeans evicted. Butter tarts are strangely modest in their excess, a two-dollar decadence. They don’t have frescoes of icing, or decorative cherries, or a macaron’s need to be fussed over and indulged. They wouldn’t want to make a spectacle of themselves. Like that Canadian myth of innocent blandness, a butter tart’s surface hides something much more complex.*The day before Midland’s Best Butter Tart Festival, I got on a bus to Barrie so I could wait around for a second bus. I was underdressed for that morning’s thick, slimy rain, beneath which the horizon seemed to dissipate into a distant void. What could I eat that would be the opposite of a butter tart? I walked through the Barrie bus terminal and the Smoke-n-Ticket, across desolate intersections, past the Ranch, “Canada’s largest country bar,” with the architecture of a military base that stockpiles whiskey instead of ammo. “Fuck yeah, Tim Hortons!” someone said while he waited for coffee. “I’ve been in jail too long.” Returning to the bus stop with my plastic ramekin of chili, I boarded our ride to Midland just as Nickelback came on the radio. It felt … comforting?The rain was still coming down when we arrived. I didn’t call a cab, wanting to get a sense of the place. Midland is a landmark of Catholicism in Ontario—there’s a church consecrated to the memory of 17th-century martyrs, and a reconstructed Jesuit mission—but it reminded me of some British seaside towns I’ve wandered through, with those hushed tea shops and one long lane blurring from street to road to highway, from the high street to the outskirts, each sidewalk falling away like scales. I followed it there, passing a Christian bookstore, the Georgian Bay Native Women’s Association, the inevitable Pizza Pizza, and a Chinese restaurant named Double Happiness. Staying at Midland’s second-cheapest motel, I discovered, would save me $40 for butter tarts in the morning. A group of bikers had just rode in, but they did have one smoking room left. Too bad for the convenience store next door that I was already committed to this weekend’s bad decisions.Jillian and DeForge picked me up a few hours later; one of the other Torontonians had invited people over to their family’s cottage. We went past a cemetery with teens performing some candlelit ritual. The sky was now nothing more than a desaturated smudge. Night makes the twee Englishness of rural Ontario feel eerie and atavistic, as if every scattered noise might be a whistling ceremonial sickle. Driving over those dark backroads, we could only see a few feet in front of us, far enough to discern the occasional dead rabbit. Jillian and I simultaneously blurted out: “This is just like Lost Highway.” No one was inside when we arrived. The cottage had a cache of old VHS tapes, and somebody decided that it would be much funnier to just watch the trailers and then eject them. Robert Blake’s face flickered into view, modeling history’s creepiest makeup tutorial: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” It was Lost Highway.Nothing so unnerving happened at the festival itself, unless you count that person offering their “butter tart pizza,” a massive quasi-tart with a wilting crust made from pizza dough. There was also a deep-fried variation, and a natural-cosmetics shop selling butter-tart-flavoured exfoliant and body polish. Its owner, Kathy Kowalsky, who had been experimenting with combinations of brown sugar and cocoa butter, told me: “Five years ago I opened up an organic spa in Midland, and it showed me that, oh, okay, I’m not just the tree-hugging weirdo, people actually like this stuff.” They liked the more traditional recipes, too: Doo Doo’s Bakery from Bailieboro, the champion of last year’s “professional” category, sold out of 200 dozen tarts in 90 minutes. Everyone nearby seemed to be fulfilling some idle pastry fantasy. St. Mark’s Anglican Church advertised their contribution as “The Blessed Butter Tart in Town.” It was nicely caramelized on top, with big juicy raisins, but so runny and unruly that eating one felt like opening a reliquary of molasses—even at a bake sale, the devil finds work.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"6607326","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"660","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"950"}}]]I preferred the delicately balanced tart from Grandma’s Beach Treats in Wasaga, with a butterscotch chip rising to its surface. By this point, having eaten something like 4000 calories in butter and sugar, I was just staggering around looking at the tangential distractions of any larger festival. A Ugandan children’s choir performed at one end of the street; the other held a steampunk boutique. Goths craned forlornly away from the sun. We drifted inside an antiques shop called the Crow’s Nest, Midland’s leading retailer for the kind of doll that will murder you in a horror movie. They hung down from the ceiling, limbs rigid, staring at us. Someone said they saw a bat in there once. When Patrick Kyle and Ginette Lapalme disappeared, nobody noticed at first. I began to picture a futile search, the skeptical official queries, and then, weeks later, the two new dolls on sale at the Crow’s Nest, mysteriously and vividly resembling a pair of twentysomething Toronto cartoonists.Toronto crew only managed to reunite right before the home baker competition, and our sugar-induced madness was slackening into a sluggish tart dependency. The announcer introduced DeForge’s many fellow judges, including a two-time Juno Awards nominee, the Toronto Star’s food editor, and Captain Ed Conroy of the S.S. Keewatin, the world’s last surviving Edwardian steamship, now a floating museum in neighbouring Port McNicoll. He walked onstage wearing full naval uniform and saluted. We limply reached out for their leftover tarts. One used Canadian ice wine; another was based on black forest cake. The “freestyle” theme seemingly made each baker try to create the least traditional recipe imaginable. (“Some of those entries really perfectly incorporated some odd and surprising flavours into their filling,” Michael later emailed me, “but some of the tarts that ranked very highly amongst the other judges just felt like pastries that happened to look like butter tarts.”) When we were passed a tart with peanut butter, banana, and bacon, somebody said “I can’t do this.” It ended up winning the whole category.I couldn’t talk to the triumphant baker Hisako Niimi at that moment, because another judge started leading the room in a butter-tarts-themed rendition of “Sweet Caroline,” but I eventually got a chance to ask her about herself. She wrote back: “When I withdrew from the joint management of [her Ottawa bakery] in March, six years had already passed since I arrived to Canada. I lost the store and I lost the boyfriend with whom I had a long-term relationship … At the same time, I found by chance the website for the Best Butter Tarts Festival in Midland. I thought I should challenge this contest! One of my flavors was Elvis Presley’s favorite combination: peanut butter banana bacon. I thought natural sweetness from banana, strong peanut butter flavor and salted crispy bacon would make a nice taste and crunchy texture that would suit butter tarts. I also wanted to make this flavor successful for Elvis Presley’s honor.” Niimi added: “Unfortunately, I have never had any family recipe for butter tarts. So I decided to create butter tarts to my taste instead of going the traditional way.”The next morning, I rode back to Toronto with Michael, Jillian, Patrick, and Ginette. We listened to Bjork the whole way down: It takes courage to enjoy it / The hardcore and the gentle. Changing lanes, Jillian turned to Michael and joked: “Are you done appropriating white culture now?” When we reached the city again, she handed me a single Timbit with the manner of someone giving methadone to a heroin addict. The thing was, I really couldn’t stop eating butter tarts. I went searching at the perplexingly expensive Pusateri’s grocery store a few days later. They carry this Bakerberry tart marbled black and white, Belgian chocolate infusing the cakey pastry, like a gourmet Crème Egg. I got a block away from the store before tearing apart its little paper box. The filling was overwhelming, a sumptuous richness turning bitter at the edges. I thought it might linger on my lips forever.