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Episode XXXIV: "I fell into something of a persona and that was a mistake."

Published 10/15/15
In this installment, I speak with Edward Champion of Reluctant Habits and The Bat Segundo Show, Topics include the millennial piece and fallout, Yanagihara, being called “The Most Hated Man in Books”, salsa and lit & more.

I’m here with Edward Champion, a self-described “writer, walker, journalist”, who is also the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits, a relatively iconoclastic website which posts on books, films, art and culture. In addition, Edward is the Producer of The Bat Segundo Show, a series of audio interviews with “authors and idiosyncratic thinkers”. Let’s start from the beginning. Take us on the very abbreviated journey from you as an infant to you as a cultural critic and conversationalist.

An infant, eh? I hope you're not fishing for Freudian explanations for my existence! For a long period of my life, I had no idea that I was a reader or a writer -- even though I gobbled up books with the hunger of a ravening rascal. The first books I read were L. Frank Baum's Oz books, which demonstrated early on that imagination really had no limits and undoubtedly set a high bar for the vivacity I expected in all the books I read later (although my tastes have since mellowed out and broadened to include realism, translated literature, and just about anything that speaks to Faulkner's demands for "the human heart in conflict with itself"). Bugs Bunny's wisecracks probably set some early conversationalist standard, as did the Marx Brothers. I originally set out to pursue a filmmaking career and then, during the 90s, I became an accidental professional writer. The Bat Segundo Show emerged as a shameless excuse to interview David Mitchell when podcasting was extremely raw and young. I was one of the first people in America to get my hands on CLOUD ATLAS and now, more than a decade later, the man is a justified rock star. When I looked back at my life later, I realized that I had always been a writer. I was the kid in film school who would write scripts and I was often asked to provide voiceover for student films. Sometimes your passions are loud but hidden and that certainly proved to be the case for this rather odd life I now lead.

On The Bat Segundo Show, you’ve interviewed over 550 guests, many of them notable literati (i.e. David Mitchell). Some of them, not so much. One of them, who you interviewed back in 2007, started in the second category and has now moved into the first—Garth Risk Hallberg. Have you read City on Fire?

I haven't yet read CITY ON FIRE, but your question speaks to a strange instinct I seem to have for scouting Bat Segundo guests who go onto become megastars. If I had to offer a parallel, it's a bit like Roger Corman's instincts for finding young talent like James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, and Jonathan Demme, who turn out to have quite a bit to say.

On the topic of instincts, you seem to have one for inciting the (digital) book world. I, personally, came upon Reluctant Habits after reading an article you wrote called “Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials.” This piece got a lot of play on a lot of high-volume websites, and subsequently, brought a lot of volume to you. First off, would you define “MM” (Middling Millennials), in your own, truncated words?

I suffered tremendous fallout for that piece, which was greatly misunderstood and used to tarnish my many years of efforts. There is a trend among the literary world right now of people who willfully ignore history, philosophy, science, and novels that don't speak to perspectives outside the Anglophonic. It's tied in with outrage culture, the need to police other viewpoints, and some unsettling trajectories in current discourse. When a novelist as accomplished as Claire Messud must answer to whether her characters are "likable" or not and when someone as ambitious and risk-taking as Scarlett Thomas can't get her latest novel published in the States, you know there's a great diffidence in American literature to confront the real and the troubled.

I assume that when you were writing the piece then, you didn't anticipate such a response? What accounts for that "diffidence?"

No, I didn't. I truly have no idea what kind of reaction my essays are likely to inspire. I think social media, in tandem with a certain kind of myth of what a literary existence is, has promulgated this notion of an empowered conformist with bourgeois tastes. There are all sorts of tastemakers, aspiring and established, who publishers now tilt their work to. But go into the real world and talk with people who read and you'll find that they are starving for narratives that speak outside these limitations.

You believe in the power of tastemakers then over the power of the dollar? Why wouldn't publishers tilt toward the mass and their wallets?

I don't know anymore. I think there's a definite disconnect between what sells and what people crave. And I think that publishers have greatly underestimated the intelligence of their readers. It's now become a strange zero sum game. Look at the rise of actors turned novelists or the many celebrity memoirs. Look at the way that the books world has become like the film world, where you're only as good as your last novel. There are admirable houses like Soho and Europa and Other Press and even FSG that have been picking up the slack (and indeed Europa has had a great well-deserved success with Elena Ferrante, where perhaps taste and money aligns). And then you have tireless translated literature champions like Chad Post who spend every waking minute trying to get Americans to understand that there is a completely different world out there. The old model, whereby blockbuster novelists supported the lesser-selling literary writers, seems to be dwindling. Or perhaps, more accurately, it has spread to the smaller houses. But even Coffee House, which published Gilbert Sorrentino, now caters to a Williamsburg hipster demographic. I still believe that artistic merit and financial solvency can congeal, but the literary climate truly needs to grow up to include these other viewpoints and produce a more robust crop.

