Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Ringer

This is how they lose us

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“If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule,” Junot Díaz once said. “You’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst woman writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum.” Díaz was speaking at an event at the Word Up Community Bookshop in New York on June 7, 2012, and his remarks, which he delivered in response to a question from the audience, have been widely quoted, passed around, and admired. He continued:

Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”

And it’s hard to read this now without thinking of the recent essay by the writer Alisa Valdes, who says—along with so much else—of her painful relationship with Díaz: “Once, Díaz even asked me to clean his disgusting kitchen before I left back to Boston, telling me his severe depression made it hard for him to pick up after himself…When I asked him about this, he laughed and called out from his futon on the floor in his bedroom: ‘Sweetie, you can take the man out of the D.R., but you can’t take the Dominican out of the man.’”

But in light of the allegations against Díaz, it’s important to revisit his words from six years ago, because they speak to a difficult point that is only going to get harder. I wish I could quote the entire thing—which starts here around the 36:15 mark—but I’ll content myself with one more excerpt:

Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliché lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited. Their sexist shorthand—they think that is observation. And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.”

When I read this, the first thing that hits me, apart from the intensity, is how beautifully Díaz manages to say all the right things. It reminds me now of what the librarian Allie Jane Bruce said of an interview with Daniel Handler and Sherman Alexie, who are currently being scrutinized themselves. These are men who “speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism perfectly and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books.”

I haven’t read much of Díaz, so I’m not qualified to discuss his work in detail, but I can testify to what he meant to many different groups of writers and readers, including science fiction fans. And his case speaks to the next stage of the reckoning that confronts us, which will involve talking about the behavior of men who we thought were different, and who amount to native speakers of the language of third-wave feminism. I often think of a quote that is widely attributed to Joss Whedon, allegedly in response to an interviewer who asked why he wrote strong female characters: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” In fact, this wasn’t an interview, but an acceptance speech for the Equality Now award, in which he asked himself that question six times and came up with appropriately cutting responses. I don’t doubt that he was asked about it a lot—but it’s also noteworthy that his most quotable response came in reply to a straw man that he had set up expressly to knock down. And these days, his remarks have a more sinister ring. Whedon opened with the words: “I’m surrounded tonight by people of extraordinary courage.” According to his former wife Kai Cole, however, Whedon once felt that he was surrounded by something rather different:

He wrote me: “When I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” But he did touch it.

And the hardest realization of all might be that these two sides of Whedon weren’t mutually exclusive. They existed at the same time.

In fact, we’re reaching the point where a man’s overly insistent assertion of his feminism might even come off as a warning sign. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote a few months ago on The Ringer: “There’s also something vaguely unsettling right now about male producers who make a point of their good relationships working with creative women…Quietly existing as a male ally is one thing; building a public brand off Not Being That Creep is another.” And there’s nothing easy about the conversations that still have yet to come. (I can’t help comparing Díaz’s situation to that of Eric T. Schneiderman, another prominent public advocate of women who resigned just hours after the publication of an article in The New Yorker about his abusive behavior in his private life. The New Yorker also has a long history with Díaz, including a recent personal essay that was widely seen as an attempt to get ahead of the allegations. But the magazine hasn’t said anything about him yet. And this isn’t a matter of indifference, but a reflection of how hard it can be to acknowledge the behavior of those we know and admire.) But perhaps the first step is to listen to our doubts, even if they seem unlikely to be heeded. As Virginia Vitzthum writes in Elle:

Díaz is an outspoken leftist, decrying economic and other inequalities from his position as fiction editor of the Boston Review. He calls sexism, along with racism and genocide, one of his major concerns as an activist and a writer…He refers to his writing as a “feminist-aligned project” achieved by “mapping male subjectivities.” I do not doubt that he is sensitive to the ways women are marginalized; it seems appropriate to ask him about the sexism in [This is How You Lose Her].

When she raises her concerns about his “constant dismissal of women as sets of culo-and-titties,” Díaz gets “all professorial” on her, but Vitzthum is having none of it. She writes in her conclusion: “About my failure to engage productively with your maps of male subjectivity? It’s not me, it’s you.” She’s right. And she was right when she wrote it six years ago.

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2018 at 8:41 am

The pursuit of trivia

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Over the last few months, my wife and I have been obsessively playing HQ Trivia, an online game show that until recently was available only on Apple devices. If you somehow haven’t encountered it by now, it’s a live video broadcast, hosted by the weirdly ingratiating comedian Scott Rogowsky, in which players are given the chance to answer twelve multiple-choice questions. If you get one wrong, you’re eliminated, but if you make it to the end, you split the prize—which ranges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars—with the remaining contestants. Early on, my wife and I actually made it to the winner’s circle four times, earning a total of close to fifty bucks. (Unfortunately, the game’s payout minimum means that we currently have seventeen dollars that we can’t cash out until we’ve won again, which at this point seems highly unlikely.) That was back when the pool of contestants on a typical evening consisted of fewer than ten thousand players. Last night, there were well over a million, which set a new record. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than twice the number of people who watched the first airing of the return of Twin Peaks. It’s greater than the viewership of the average episode of Girls. In an era when many of us watch even sporting events, award ceremonies, or talk shows on a short delay, HQ Trivia obliges its viewers to pay close attention at the same time for ten minutes or more at a stretch. And we’re at a point where it feels like a real accomplishment to force any live audience, which is otherwise so balkanized and diffused, to focus on this tiny node of content.

