The other day I got a remarkable letter, quite lengthy and extremely erudite, commending me on writing The Complete and True Story of Rosia Montana but at the end he chastised me (quite mildly) for the paragraph where I called Dan Sova “Ponta’s bitch”.
I was quite taken aback by that letter, not by the points that the author expressed nor by his well-informed additions nor even because of the criticism but simply because I was shocked that such literate readers exist, much less read what I post here on my humble little website.
That deserves some explaining so I will do my best to do it in a short way. A few weeks ago I downloaded some of the best selling books (in English) of 2013 as ranked by the New York Times. I picked a handful of non-fiction books as well as some fiction books.
For the record, the books that I downloaded and have read were “Inferno” (Dan Brown), “Bad Monkey” (Carl Hiaasen), “And The Mountains Echoed” (Khaled Hosseini), “Lean In” (Sheryl Sandberg), “American Gun” (Chris Kyle), “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” (David Sedaris), “Dad is Fat” (Jim Gaffigan), “Zero Hour” (Clive Cussler/Graham Brown), “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” (Anton DiSclafani), “The Engagements” (J. Courtney Sullivan), “Revenge Wears Prada” (Lauren Weisberger), “Cooked” (Michael Pollan) “The Last Original Wife” (Dorothea Benton) and “Red Sparrow” (Jason Matthews).
At least three of those books were total shit (Zero Hour, American Gun and The Last Original Wife). I don’t mean that the subject didn’t interest me or that the story wasn’t my preferred “genre” or anything like that. I mean that the writing was absolutely mediocre, tired and bland at best, with “American Gun” the worst of the lot, coming across as though it were a transcript of a 13-year-old boy discussing guns in a lockerroom before a football game.
The “YRC4G” was pretentious literary garbage, “Zero Hour” full of one absurd character after another (including a Russian assassin who lives solely on “special protein supplements” and “feels nothing” while taking ice baths in the winter) and of course David Sidaris was his usual overwrought self, (apparently) drawing on a troubled childhood to humorously mock himself for fun and profit. David Brown was David Brown, which is about all I’m going to say about that.
Out of those books above, one non-fiction book (Cooked) was a clear masterpiece. And while light, fun and never trying to be serious, “Bad Monkey” was tightly written and absolutely charming. The rest of the books stumbled along, relying on past successes (Prada and another “shocking” case of sexuality in poor old repressed Afghanistan) and “Lean In” made me wince as Sheryl Sandberg so earnestly and genuinely wants women to succeed in the meat grinder of upper echelon corporate politics.
Jim Gaffigan is funny but really only two of those writers, Hiaasen and Pollen, can really write. Of course there is a place for books of simpler dimensions. I don’t need Shakespeare on deck for every word I read but damn, remember this is supposed to be the best of the best, the top of the New York Times list.
Another thing I recently read was an article in Columbia Journalism Review, written by a brave Italian female journalist who described what it is like being a freelance reporter in the middle of a war (in this case, Syria). It’s worth reading the whole thing but of critical importance is her honesty in stating that she makes 70 dollars per article.
Obviously any money is some money but 70 dollars to risk your life in the middle of a war? Hardly seems worth it, and yet that’s the going price. The old capitalist dictum of supply versus demand is why that price is so low. Writers are a dime a dozen, whether it’s postings on job sites for web copy, freelance journalists in war zones or peons hired to churn out what’s called “clickbait”, described pithily in The AOL Way memo.
Nowadays, big time sites like the Huffington Post don’t even pay their writers at all, squaring the circle, and the internet is a glut of desperate writers trying to get your clicks, promising salacious stories, gossip and trivia because there’s almost no market at all for quality writing.
I don’t blame any of the news sites, blogs, SEO prophets, freelance websites that draw down the bidding to the absolutely lowest price, the big four book publishers (four in the USA, a few more worldwide), cut-throat deals by Apple or newspapers that pay paltry rates for freelance journalism in war zones. Nor do I blame the corporate hacks that shill for the media, lobbing softball questions at industry giants and corrupt politicians, spinning the news into a neat, nice little package.
That’d be a little bit like blaming McDonald’s for making money. Mass production is profitable, and consumers keep buying it. The mass production of writing is also profitable and fewer and fewer people spend the money to read anything better, just as fewer and fewer people invest in high-quality ingredients and the necessary time to make a superb meal.
Long story short is most people come to my blog (and all the other content on the internet) looking for a quick cheeseburger. If I were smart, that’s what I’d give ’em, fast, quick and easy to read with lots of juicy stuff.
Instead I have a tendency to pound out massive 2,000 or 3,000 (sometimes as high as 5,000) word screeds on topics few people care about even enough to read the title, much less invest their time to read the whole thing. What the poor “customers” get around here is lengthy, tedious and difficult to digest (with sometimes dozens of off-site links) and rarely conforms to common conceptions.
Which is fine, because I’m not in the business of selling cheeseburgers.
My homeless friend Ishti is inordinately proud of what Romanians call cultura generala, more akin to “an education” or “knowledge” rather than a direct translation of “general culture”. Every Romanian who has ever met him and talked with him at length always comes away impressed by his knowledge of history, philosophy and literary knowledge.
I admit it’s probably one of the reasons he’s been my friend all these years. It’s a pleasure to discuss with him the core ideas of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, Ishti being intimately familiar with not just the general outline of the plot but easily able to remember the characters’ names and their involvement in the story.
