In the early spring of 2001 I got a call from Tom Bissell, who was then an editor at Henry Holt. I had been referred to Tom by David Foster Wallace. Tom had this great idea for an essay collection, and Henry Holt had agreed to publish the collection, but there was a hitch: he couldn’t be the editor of record on the book because he worked full time, more or less, at Holt. Yeah, I didn’t quite get it either. The other thing was that because of the book’s subject, he, and his superiors at Holt, thought it would be a good idea to get A Known Film Critic to be the editor. Tom asked some writer friends for recommendations and Dave Wallace was kind enough to recommend me. This in spite of the fact that the last piece we’d worked together on at Premiere, in 1998, had left Dave so infuriated with Premiere and Hachette and magazines and everything (and to my mind this infuriation was justified on his part) that he’d made it clear he’d never do anything for Premiere again. If I ever went to another magazine, at another company, he’d be happy to work with me again—our personal relations had, gratefully, survived the debacle—but not Premiere, not Hachette. (Readers aware of the current disposition of Little, Brown may detect some small possible present irony here.)
Tom’s book was, or was to be, an essay collection about the lasting cultural impact of the Star Wars movies. Our first meeting, at this Mexican place that had been Sullivan’s in the Ed Sullivan Theater building, saw us getting in synch almost immediately. He had a pretty good list of literary folk he thought would be game, I was in charge of pursuing film critic and filmmaker types, and we banged our heads together wondering who or what we were missing. I wondered whether the book could accommodate graphic treatments; wouldn’t it be great, I said, to have a Tom Tomorrow strip, or better still, something by The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, in the book. Etc. And we both said at the same time, “We should get someone from The Onion to do something.”
The Onion had just moved its headquarters to New York. Tom and I were both in awe of the publication, not just because it was awesome but precisely because it had come out of what many metropolitan types refer to as “nowhere” and it as a result also seemed extremely mysterious to us. Was the publication, we wondered, so contemptuous of the mainstream of publishing that any approach from representatives of Henry Holt would be laughed out of their office.
Well, no. “Their head writer is an insane Star Wars guy, it turns out,” Bissell reported to me soon after. “Went to opening night of The Phantom Menace in an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume.”
“Holy shit,” I said. So this head writer, Todd Hanson, wanted to write an essay about the crushing, overwhelming disappointment he felt upon actually seeing The Phantom Menace. Well, yes. This was a good idea.
The book began to come together over the summer. The first commissioned piece we actually received was from Jonathan Lethem. Titled “13, 1977, 21,” it was the account of how he saw Star Wars: A New Hope, as it is now called, 21 times in the summer of 1977, the summer it opened, which was also the summer his mom died of brain cancer. It was a tender, gently devastating, typically Lethem-sharp piece. Bissell and I knew it was going to be the opening essay of the book. Very serendipitous, we thought.
9/11 caused us—me, Tom, Henry Holt—to rethink whether we were gonna go on with the book at all. We were, but a handful of commissioned writers who hadn’t turned in pieces yet dropped out. This was unfortunate but understandable. By early 2002 we had much of the book in place. The editor was reserving a page’s worth of space in the introduction into which I’d cram some thoughts about Attack of the Clones once I saw it in May. All was well. Except I didn’t have the essay from The Onion guy yet.
I had only spoken to Todd once or twice since we first made the agreement but now I had to get after him a little harder. Over a couple of weeks we seemed to make good progress with respect to how he was feeling about the writing, and then we hit a bit of a wall. He finally fessed up. “The thing is, it’s really long right now. It’s like, ridiculously long.”
“Well why don’t you let me see it and I’ll be the judge of that.” It didn’t go quite that easy, but he did send it, and I did read it.
He was right: it was long. It was also wonderful. It was fucking wonderful. It was laugh-out-loud funny—of course it was—it was genuinely literary, it was filled with thoroughly trenchant insights on pop culture and American culture and American life, and it was poignant, and, oh, it was laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it and I told him so.
