Tom Scocca: So because I am a subscriber to the New Yorker, my current issue is still the August 24 issue, which I guess people could buy off newsstands something like 10 days ago.
Choire Sicha: So you have just seen a truly hair-raising thing, I take it!
Tom Scocca: The pages are a little loose in this issue, because I flung it away from me and it hit the wall. I am not a satisfied customer.
Choire Sicha: The McKinsey consultants aren’t going to like hearing that.
Tom Scocca: On page 61 of this issue there is a tiny bit of type. A photo credit. The photo credit reads “MATT NETTHEIM / WARNER BROS.”
Choire Sicha: Is it a still from a forthcoming film?
Tom Scocca: Or is it the illustration for the week’s short fiction? Why, it is both. The New Yorker is running a publicity still advertising a motion picture, as if it were content.
Choire Sicha: Wow, who’s Renata Adler now?
Tom Scocca: No one is Renata Adler there, it seems. Remember when the question about the integrity of the New Yorker‘s editorial content was whether it would stoop to running photographs as illustrations at all? Me neither. What a boring thing to argue about.
Choire Sicha: I remember that, a little!
Tom Scocca: Now it can be argued–more now than ever!–that from a certain critical perspective, publishing a photograph by Annie Liebovitz is one kind of marketing proposition, and that it represents a degree of engagement with commerce.
Choire Sicha: I would argue that!
Tom Scocca: The same kind of critic could argue that the fiction section of the New Yorker is not unfamiliar with a kind of product placement, in that Literary Events are not infrequently preceded and heralded on their way to the commercial marketplace by the publication of an excerpt in the New Yorker in the form (or guise) of a short story. But this is not an example of the funny symbiosis between the purposes of the New Yorker and the purposes of the publishing industry.
Tom Scocca: This is actual marketing: a marketing-department image which is part of the marketing campaign for a mass-market movie, occupying most of a page in the editorial hole of the New Yorker.
Tom Scocca: And the next nine pages, not counting the cartoons, are devoted to a piece of “short fiction” by one of the Warner Bros. movie’s screenwriters, which is a novelization of the Warner Bros. movie’s story.
Tom Scocca: This is a big, long step beyond using the fiction space to give everyone a preview of the new Jhumpa Lahiri. It is a step that carries the New Yorker off the sidewalk and into a deep ditch bubbling with raw sewage.
Choire Sicha: That’s not a very nice thing to say about Hollywood.
Tom Scocca: Hollywood, or Hollywood marketing departments?
Choire Sicha: Like there’s a difference!
Tom Scocca: Anyway, we have not gotten to the particular substance of the story, yet, because I am trying to keep these issues separate. For the moment, it is only worth stipulating that it is a lousy story.
Tom Scocca: It is an adaptation of an adapted screenplay–a derivative work of a derivative work–and is completely without the sort of artistic merit that would allow someone to rationalize the marketing package on literary grounds. At least, the pages I read before hurling the magazine against the wall were clearly worthless, and someone who read the whole thing confirmed that it just kept on going that way.
Choire Sicha: I’ll report back to those that are concerned about stapling that the magazine only holds up so-so against hurtling.
Tom Scocca: So let’s pause here and finish with the magazine: this package, particularly the publicity photo, represents a gross lapse of ethics and taste by the fiction department of the New Yorker, and the magazine owes the readers an apology for printing it. And an editor might think long and hard about why he employs a fiction editor who would think this was an OK thing to put in the magazine.
Choire Sicha: To her credit, she did publish a wonderful Chris Adrian story–a sometime McSweeney’s author, by the way–back in April! But.
Tom Scocca: Now, this story (now: this story!)–this story does have a name-brand literary figure attached to it. Actually, it has two, but the second one doesn’t get his name on it. The name on it is “Dave Eggers.” One of the nice things that the semi-commercial publishing-promotion excerpt tradition of the New Yorker did do for me, long ago, was it allowed me to read enough of A Supposedly Fun Work of Heartbreaking Genius that I didn’t have to go read the whole book.
Choire Sicha: I read the whole book.
Tom Scocca: How was it? I didn’t mind the excerpt.
Choire Sicha: Capsule review: it had its ups and downs?
Tom Scocca: We are brave. Brave are we. We are going to hide in the hills, like desperadoes, and take Tiger Mountain by strategy. Etc. But Dave Eggers is not the real literary brand being monetized here, although his literary brand is being used to add value in an extremely irritating way.
Tom Scocca: The story is called “Max at Sea,” and the “Max” of the title is the character Max–or Dave Eggers’ and Warner Bros.’ commercial reconceptualization of the character Max–from Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
Tom Scocca: Where the Wild Things Are is a masterpiece. I have read it many, many, many times in the past two years and two months.
Choire Sicha: It is a masterpiece!
Tom Scocca: It is a masterpiece of children’s literature. What Dave Eggers and Warner Bros. have done is turned the plot of a masterpiece of children’s literature into a creepy, idiotic piece of Young Adult Fiction.
Tom Scocca: When I read it, I was literally ready to punch Dave Eggers in the face, except he was nowhere around. Now that I have simmered down, it remains possible that if I ever do find myself in a room with Dave Eggers, I may throw a drink in his face, probably including the glass or bottle.
Choire Sicha: You know, violence is never the answer.
Tom Scocca: That’s more or less what an editor told me many years ago when I wanted to review a Soul Asylum album by, rather than listening to it, borrowing my neighbor’s shotgun and blasting it to bits and writing about the aesthetic experience.
Choire Sicha: Well that’s not violence. It’s a terrible capitalist construction that violence against objects is actually violence.
Tom Scocca: I don’t hate writers anywhere near as passionately as I hate what they write. But, you know, we all have a dark streak. Unless we are characters written about by Dave Eggers. His innovation in this story is to supply Max, who “wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind / and another,” with a sad Back Story just full of Problems. According to the oily world view of Dave Eggers, he has a broken home. Father gone.
Tom Scocca: Mother tired…. no, wait, that’s Curtis Mayfield. Max Eggers is only a child of the EMOTIONAL ghetto. Would you believe his mother has a boyfriend he doesn’t like? Would you believe his older sister is mean to him?
Choire Sicha: Oh boy.
Tom Scocca: If you ever read any of the books in your middle-school library, you probably could believe that. So Max Eggers is angry. He acts out. Dave Eggers is the voice from the world in which “acting up” has been replaced by “acting out.”
Tom Scocca: Maurice Sendak’s Max is from a stable, loving home. He is allowed to run around in a wolf suit, which belongs to him. He is sent to bed without any dinner, but in the end dinner is waiting for him.
Tom Scocca: But then why does Max go wild? Why does he chase the dog with a fork? Why does his nice tidy bedroom have a wild forest grow up through it, as he laughs?