Monthly Archives: July 2010

What we’re reading right now

By Scott Dickensheets

This heat screws with my reading. I want to bunker on the couch with a long book, a sweating Diet Coke and the A/C cranked to ice-cold. That’s a perfect day in my world. But it’s hard. For some reason, summer thermodynamics have the opposite effect, exacerbating my natural brain-flit to the point that even a slim book sometimes has the black-hole gravity of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

So mostly I flutter from one short read to the next. Impulsively, I grab books from my shelves at semi-random, chug a few pages, move on. Lately: Quotidiana, earnest essays on ordinary life by Patrick Madden; nice, but one or two will suffice for now. Bigfoot Dreams, an old comic novel by Francine Prose, in which the writing is so precise and so sweet you can read several pages without knowing the story, just for the music of the words. The Underground Heart, essays on Southwestern culture by Ray Gonzalez. Autumn Rhythms, Richard Meltzer’s bizarro essays on aging. Magazines, too: Scott Raab’s profile of Shaq in a recent Esquire.

Today I finished a chapter on Las Vegas in Matt Hern’s Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Hern is a Vancouver sustainability advocate who scowls at LV’s civic acne and wonders, What can Vancouver learn from this?, so you’re safe in guessing he didn’t find an urban future worth defending here. Inspired, I’m looking up other appraisals of Vegas’ obviousness — did you know there are no clocks in casinos? — in books I already have laying around. A.A. Gill, architecture critic Michael Sorkin. I probably have something by Mike Davis in the same collapsing vein, not to mention the Waylon Jennings verse on Hoover Dam in “Highwayman,” playing now on iTunes. I’m not bothered by the existence of these hatchet jobs — I don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce. What I hate is they never tell me anything I didn’t already know.

What else? A smattering of genre fiction: A few days ago I knocked off Nothing To Lose, a fast-read noir by Lee Child that runs his protagonist through small-town culture, religious crazies and the home-front effects of the Iraq war. It’s far-fetched in every regard, of course, but you don’t read this stuff for verisimilitude. Still chewing on Moving Under Ground, Nick Mamatas’ deliriously weird mashup of Kerouac and Lovecraft (“… when you can look a dead squirrel in the eye and hear it demand a promise from you while even the mosquitos hang in the air and wait for your answer, you know you’ve got some serious headaches ahead”). And I’m only a chapter into Philip Jose Farmer’s creepy The Image of the Beast, but already a cop’s had his dick bitten off. Heed me on this: Don’t read it over breakfast.

I am inching a few more serious books along, too. I like Christopher Hitchens, but, regarding Hitch-22, his new memoir, I must say this: I frankly don’t give a fuck about English boarding school. So my progress through the book has been incremental in a way I can’t blame entirely on the weather, although once his career gets under way, the book picks up marvelously. Fleda Brown’s new essay collection, Driving With Dvorak: Essays on Memory and Identity, is a terrific sifting of her personal history to determine the long-term effects of exposure to one’s messy family, and it’s nowhere near as stiff as the second half of the title makes it sound. I hope I can sit still long enough to finish it.

And now I have Rick Moody’s Four Fingers of Death. Seven hundred pages. It may have to wait for fall.

By Geoff Schumacher

I admire Scott’s ability to nibble at his books. I can’t shake the habit of reading a book from beginning to end, and of finishing — eventually — almost every book I start. I guess I get some sense of completion and forward progress from the fact that I’ve fully digested each book I’ve cracked open. It’s a sense of measurement, I guess, of my reading accomplishments. I realize this is not necessarily wise or admirable on my part, though.