“I don’t know, man, I don’t know,” was something like his reply. And now I didn’t know how to make Todd feel my sincerity. One way, it occurred to me, was by socializing. We began to hang out a bit; one of Todd's best friends lived in my Carroll Gardens neighborhood, so we’d meet for a bit of a smoke-up at his pal’s, and then go over to Finn, this bar nearby, and get completely shit-faced. A couple of younger regulars there who were friends of mine were blown away that I was bringing the head writer for The Onion to our local, and they got shit-faced with us in an eager-apostle-type style. It was fun. Todd eventually opened up to me about his doubts: writing something for a book, he thought, was a really big deal, and his friends agreed with this notion, and some of them advised him that submitting a 20,000 word essay when you’d been asked to submit something between 2,000 and 5,000 words was bad form—it looked greedy and undisciplined and unprofessional, and it would screw up his chances to do essay writing elsewhere, and so on.
“Your friends are idiots,” I said to Todd, as I would. “And also: You know who always went WILDLY over the fucking word count whenever I worked with him? David Foster Wallace.” Todd knew that Bissell and I knew Wallace and looked at him as a kind of guardian angel of the project and were hoping to get a blurb from him when the book was in galleys. (As to why Wallace didn’t do a piece—of course we asked—he, like the Tom Tomorrow guy, just wasn’t that into Star Wars. He’d seen the first one just once. Dubbed into French. Because he was in France at the time, whenever it was. Didn’t make an impression. “Definitely count on me if you do a book on the Lord of the Rings movies, though,” he said. )
Now might be a good time to admit that there was a certain way in which I was acting in enlightened or unenlightened self-interest, depending on how you want to read it. I have to admit here to what some might see as not 100 percent enlightened self interest. Until I got Todd’s piece, the book was a little more than a bit under the 60,000 word MS total that was specified in my contract. Todd’s essay, at its submission length, put it slightly over 60,000, so a big weight was off my mind. BUT. I reiterate: Todd’s piece was brilliant, I didn’t want to cut a word of it.
It still holds up. Because it is, I think, one of the best expressions of indignation at American Pop Culture that also critiques indignation at American Pop Culture and celebrates a specific aspect of American Pop Culture: the essay’s title, after all, is “A Big Dumb Movie About Space Wizards.” One of its animating themes is an Ahab-like anger at the very notion of the character Jar-Jar Binks, who, at around the midpoint of the essay, is redubbed He Who Shall Not Be Named/HWSNBN. (“An UberBarney with the Voice from Beyond Elmo” is one of my favorite descriptions of the misbegotten character.) One of its most welcome features is a lightly-worn and entirely non-academic/unpretentious erudition that has nothing to do with the defensive crouch that’s become too common in critical writing about pop culture in today’s Internet this-is-water.
My enthusiasm possibly failed to really convince Todd, but he was eventually mollified. It would have been very poetic had the essay, which ended up being the last I signed off on, ended up being the lat piece in the book, but it was more like whatever you call the ante-penultimate (if you don’t count the acknowledgements). In early June of 2002 the book was in galleys and I sent a copy to Wallace in the hope of getting a blurb. Also of course because I figured he’d be curious about what Bissell and I had come up with. Dave read it pretty much right away and called to tell me, yes, he liked it, but alas, no, he wasn’t gonna blurb it. I imagined that he put himself through his customary ethical torture before making the decision—he sounded genuinely regretful—but the combination of his relative alienation from the book’s subject matter combined with the Professional Complications Inherent In Bestowing A Blurb If You Are David Foster Wallace made a polite demurral his only option. I wasn’t going to argue or beg. After we got over that hump, he said, “The nearly-last piece, the one by the Onion guy, Hanson? That was fantastic. Best thing in the book.”
