Will These Goddamn Books Never Leave Me Alone?

I have to surrender. Recent visits to the Strand (plus that outlet mall from the Hugo Boss entry) has added way too many titles to my “to read” pile under the hall table. New titles:

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius – Scott Berg
Delirious New York – Rem Koolhaas
Essays of EB White
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James Agee and Walker Evans
7 Types of Ambiguity – Wiliam Empson
Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don”t Care” – Lee Server

The only things I’ve read, which will hardly help shrink the stack, are Daniel Czuchlewski’s terrible novel, The Muse Asylum, and Tom Stoppard’s recent Coast of Utopia trilogy of plays, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage. I’m reserving judgment on the latter till I see it staged. My initial response was of such absolute bewilderment that I have to assume that I’m just missing something that’ll make more sense on stage.

So, in an effort to clear out a little space under the hall table, I am going to admit defeat: I’ve read 90 pages of Underworld, and I’m flummoxed. It’s just a terrible book. The baseball section that gets such praise is so poorly written, filled with such ridiculous pronunciamentos about the nature of the game, that I had to struggle to keep going. But that only led to some sort of idiotic performance art exhibition in the desert. The writing is just lifeless, and filled with inanities passed off as profundities. A buddy of mine once commented, “People like DeLillo for the same reason that kids liked Youngblood back in the 1990s: they feel like it’s not far beyond their own capabilities. It also explains the popularity of Tom Wolfe (the one in the white suit).”

Or, as my senior thesis advisor once put it, when I asked him if he’d read White Noise: “No. Well, I read a few pages of it, but it felt like it was the novel that a lot of professors want to write. That’s not a book I’m very interested in reading.”

So Don DeLillo can kiss my ass.

On the Couch with Dr. Schadenfreude

(Of the Millennium Dome, Talk, Enron, and the culture of arrogance)

I’ve long been fascinated by failure. Not the run-of-the-mill, never-been, B-list sort of failure that Howard Stern used to trot out so masterfully on the glory days of his radio show. No, the failure I appreciate most is the can’t-miss, blue-chip variety, the one that has everything going for it, but still manages to miss the mark.

The most obvious of these failures is the Titanic, of course. Not the Leonardo Di Caprio version, which was quite the commercial success, but the luxury liner herself. Almost as highly touted as the “Dan vs. Dave” ad campaign (you remember: the decathlon rivalry manufactured by Reebok for the 1992 Olympics, in which one of the decathletes (Dan) actually failed to qualify for the Olympics), the unsinkable (in theory) Titanic came across an iceberg (in practice), and that was all she wrote.

As the media have come to dominate our lives, the expectations they generate makes failure all the sweeter (especially when it doesn’t involve massive loss of life).

Take the Millennium Dome in London. Its principals made such grandiose claims for the tourism it would attract that they failed to notice the Dome was a cement monstrosity located near the old gas-works. Meant to stand for a century, it closed down 18 months later.

Take Long Term Capital Management, the scientifically designed hedge fund that placed so many investments (read: bets) that it could not fail. Except that it did, requiring a Congressional bailout to keep the world economy from convulsing.

Take Talk magazine. Positioned as an unstoppable combination of magazine savvy (editrix Tina Brown) and movie-making bravado (Harvey Weinstein of Miramax) set to turn publishing on its ear, it turned out no one listened to what Talk was saying. The magazine shut down three years after its inception.

Take Matthew McConaughey. Before his first major movie (A Time to Kill) was ever released, Vanity Fair did a cover profile on him, explaining why he was going to be The Next Big Thing. The rest of the mainstream media was also on the bandwagon, offering up carefully placed tidbits about the guy’s social life, family history, and movie-making aspirations. But a funny thing happened: McConaughey didn’t happen. His career never really took off, the public never took a serious liking to him, and he never became the superstar that the media machine insisted he would become.

I could go on in my sour-grapes way about these can’t-miss failures (Kurt Andersen’s novel Turn of the Century; the #1 pick of Joe Smith in the 1995 NBA draft; almost the entirety of the dot.com boom; that by-the-numbers disaster that was Pearl Harbor, the Movie), but I suppose there’s a point here, about how arrogance precedes a fall. To me, the truly grand failures are the ones in which the possibility of failure is never even imagined.

For months now, we’ve all been witness to the blame game being played by every single entity connected to Enron. No matter how close any executive, accounting firm, lobbyist or politician was to the collapse of the energy-trading company, their fingers all point to someone else. Like Long Term Capital Management, Enron could not have gone wrong. After all, it had paid off our country’s legislators to relax regulatory rules and allow it to build a commodities trade in businesses that weren’t mature enough to support such a model.