To jump off this point further, Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE is an accomplished novel that has changed the terms of how one depicts physical and psychological abuse in fiction. And while I admire that novel greatly, the magazine-style prose can be aggravating to churn through. This could be a case where overworked editors aren't paying as much attention or it could be symptomatic of a strange Faustian bargain for what now counts as commercial literature.

It is so rare to hear negative comments about a piece of celebrated literature outside of a "mixed" New York Times review—and you're often the one to do it. Perhaps that has something to do with your reputation. The Daily Beast has asked, about you, “Is This The Most Hated Man in Books?” The Toast has an article titled “Why Publishing Put(s) Up With Ed Champion”. In your mind, what have you done to be anointed such superlatives?

Well, let me be clear. I really think that A LITTLE LIFE is an extraordinary novel. I tend to be picky with the art that I love, but I will read anything that Yanagihara writes. She's incredible. The articles you cite -- in addition to a long libelous one laden with conjecture and fourth-hand gossip that was never corroborated with me and that falsely suggested that I had been terrorizing the publishing industry for years, when in fact my communications with publicists were largely cordial -- emerged partially because of a very serious personal mistake I made, one that I have since apologized and atoned for and learned several hard lessons from. But there had been a movement to discredit me that had been simmering after the Emily Gould piece. My writing has often been fierce and colorful. I fully cop to that. But I think that recent developments in public shaming, as observed in Jon Ronson's recent book, combined with BuzzFeed "No haters" policies and some of the hostility to alternative viewpoints that I have described above has created the impression that I am a villain. I produced ten years of literary journalism that was respectful to authors, that was celebratory of books, that exposed plagiarism scandals and even saved a beloved magazine's archive. I can't control how people choose to perceive me, but very few of these critics have actually met me, much less initiated a dialogue. Perhaps the literary community pines for a heavy.

There is no one who holds the great public shame and the need for a "public apology" with more contempt than Bret Easton Ellis. I just drove across the country and back and became addicted to his podcast. Do you listen to it?

I haven't listened to it yet, although I listen to about 80 podcasts.

What are your top five lit-based?

Michael Silverblatt doesn't get enough credit for his thoughtful generosity for authors at Bookworm. Gil Roth runs a good podcast at The Virtual Memories Show. I'd say those two are the finest books-related podcasts out there. But I feel it's vital to listen to just about everything. One can't live an existence where it's all books all the time. Hell, I recently learned to salsa dance and I was quite surprised to see that it had several unexpected impacts on my relationship to literature!

I can't not ask for specifics here.

Okay, since you asked! With salsa dancing, you come to understand how it's important to respect your partner, to make her feel comfortable and to make sure that all of your steps are fluid and not thought out. I recommend that any overly analytical mind sign up for lessons! As I took the salsa classes, I found myself picking up more books without consciously scouring for morsels in the endnotes. I wanted to read more about life. I read about topics I never anticipated excavating. I didn't want to be online as much. I slowed down somewhat in my reading. I felt compelled to respect the tomes more and involve myself more in a dance with the author, if that makes any sense. 

It makes some sense, sure. Sounds like it's a bit past words—can be hard to talk about salsa, just like it's hard to salsa about architecture.

For the sake of this interview, you’ve created a Google account that’s a pun off Finnegan’s Wake. I noticed in your Modern Library Reading Challenge, you’ve stopped short of that Joyce classic. Coincidence?

Very true!

Well, I'm still reading FINNEGANS WAKE and intend to complete it. It's a wonderful book, but easily the most difficult volume I've ever read. Much like salsa dancing, you have to curb your impulses to look up every reference. But I'm a huge Joycean and even got into a volley with a stranger the other day on Gerty McDowell. The Modern Library Reading Challenge, both fiction and nonfiction, is a lifetime activity. And I'm pretty sure I have a good decade left to complete it!

Speaking of the future and the always impending specter of death, what else do you hope to accomplish in your remaining years?

Well, I'm working on several projects that reflect offshoots and evolution from the work that I have done in the past. I think The Bat Segundo Show has run its course, but I'm definitely not done with radio. There will be more Follow Your Ears episodes, along with something else that I've been working on for months. I've been working hard to deepen and mature my voice, to become more vulnerable and compassionate in my writing. As you are probably aware, I did survive a quite mortal calamity last September. But I am truly blessed, very lucky, and now have a great deal to live for. I want to do everything possible to give other voices and topics we don't discuss their moments in the spotlight. I don't want to be some critic who doesn't back up his call for better work without having something that lives up to the mandate. I want my work to be less about me, although truer to the man I really am. I think I fell into something of a persona and that was a mistake. But it's now quite an exciting time. I needed to be humbled, although I don't recommend the manner in which it happened to me. 

We’re nearly out of time, so I’ll ask one more, an easy one. I haven’t been able to find out why your Twitter handle is @drmabuse. Why?

Fritz Lang's films. Look up his Dr. Mabuse films. Lang was a marvelous visionary.

Incredible. Has nothing to do with DRM then. Okay Edward. Thanks for your time, and your words.

Thank you so much for chatting with me. It was great to meet you.