I make up for this obsession by reading more than one book at a time. In fact, I tend to read as many as six or seven books at once. Here are the ones that have bookmarks in them right now:

• Citrus County by John Brandon. This recently released novel from McSweeney’s is incredible so far, but it’s hard to explain exactly why. A glowing review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review piqued my interest in the book. McSweeney’s has incredibly good taste, so it’s not much of a risk to dive into a book published by Dave Eggers’ San Francisco outfit. Still, Brandon is far from a household name. He has one previous novel, Arkansas, also published by McSweeney’s. Citrus County is a coming-of-age/crime story set in a decidedly less glamorous part of Florida. One blurber described it as the best novel ever written about junior high, and he’s probably right about that. But more importantly, it is absorbing, funny and goes down easy. The crime around which the story revolves leaves you anxious to find out how things play out. Brandon’s characters are fascinating, from the two eighth-graders at the center of the story to their angst-ridden English teacher whose inner thoughts would, if exposed to the world, get him in deep, deep trouble. I’m not quite done with it, but I have to say I’d be shocked and disappointed if Citrus County wasn’t a finalist for a major award some months from now.

The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald. Whenever I need a breather from the “hard” books — histories, biographies, literary novels and such — I often turn to the next installment in MacDonald’s classic Travis McGee crime/suspense series. As a result, I figure I read about one Travis McGee novel per year, which means I’ll finish the 21-book series in about 2020. MacDonald died in 1986, having written a huge number of pulpy novels. The most famous of them is The Executioners, which became the twice-made movie Cape Fear. Among his peers, MacDonald was widely considered one of the best in the genre. What’s great about the McGee series, in particular, is that MacDonald often veers from straight storytelling to offer his opinions and insights about various aspects of the human condition and current events. It’s good reading, and of course the stories roll along with all the suspense and mayhem you could want. The Scarlet Ruse is, oddly enough, about stamp collecting. Only MacDonald could successfully weave stamp collecting into an exciting crime adventure.

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris. This is a very readable biography of the great newspaper publisher. I’m about a third of the way into the book, so I haven’t gotten to the juiciest part of his newspaper career, when he battled with William Randolph Heart for supremacy in New York and beyond, but so far I’m learning a lot about Pulitzer’s early life and his almost coincidental entry into the newspaper business through his interest in politics. My theory behind reading this book, as well as a new bio of Hearst in the near future, is to take a deep look at how these titans did things and perhaps learn a few things that could be useful today as newspapers struggle to maintain their relevance and influence in the fast-evolving media-sphere.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens. This is Hitchens’ memoir, a big, all-over-the-place kind of book looking back at his life and journalism career. Hitchens is such a good writer that, unlike Scott, I found myself very interested in Hitchens’ boarding school years in England. My interest could be enhanced by the fact that I’ve recently read pieces by Cyril Connolly and George Orwell about their experiences in similar schools. Boarding school was quite a wretched tradition across the pond, it seems, and Hitchens got in on the tail end of it (before girls and modernity forced their way in the door). Things get more interesting, however, as Hitchens grows up and becomes one of the Young Turks of writing in England during the 1970s, a group that also included Martin Amis, James Fenton and Ian McEwan. I’ve read about half the book, so I haven’t yet gotten to the more contemporary period when Hitchens parted ways with his long-standing constituency on the left and supported the Iraq war.

Two other books I’m working through very slowly: Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote and Reporter at Wit’s End by St. Clair McKelway. Each of these nonfiction collections contains some of the 20th century’s best literary journalism.

A final note of praise for the cover story of the July 26 issue of ESPN magazine. Written by Tim Keown, the profile of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is very well done. Rodgers is a big-time pro now, but for much of his young life he was ignored and underrated, and he had to prove doubters wrong at every turn. Here is Keown’s brilliant nut graph:

“You know what Rodgers will tell you is an underrated virtue? The ability to tolerate disappointment. We’ve tried to eliminate disappointment, run it off like a deadly virus. The world’s most potent economy collapsed when too many people decided they couldn’t bear to be disappointed. They bought houses they couldn’t afford and cars they didn’t need. They believed that a parent’s most appalling failure is a disappointed child. Oh no, we can’t disappoint the children. Lord forbid we allow our kids to be deprived. The dirtiest word in the English language: no.”