I imagine most Romanians could tell you who Decebal (sometimes Decebalus) was, but Ishti is the only person that I’ve ever talked to who knew who Diurpaneus was. Just the other day Ishti gave me a lengthy lecture on exactly who Apollodorus was (which I am ashamed to admit I did not know), why he was considered a Syrian and exactly what he did for the Emperor Trajan in the year AD 105.
Mind you, he’s not consulting the internet for all this information, it’s inside of him. And we are discussing these things and many more (he’s particularly well-versed on Greek mythology and regularly draws apt conclusions using parallels between those gods and goddesses and the modern day) all while standing around on the streets of Cluj because he’s homeless.
Very few people really care who Diurpaneus was, or why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact led to Romanian soldiers sacking the city of Odessa, or exactly why it was such a shame that the Emperor Nero’s paranoia forced the suicide of Seneca. I do, which is why I love discussing these things with Ishti.
But remember, besides entertaining ourselves, none of Ishti’s knowledge is of any real practical value. He sleeps in an unheated hole beneath a concrete overpass, he owes the state several million (old) lei in unpaid tickets, he spends his days searching for handouts or doing odd jobs and doesn’t own a single possession that he’s managed to hang onto for more longer than six months, everything either stolen, lost or “pawned” off for a few lei.
My life is thankfully a little more comfortable but he and I are both in the same situation, namely that all of our education and knowledge is largely of little value in this world.
He’s got a strong back and can do odd jobs for money and I’m ticking away, paying my bills by churning out text for clients over the internet. The difference between us is that he hangs onto his knowledge with a sense of pride while I have no such illusions.
Here in Unicorn City there are hundreds, dare I say thousands of artists, filling galleries and expositions with their works. I’ve seen some of them and been impressed by their talent but have I ever purchased one of their paintings? The answer is no. And I rather imagine that few of you reading this have purchased an original painting in the last year either. Quality art is admirable but very rarely profitable.
And while I admit that I’m not in the business of churning out cheeseburgers, I’m also not in the business of being a closeted, toque-wearing chef, carving out elaborate delicacies for the elite few.
Don’t misunderstand me – over the years I’ve considered both options. I’ve spent considerable hours reading through Wikipedia’s collection of STRATFOR emails that ANONYMOUS hacked from the company’s website to see what it is exactly that they do.
They bill themselves as a global intelligence company and generate mountains of information, styled as “briefings” to any customer who can pay their hefty fee. In the mountain of hacked data there are lots of “briefings” about Romania, almost all of them INR-style rewrites (called “press summaries”) of what has appeared in the media. The remainder is badly translated from Romanian to English, clearly written by Romanians, along with extraneous fluff passing itself off as informed analysis.
Whether it’s a private company like STRATFOR (and their clones) or else working for the American government directly, the end users are just about identical, the “Masters of the Universe” who use propaganda, high-impact kinetic weapons and economic leverage to empower and enrich a tiny elite. No different than a five-star chef serving up endangered bluefin tuna in an upscale restaurant, the whole business seems sordid to me.
I don’t care whether it’s serving a wealthy elite or vast hordes of indiscriminate consumers, the whole thing is completely unappetizing to me so I have opted out. In simpler terms, I am a fool because I prefer to starve (or at least be quite hungry at times) rather than dipping my shoulder to the wheel and throwing what little talent I have into the ravenous maw of the beast.
For the record, Dan Sova is Ponta’s bitch, both of them being among the most murderously stupid men in Romanian politics. While I have never written about it before (to my chagrin), few people today remember the revelation in 2011 that Dan Sova and Victor Ponta’s lawfirm had defrauded the state of an astonishing 1 million euros back in 2008.
“Sova and Associates”, the law firm that employed both men (back when they were lawyers, not politicians), were caught overbilling the government (for which they were providing “consulting services” to a state energy firm) precisely and solely because they so incompetently doctored the bills that they were submitting.
The law firm submitted invoices showing that one of their lawyers was working “20 hours” in a single day on the electric company’s case and “46 hours” over two days. In another example, a lawyer billed the state for working “26 hours” in a single day, not only defying belief but also the laws of physics. Other shenanigans were discovered and tallied together that demonstrated that “Sova and Associates” had defrauded the people of Romania 1 million euros, to say nothing of how worthless their “genuine” legal consultations probably were.
After this ripe bonanza, Ponta then continued his rise under the warm, flabby guidance of Adrian Nastase and survived a desperate party battle that ousted Ponta’s main rival, gliding into power in 2013 on the wings of Boc/Tariceanu’s colossal failures and the shredding of this country’s wonky post-1989 Constitution.
Ponta then shepherded Sova into the far greener pastures of the “Ministry of Large Projects” where the fat sacks of corporate cash could be siphoned off with far fewer headaches as multinational contracts in Romania (apparently) never have to be released to the public.
The person who wrote me the letter was right though. In my first 10 original drafts, the paragraph mentioning Sova was not included. But a little birdie told me long ago that Alison Mutler and the sparrows down at the AP office in Bucharest regularly read my stuff so I had to include their reporting of Sova’s bullshit attempt to blackmail the country into ignoring the Rosia Montana protests. The language was different because I did add it in at the last minute, and I remain astonished that anyone would even notice.
But really at the end of the day it’s mostly just me and a homeless kid standing on the corner, debating whether Suetonius did a better job as a general in the military or as an author writing gossip about the emperors.