Belief in the commidification of everything (or the culture of arrogance, depending on how you look at it) led company executives to create shady partnerships to hide company debt of more than $1 billion, likely with the complicity of its auditors. One executive cursed out an investment analyst in a teleconference for asking what turned out to be the right questions. Then the death-spiral started, as investments tanked, debtors welshed on payments, executives lied about debt while dumping overvalued shares, and the rank-and-file were barred from selling company stock from their retirement plans. Add it all up, and you have one of the grandest failures in the history of American business.

In our own industry, some are drawing parallels between Enron and ImClone, the biotech company that watched its stock collapse after the FDA refused to review its NDA for Erbitux, a colorectal cancer drug that, by anecdotal evidence, did wonders for patients. The facts are still out on the ImClone case, but the media has pounced on the president and CEO, who allegedly made quite a killing in company stock while sitting on information about the inadequacies in the Erbitux NDA. Since the main investor to get hammered is Bristol-Myers Squibb ($1 billion in stock purchase last fall, another $1 billion to come in milestone payments, if Erbitux gets back on track), the public outcry hasn’t been as severe. We’ll have to watch how it shakes out, to see if ImClone joins Mr. McConaughey, the Dome, Tina Brown, et alia on my special list.


As I mentioned earlier, I edit a pharmaceutical trade magazine by day. Every issue (9, plus a supplement) I write “From the Editor,” a page that’s at least ostensibly supposed to be about the pharma & biopharma industry and the contract services and outsourcing arena that we cover.

Since the book launched in 1999, I’ve gone pretty far afield in subjects for that page. Sometimes, I used the page as an excuse to let my liberal arts brain out, which I don’t get to do enough of on a regular basis. Early columns at least tangentially had something to do with the magazine: compare & contrast Gilgamesh and the Human Genome Project; use A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale to discuss the impossibility of getting the Top Companies issue 100% right; explain my editorial guidelines (no use of the phrase “win-win relationship”) by citing George Orwell’s “Politics & the English Language” essay.

At times, I went too far from my mission. Like the time I discussed how the Talking Heads’ induction into the rock & roll hall of fame was just another sign that I was aging faster than the general populace. That one caught the attention of the owner of my company, unfortunately.

At other times, I managed to flat-out nail a pertinent subject, with humor and concision. The best example of that, “On the Couch with Dr. Schadenfreude,” will go up next week.

And then the was 9.11. The magazine was in production week (which means massive deadline crunch) for its biggest issue of the year (October, when we go to the AAPS Annual Conference). Below, I’ve enclosed my editorials from October 2001, composed a few days after the attacks, and October 2002, when I took the anniversary day (9.11.02) off from work and wandered NYC with Ari Scott, a friend of mine. Go here to read her account of the day.

Never Forget

I have struggled for days to write this page. There are no words that can sum up the horror that has overtaken our lives after the deadly attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The most fitting comment I heard was on the day of the attack, when New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was asked for an approximate body count. The mayor replied, “I don’t think we want to speculate about that–it will be more than any of us can bear.”

It is more than any of us can bear.

During the Civil War, dedicating a cemetery on the battlefield where one of the bloodiest events in American history took place, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. On the night of September 11th, I found myself reading”deeply reading”his words, as I tried to understand what it is to be an American. I enclose it here, because I hope some of you will do the same.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God bless America,

Gil Roth

I Love New York

It’s been a year since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by radical Islamist terrorists. The days following were a blur, each of us trying as best we could to cope with the practical matters of our lives, while history unfolded around us. At the time, we were finishing up the October 2001 issue of this magazine, and how we managed to focus on that task, I don’t know.

The events of that day will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Contract Pharma’s offices are 25 miles away from the WTC site, close enough to watch a plume of smoke hovering above Manhattan that day, close enough to see that haunting “towers of light” memorial in the evenings, far enough, perhaps, to feel like an outsider. A new world was born on that day, in violence and heroism, hatred and charity. Still in its infancy, it touches every aspect of our lives, challenging us to keep up with a new geopolitical mythology; challenging us to debate the worthiness of the Constitution in dangerous times; challenging us to do more; challenging us, ultimately, to see ourselves the way others see us.

Our industry has faced its own set of challenges after 9.11.01, and the ensuing biowarfare scare. The public (through the voices of Congress) demanded access to Cipro, and the Health and Human Services secretary threatened to remove Bayer’s patent protection as leverage to get the antibiotic at low prices. Several pharmaceutical manufacturers have been working around the clock to build supplies of smallpox vaccine. Others are filling atropine injectors for the military, to protect against nerve gas attacks. Recently, the government announced plans to inoculate the entire U.S. population against smallpox, within five days of a sign of an outbreak. A new world.