Leave it to a sports magazine to sum up the global recession.

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The Muses Are Borrowed: Back and Forth on ‘Reality Hunger’

By Geoff Schumacher and Scott Dickensheets

David Shields’ provocative recent book, Reality Hunger, has generated a great deal of discussion within the writing community. One of the book’s fundamental points is there is too much worry among writers, publishers and readers over the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Shields argues that most fiction is founded on reality, and most nonfiction contains fictional elements, so why get worked up over whether a book is one or the other? As an example, Shields brings up the case of James Frey’s 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. When it was discovered that Frey had made up parts of the book, quite a dust-up ensued. Shields, however, defends the act of incorporating fictional elements into a memoir as a way of getting at a greater truth. More controversially, Shields argues against the time-honored practice of copyright protection for works of art. He thinks writers should be able to incorporate someone else’s work into their own without proper attribution. He puts this notion into practice in Reality Hunger, though his publisher insisted, over his objections, that he provide proper credits for the appropriated quotes in the back of the book. Reality Hunger questions much of the conventional wisdom about the practice of creating art, especially writing. How about we start by looking at where we agree with Shields?

SCOTT: A story: In 2001 (I think), at a conference of city and regional magazine editors, I attended a panel in which Esquire writer Tom Junod read lengthy portions of a profile of R.E.M singer Michael Stipe (including a nice set piece at Hoover Dam). Having gotten an advance copy of the story and shared it with a colleague, I was one of three people in the room who knew what was coming next: Junod confessed that he’d made up those parts. (In the magazine itself, readers were alerted that parts were fictionalized and directed to Esquire’s website for the breakdown.) His point in the story was the unknowability, and general banality, of rock stars, and reality-based fictions were the best way to get at that.

Half the room freaked — simply letting the fiction touch the nonfiction that way, they complained, threw the credibility of journalism itself into question, no matter how well labeled for the reader. (The well-known editor of a well-known regional magazine even asked me to call a journalism watchdog site and snitch on Junod.) The other half saw Junod’s ploy as a useful gesture, however controversial, toward keeping high-end magazine writing lively, evolving and entertaining. It might be the single best writing panel I ever attended.

Where do I agree with Shields? Well, hell, I sided with Junod; I enjoyed watching the traditionalists wig out. Looking at the notes I scrawled in Reality Hunger’s margins — I’ve never had it out with a book the way I have with this one — I agree that it can be fun and vitalizing to dick around with that fact/fiction border; that artful quotation and sampling can zap your work with a new, unexpected tingle; that collage might be the foremost art form of the last century; that memoir, that most disputed of fiction/nonfiction minglings, belongs more to the realm of literature than journalism; that “what I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not just reported”; that sometimes good writing is just good writing and to hell with categories.

But none of that means I think you should fuck with people, which is where I begin to diverge, vigorously and sometimes angrily, from Mr. Shields. What about you?

GEOFF: In recent months, I’ve been reading a lot of classic long-form journalism. George Orwell. St. Clair McKelway. Truman Capote. One of the best such pieces I’ve read is “The Muses Are Heard,” written by Capote and published by the New Yorker in 1956. The novella-length article is about an American opera company’s trip to the Soviet Union to stage a production of Porgy and Bess. It’s an amazing piece of writing, rich in detail and insights about the men and women of the opera company and providing an eye-opening (for the time) first-person look at life and thought behind the Iron Curtain. Unlike some other writers who considered their journalism work to be of a lower grade than their fiction, Capote took his nonfiction work just as seriously as his fiction, and perhaps more so. Although he is best known for his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, people who follow such things also regard “The Muses Are Heard” as a major piece of Capote’s oeuvre.

Yet Capote was infamous for playing fast and loose with what us hacks call journalism ethics. He often didn’t take notes or tape-record interviews. He claimed to be able to regurgitate dialogue from memory. In regard to In Cold Blood, there are differing views. Many consider the book a spot-on work of literary journalism. Others claim half the book was wildly off base — if not outright fiction, at least a poor approximation of journalism.