Not surprisingly, the game has inspired a certain amount of curiosity about its ultimate intentions. It runs no advertisements of any kind, with a prize pool funded entirely by venture capital. But its plans aren’t exactly a mystery. As the reporter Todd Spangler writes in Variety:

So how do HQ Trivia’s creators plan to make money, instead of just giving it away? [Co-founder Rus] Yusupov said monetization is not currently the company’s focus. That said, it’s “getting a ton of interest from brands and agencies who want to collaborate and do something fun,” he added. “If we do any brand integrations or sponsors, the focus will be on making it enhance the gameplay,” Yusupov said. “For a user, the worst thing is feeling like, ‘I’m being optimized—I’m the product now.’ We want to make a great game, and make it grow and become something really special.”

It’s worth remembering that this game launched only this past August, and that we’re at a very early stage in its development, which has shrewdly focused on increasing its audience without any premature attempts at turning a profit. Startups are often criticized for focusing on metrics like “clicks” or “eyeballs” without showing how to turn them into revenue, but for HQ, it makes a certain amount of sense—these are literal eyeballs, all demonstrably turned to the same screen at once, and it yields the closest thing that anyone has seen in years to a captive audience. When the time comes for it to approach sponsors, it’s going to present a compelling case indeed.

But the specter of a million users glued simultaneously to their phones, hanging on Scott Rogowsky’s every word, fills some onlookers with uneasiness. Rogowsky himself has joked on the air about the comparisons to Black Mirror, and several commentators have taken it even further. Ian Bogost says in The Atlantic:

Why do I feel such dread when I play? It’s not the terror of losing, or even that of being embarrassed for answering questions wrong in front of my family and friends…It’s almost as if HQ is a fictional entertainment broadcast, like the kind created to broadcast the Hunger Games in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the motion graphics, the actors portraying news or talk-show hosts, the sets, the chyrons—they impose the grammar of television in order to recreate it, but they contort it in order to emphasize that it is also fictional…HQ bears the same sincere fakery, but seems utterly unaware that it is doing so.

And Miles Surrey of The Ringer envisions a dark future, over a century from now, in which playing the app is compulsory:

Scott—or “Trill Trebek,” or simply “God”—is a messianic figure to the HQties, the collective that blindly worships him, and a dictatorial figure to the rest of us…I made it to question 17. My children will eat today…You need to delete HQ from your phones. What appears to be an exciting convergence of television and app content is in truth the start of something terrifying, irreparable, and dangerous. You are conditioned to stop what you’re doing twice a day and play a trivia game—that is just Phase 1.

Yet I suspect that the real reason that this game feels so sinister to some observers is that it marks a return to a phenomenon that we thought we’d all left behind, and which troubled us subconsciously in ways that we’re only starting to grasp. It’s appointment television. In my time zone, the game airs around eight o’clock at night, which happens to be when I put my daughter to bed. I never know exactly how long the process will take—sometimes she falls asleep at once, but she tends to stall—so I usually get downstairs to join my wife about five or ten minutes later. By that point, the game has begun, and I often hear her say glumly: “I got out already.” And that’s it. It’s over until the same time tomorrow. Even if there were a way to rewind, there’s no point, because the money has already been distributed and nothing else especially interesting happened. (The one exception was the episode that aired on the day that one of the founders threatened to fire Rogowsky in retaliation for a profile in The Daily Beast, which marked one of the few times that the show’s mask seemed to crack.) But believe it or not, this is how we all used to watch television. We couldn’t record, pause, or control what was on, which is a fact that my daughter finds utterly inexplicable whenever we stay in a hotel room. It was a collective experience, but we also conducted it in relative isolation, except from the people who were in the same room as we were. That’s true of HQ as well, which moves at such a high speed that it’s impossible to comment on it on social media without getting thrown off your rhythm. These days, many of us only watch live television together at shared moments of national trauma, and HQ is pointedly the opposite. It’s trivial, but we have no choice but to watch it at the exact same time, with no chance of saving, pausing, or sharing. The screen might be smaller, but otherwise, it’s precisely what many of us did for decades. And if it bothers us now, it’s only because we’ve realized how dystopian it was all along.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2018 at 9:20 am

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