“I’ll make sure to tell him that,” I said. And I did, and that very nearly made Todd positively happy about having done the piece as he had done it. Todd never got to meet up with Dave, which is a shame, and he, like a lot of people, took it pretty hard when Dave took his own life in September of 2008. Todd told me, one night when we hung out and got soused near the end of that year, that Wallace and Thomas Disch had been his two favorite living authors—Disch had killed himself on the Fourth of July of that same year. Great writers killing themselves becoming a Thing—we didn’t see much hope in that, at the time.
Why am I writing this and subsequently posting it? Good question. Possible answers:
1) To prove, Ana Marie Cox and Andrew Sullivan notwithstanding, that blogging’s not dead. Whoo-fucking-hoo.
2) There was that whole thing on social media recently, when the all-female Ghostbusters was announced with dismal sexist dudes complaining in all earnest that an all-female Ghostbusters is just wrong, and treating Ghostbusters as a sacred text, and of course the whole pushback on this from Responsible Professionals deploring the social media sexism. But it occurred to me that these ostensibly deplorable expressions of opinion are an entirely organic feature of the “everyone’s a critic culture” that Jeff Jarvis once found so entirely salutary. And that the perception of something like Ghostbusters as something sacrosanct is not entirely unrelated to a certain tendency in pop culture writing, an anti-intellectualism that insists on aggressively expressing a distaste for “difficult” art and demanding to be taken seriously for its myriad of perceptions concerning every single television show, etc., etc. These observations were leading me, thought-wise, down a path I had trod before (“generations have trod, have trod, have trod”) and I was largely set to penning Yet Another Ineffectual Indictment Of The Usual Fucking Subjects. And I thought, why not, as an alternative to the same old thing, think about a piece of writing about pop culture that I actually admire? (One that, among many its other advantages, say, doesn’t use rape as a metaphor, as in “George Lucas raped my childhood.”)
3) This impulse dissolved, cinematically even, into memories of David Foster Wallace, on account of the movie The End Of The Tour, which premiered at Sundance and garnered very favorable reviews, many of them waxing enthusiastic on the theme “Who Would Have Thought That Jason Segel Could Bring David Foster Wallace To Life Like That?” And already you see some resentment on my part, no? Yes. I suppose on some level I ought to feel gratified that the movie is, apparently, a sensitive and well-made one. I know James Ponsoldt is a good filmmaker. We have more than a few mutual friends. I’m also friendly with a lot of people at the company that produced the movie (although the producers themselves are not known to me). On the other hand I’m also friendly with at least one person who’s part of Wallace’s estate. Various reports about End of the Tour have stated that Wallace’s estate tried to block the movie from being made. As far as I know that’s untrue. What the estate did do, and is entirely within its rights and even obligations in so doing, is state that it did not authorize the movie, which is based on a book by David Lipsky. The people who were closest to Dave—and those are, as it happen, the people who make up the entity that is called his “estate”—are acutely aware that had Dave not killed himself in 2008, Lipsky’s book would not have come into being; had Lipsky’s book not come into being, it would not have had motion picture rights to be sold; had motion picture rights not been sold, David Margulies could not have written a screenplay based on the book; etcetera, etcetera. All leading up to the logical conclusion that had David Foster Wallace not killed himself, Jason Segel would not have been able to sit down at a video shoot at “Variety Studio” (“presented by Dockers”) and say things like “I was really lucky to have three really good friends who had read Infinite Jest read it again with me.” I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that if you consider yourself a David Foster Wallace “fan” and you can’t understand why for some people this particular course of events might really hurt some people, then maybe you might want to read some more of Wallace’s work, and a little more carefully. Even allowing the idea that The End of the Tour might indeed be an objectively conscientious and sensitive work, I can’t even look at Jason Segel for more than ten seconds at a time right now. (And I wasn’t even THAT CLOSE to Wallace, I know.) And I can’t think about The End of the Tour without having the Captain Beefheart lyric come into my head. You know the one, from “Sue Egypt” on Doc At The Radar Station: “I think of all those people that ride on my bones.”
4) So I thought rather than go nuts about all that, I’d write something, you know, fond.