As for “The Muses Are Heard,” I learned after reading it that a significant character in the book — a Norwegian businessman — was made up, ostensibly a device to allow Capote to insert more of his own opinions into the narrative. There were other literary flourishes as well that call into question the factual integrity of the entire piece.

The question is, does this matter? Does Capote’s mixing of nonfiction and fiction in the article in fact diminish the piece’s value as a work of journalism? My general reaction is to say not that much. I think Capote’s intentions were good. He wanted to give readers the most insightful piece of writing possible, something that would help them to better understand the Soviet people at a time of visceral Cold War tensions. He wanted to get at the flavor and the truth about the individuals of the Porgy and Bess opera company. If you believe that Capote’s intentions were good, then the piece comes off as a huge achievement.

The risk with this kind of nonfiction writing is that the reader must trust that the writer has good intentions. If the writer is altering reality for political or personal reasons, as a form of propaganda or persecution, then the whole enterprise falls apart. Just as readers trusted Joseph Mitchell, St. Clair McKelway and A.J. Liebling to use their literary license with care, they trusted Capote.

As for Shields, after reading Reality Hunger, I don’t trust him one bit. His strident philosophy of overt disregard and contempt for the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction is, to me, a leap too far. His most troubling assertion, of course, is that it’s okay to steal other people’s words without giving them due credit.

SCOTT: All right — stand back, buttercup, I’m bringing the bullet points:

• A lot of this book is composed with other people’s words — if I recall correctly, during an L.A. Times book-fest panel in April, Shields said about 45 percent — with the only attribution being in the back of the book. Here’s my question: So? I simply don’t see how this petty theft improves the book in any way, how it’s better than simply saying what he means in his own words. Indeed, I think it diminished it in some ways. Appropriation works better in art forms like visual art or music, and it works best when the consumer recognizes it (Aha! That IS a piece of the Mona Lisa in that collage!) and there’s a sudden, wholly unexpected transfer — of energy, of intellectual content — between the old work and the new. I love that brain-crackle. However, a beat from a song or piece of an artwork are much easier to identify than a similarly small patch of prose. While I recognized a few of Shields’ samples, most I didn’t, and therefore felt myself at first frustrated by, and ultimately bored by, the task of sourcing each one, hoping to feel that energy transfer. (Why bother sourcing the borrowed material, Shields defenders might ask; why not just roll with the overall point? Precisely because he has borrowed it instead of creating it — that makes me think there must be a significance to that act that I’m supposed to root out.) That ploy might sound “risk-taking” in concept; in practice is dulled the reading experience.

• It seems to me that only a tenured professor would be so cavalier about doing away with copyright laws; creators who rely on ownership of their work for their actual incomes, might have a different point of view (anyone who’s negotiated contracts with top-level freelance writers and artists knows how vital this is to them).

• It seems to me that the logical conclusion of Shields’ argument is a world in which everyone is an amateur remixer, where people no longer anticipate the work of talented artists for the enlightenment and pleasure it offers, but simply because it’s another thing to take apart and rebuild themselves. At the risk of appearing elitist, that sounds like a very unappealing signal-to-noise ratio.

• At some point, I began to wonder if the real appropriation here was Shields borrowing the outlaw bravado of hip-hop to make writing seem more “risky.”

• I think there’s a useful difference between “being influenced by” and “taking.”

• There’s too much stuff like aphorism 157, which reads, in its entirety: “The world is everything that is the case.” Next to which I scrawled in the margin: “pointless, empty ‘profundity.'”

• So when a friend recently asked what I thought of Shields and his book, my snap response was this: “Smart, clever, full of shit.” I should’ve put more thought into it, sure, but I’m not sure I was wrong.

GEOFF: In a recent piece written for the Huffington Post, Shields contends that “the citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger. I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time — feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new.”

Here’s my objection, which elaborates on something you said above. While it’s certainly true that artists are inspired by other artists, and that to an extent they try to emulate the ones they most admire, I’m not convinced that artists are simply taking other people’s art and refashioning it. Rather, if they’re true artists, they’re striving to create something new and original. They don’t all succeed. But I know this: If I were an artist, and I produced a work of art that people genuinely admired, and I received a lot of public recognition for my work, I would be sick to my stomach knowing that I had appropriated someone else’s work in order to gain that recognition. My instinct would be to give credit where credit is due. “Yes, thank you for your kind words, but really, Hemingway did most of the work. I just rearranged a few things.” My guilt would compel me to do the very thing that Shields despises — provide a citation.

In the Huff Post article, Shields provides a long list of “examples from the history of Western civilization” in which one artist stole  from another. He mentions, among others, Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Muddy Waters, Martin Luther King Jr. and Danger Mouse. But truth be told, Shields’ list is pretty thin.

Meantime, his attack on the copyright laws is lacking in practical merit. More often than not, the egregious violator of copyright laws is not one artist stealing from another; it’s some lazy hack stealing from an artist with the intention of enriching himself by claiming someone else’s labors as his own. In other words, it’s apples (artists) vs. oranges (thieving hacks). This is not a problem that Shields addresses.

A creative work, I would argue, can be called art not by cobbling together other people’s creative exertions, but by being something that stands on its own, that offers something that feels new when it is loosed on the world. Shields repeatedly quotes the James Joyce line, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man,” as if it should be taken seriously that Joyce, one of the most celebrated novelists in history, simply lifted other people’s work and made it his own. Please.

Now, I can’t say that I know the temperature of the literary world, or the narrower academic literary field, but my feeling is that Shields is delusional, or at least lacking in perspective, when he says that “I and many other contemporary writers, musicians, visual artists, and copyright lawyers are trying to think in new and (we believe) exciting ways about quotation, citation, appropriation, and plagiarism.” On the contrary, I think very few people in these fields of endeavor are thinking much about this subject at all. Most of them are working their asses off to earn enough money to pay their bills and to gain a degree of attention for their work. They have neither the time nor the inclination to champion a fringe campaign to repeal the copyright laws so that David Shields doesn’t have to use quote marks. I do think Shields has titillated a segment of the literary crowd, given them something to chatter about. But I don’t think his budding movement has much staying power.

One area where I think Shields has a compelling point is in his assertion that “some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.” I disagree with his general distaste for most pure fiction today, because there is still plenty of great stuff being produced in short story and novel form. But I do think nonfiction in its various forms — literary journalism, memoir, history — can be every bit as literary and artful as fiction, and often has greater impact and import than most fiction. This is not a new idea, though. Seymour Krim, the New York beat essayist, made the case for nonfiction over fiction way back in the ’60s. Krim wrote: “People are hungry and desperate for straightforward communication about the life we are all leading in common; inflated or overwrought theory becomes an almost self-indulgent luxury — perhaps even a crime — under the hammer of the world we live in.”

It’s still sometimes desirable to read forms of fiction that allow us to “escape” from our everyday lives. Even as I make the case for meaningful, artful nonfiction in an effort to speak to the modern condition, I occasionally indulge the desire for escape by reading works of fiction that don’t come anywhere close to reflecting “the life we are all leading in common,” as Krim describes it. But for the most part, as a reader and a writer, I subscribe to the Shields/Krim argument for the relevance and value of nonfiction.

In summary: 1) There are gray areas between fiction and nonfiction, and the best writers know how to successfully navigate these dangerous waters; 2) Giving credit where it is due is important to maintain a writer’s integrity, artistic and otherwise, even if it somehow “domesticates the work”; and 3) Just try to write your own shit, okay?

SCOTT: Loved that Krim essay, by the way. Yeah, the hash in this rehash has been kicked around for years — decades ago, Philip Roth despaired of the novelist being able to keep up with the reality in the streets. Tom Wolfe has played paramedic more than once, feeling for the novel’s pulse — declaring it nearly dead in his introduction to The New Journalism, and later, in his notorious essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” dismissing most fiction except for a brawny realism-of-the-moment based on heavy reporting. (When I suggested as much to a defender of Reality Hunger, he said, basically, yeah, but Shields rephrased it nicely.) So not much of this discussion feels new, despite the fresh coat of hip-hop references Shields applies. “The important thing,” writes Marco Roth in a review of Reality Hunger that appeared in the lit mag n + 1, “is to make the reader believe they are witnessing a transgressive, transformative act.”

Roth very cleverly senses that behind Shields’ bravado, and probably behind the firm embrace this book has received from writers and academics, there throbs a very definite anxiety. High-end letters, the writing of books, essays and stories, has become professionalized and gentrified even as it’s lost its cultural centrality. And so this buccaneering overcompensation — we won’t follow your goddamn rules or ask your permission! — finally feels like at attempt to return to literature a little of the unruly, vanguard excitement we all feel it used to have.

Hey, I’m down with that impulse. But I still want to know what’s true and what isn’t; that’s my reality hunger.

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Reading ‘Literary Las Vegas’

By David Boyles

After living in Las Vegas for nearly a year, I decided to better acquaint myself with the city through my favorite medium: books. I came across Literary Las Vegas, an anthology edited by Mike Tronnes and published in 1995. The collection includes some famous pieces, such as Tom Wolfe’s great 1964 profile and the Circus Circus section of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as plenty of lesser-known works. The collection is extremely uneven, but gives a great overview of Las Vegas’ place in the popular imagination from the ’50s through the ’90s.

The most interesting thing is how it made me, as a relatively new transplant, feel so much like a local, and mostly not for good reasons. Most the collection can be tiresome, as it seems like at least half the pieces follow the same format of cynical journalist visiting the city and making an observation about its vulgarity and moral bankruptcy saying something important about American culture. This genre can be brilliant, as both Wolfe and Thompson demonstrate, but later attempts quickly devolve into cynical faux intellectualism. The worst of these are Richard Meltzer’s “Who’ll Stop the Wayne?” and Merrill Markoe’s “Viva Las Wine Goddesses.” Anyone who lives here, even if you’re new like me, will be annoyed by the city once again being reduced to its basest stereotypes. It is amazing that a collection of writing about Las Vegas could include so many writers so committed to having as little fun as possible here.

The intellectual bankruptcy of these pieces is further illustrated by the intelligent writers who decide to accept Las Vegas on its own terms. One highlight is Noel Coward’s “Nescafe Society,” which consists of diary entries from his famous month-long cabaret engagement at the Sands in 1955. Like Nabokov, Coward seems to have an appreciation of American vulgarity that only a European aristocrat could have.

For a new transplant, the best parts of the collection are the bits of history and lore.  Though the stories of Bugsy Siegel and the atomic tests get repeated ad infinitum, we also get an honest memoir by Susan Berman about growing up as a mobster’s daughter; an oral history of the bizarre story of Melvin Dummar, who claimed to have rescued Howard Hughes in the desert and been left millions in Hughes’ will; and a story about black performers playing segregated casinos in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those pieces treat Las Vegas first and foremost as a real place, not as a metaphor or a symbol of some point the writer wants to make about taste or American culture.

This is a book that desperately needs to be re-edited and updated. Since it was published in 1995, the collection leaves off with Las Vegas in its family-friendly theme park stage, as represented by the last piece, Marc Cooper’s “Searching for Sin City and Finding Disney in the Desert.” This is a bad way for the collection to end, not only because it once again repeats the “cynical journalist in Vegas” bit and adds nothing new to it, but because, in Las Vegas time, 1995 seems like ancient history. And there has been a lot of great writing about Las Vegas since then that creates a more fully realized picture of the city. Here are my nominations for an updated anthology of great writing about Las Vegas. This is far from a comprehensive list, and I encourage readers to add to it.

Dave Hickey, “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz” (from Air Guitar)

Reading the cliché-ridden pieces in Literary Las Vegas, I was desperately missing Hickey’s brilliant insights on the city. With him leaving for Albuquerque, there has been a lot of ink spilled over his legacy in Vegas, and while it would have been nice for him to produce some work of substance over the last decade in order to justify his six-figure UNLV salary, his pieces on Las Vegas in Air Guitar still stand up as some of the greatest writing ever about the city. “A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz” is the greatest and most celebrated of these, as he turns a visit to the Liberace Museum into a treatise on class and taste and the politics of the closet. It also contains one of Hickey’s most famous lines, which could be adopted as a city motto: “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” Hickey’s fierce intelligence and embrace of the city expose the fatuousness of denunciations of Las Vegas by the self-styled intellectuals in Literary Las Vegas.

David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son” (from Consider the Lobster)

Foster Wallace’s report on the Adult Video News Awards and the “Adult Software” section of the Consumer Electronics Show, originally written under a pseudonym for the movie magazine Premiere in 1998, isn’t about Las Vegas per se, but in taking on one of our more notorious events as part of a larger examination of the porn industry, “Big Red Son” does tell us a lot about Vegas. His description of the AVN Awards, held in an opulent ballroom at Caesars Palace but featuring terrible food and overpriced drinks served by waiters who don’t speak English and only do the job in order to get their pictures taken with naked porn stars, perfectly capture the contradictions of the Strip experience, where glamour mixes with sleaze and transgression becomes mainstreamed.

Bill Simmons, “Destructive Things With No Guilt” (From ESPN.com)

ESPN columnist Simmons made his name by pioneering an informal style that covered sports from the fan’s perspective and quickly expanded out from sports to cover all aspects of modern “guy” culture, in particular the modern strain of overgrown frat boy whomt Las Vegas appealed to over the last decade. His many dispatches from Las Vegas set the template for the cliché of the modern Vegas bachelor party that would be immortalized in The Hangover. This entry from 2004, which finds Simmons and his buddies dealing with impending middle age and Las Vegas’ overexposure as guys’ weekend destination, is the high point of his Vegas columns. The relentless guy talk can get tiresome, but Simmons has a great eye for the small details of vacationing in Las Vegas, from the unintentional comedy of Saturday morning breakfast buffets to the joy of being able to afford your own bed. It is the antithesis of the cynical “journalist in Vegas” story, and while it isn’t very deep, it does attempt to capture the Vegas experience as most tourists experience it (or at least envision it).

James Ellroy, Chapter 1 of The Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand, the middle book of Ellroy’s trilogy of novels about ‘60s political intrigue, is perhaps the consummate Las Vegas novel, even though only part of the action takes place here. In this book, Las Vegas becomes the crossroads of Ellroy’s various convoluted conspiracy theories. It also introduced Ellroy’s greatest portrayal of twisted masculinity in Wayne Tedrow Jr., a cop with a stepmother obsession and a penchant for killing black suspects, whose father is a Mormon bigshot and right-wing lunatic.

Michael Lewis, “Spiderman at the Venetian” (from The Big Short)

A book hoping to represent modern Las Vegas would have to address the economic crisis and our city’s central role in it, and Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, the definitive book written so far on the subprime mortgage crisis, includes a wonderfully representative Vegas set piece. Lewis documents a convention of subprime mortgage lenders at the Venetian, where the lenders party while the fruit of their labors is evident in the mounting number of foreclosed homes just a few miles away.

David Boyles is a Ph.D. student in the UNLV English Department, where he studies Shakespeare and tries to teach freshmen to write. He is performance editor of The Shakespeare Standard and also blogs occasionally at ArtsVegas.

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