As the anniversary approached, my friends and co-workers pondered how to spend that day. Some felt that going to work, doing “business as usual” was a way to show that terrorism hadn’t changed our lives. Others took the day off, kept their kids home from school, and spent the day mourning. Some watched the “circle of life” ceremony and the naming of the dead on television. Some friends in Brooklyn wanted to gather on the Brooklyn Bridge at 8:53 a.m. and make a toast to the city. I chose to spend the day walking in NYC with a friend of mine and a camera. The accompanying photos are from that day.

My friend Aimee told me she wants to come down from her home in Massachusetts to see the WTC site sometime, but is afraid of feeling “like a tourist.” I didn’t go to the site until nine months after the attack, with my own set of excuses to keep me away.

By the time I went, the rubble was removed, and the pit was all that remained. The pit: absence in our lives; urban Grand Canyon; the paradox of an empty grave containing thousands of souls. The immensity of it daunted me, as did the claustrophobic intimacy of the buildings stretching skyward, right beside this uncharnel house, in which the dead are dust before their time.

I reflected on that first visit, and told her, “Your preconceptions don’t mean anything there. You might feel like a tourist on your way in, but once you get there, you’ll see how much bigger it is than you. That’s when you become something else: a pilgrim.” This is our Mecca, where we make our American hajj.

Off the (w)rack(ed with guilt)

Spent the early afternoon at a big, outdoor outlet mall up in New York state, where I spent money I probably shouldn’t have (since I’m supposed to be salting everything away for a number of reasons), on a variety of things:

$20 on books (The September 11 Photo Project, The Muse Asylum, and Baby, I Don’t Care);
$35 on t-shirts, underwear and a three-quarter-sleeve shirt at Jockey;
$60 on a sportcoat at Claiborne for Men (so I’m a homo, alright?);
$25 on a hooded fleece overshirt at The North Face.

None of these purchases made me feel too guilty. The problem was at the end of the line, when I walked into the Hugo Boss outlet. Now, I told myself I was going in just to browse around, maybe gawk at the Russians and Japanese who were filling up the place, get some ideas for neat looks (because my current one probably isn’t that appealing).

After all, I couldn’t possibly buy clothing from a company whose founder was renowned for designing dress uniforms for the SS, and using slave labor to manufacture it, could I? Why, just a few days ago, walking through Garden State Plaza, I saw some suits in the window of the Hugo Boss store, and thought, “Nice look. If only it wasn’t named after a guy who made the SS look so snappy.”

And that got me reflecting on the intersection of fashion and fascism, which I really don’t need to get into right now.

Why not? Because I found a sharp, $800 suit marked down to $100, that’s why. I tried it on. It fit wonderfully, looked great, and made me feel pretty bad. Until I thought, “Y’know, Gil, at this price, it’s actually hurting them more than if you boycott the place.”

Lifetime Piling Up

Not much blogging going on this past week. It’s been yet another case of Lifetime Piling Up, as the Talking Heads posthumously put it. There are a number of themes I’d like to write about in the next few weeks, including the retirement of Patrick Ewing’s jersey at Madison Square Garden, Ron Rosenbaum’s recent NY Observer article on the legacy of James Jesus Angleton, the ongoing process of publishing Paul West’s new book, and the inadequacies of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (I said I’d give it a shot, but I can’t imagine how I’ll make it through the thing; and I actually read Infinite Jest!). I hope to write up a bunch of these themes soon. So check back. At the very least, I’ll try to write up my embarrassing celebrity encounter stories . . .

News To Abuse

Sorry not to have written in the past week. Work’s been hectic, and my evenings have been spent at work on that Paul West book (“The Immensity of the Here and Now”). I’m going to publishing it, and hope to have it all put together in time for a hardcover release by 9.11 of this year. This site’ll likely chronicle a lot of that activity, offering some insight into the strange world of small press publishing.

And now, on with the Gil Roth Show . . .

Y Kant Gil Turn Away

I was helping put together an NEA grant application for one of my authors last night (yeah, I know, exciting way to spend a Friday night; sue me), and had VH1 Classic on in the background. For those of you not familiar with it (I think it’s only on satellite), this channel spends most of its time showing videos from the 1980s. And not just later ’80s metal bands or anything; VH1 Classic airs ridiculous amounts of great New Wave tunes and post-New Wave pop. Which is to say, it’s my childhood (youth, really) splattered on a TV tube.

Last night, during the Request Hour, they aired a video for a song called “The Big Picture.” It was from Tori Amos‘ first effort, known as “Y Kant Tori Read.” I recognized the voice and turned to watch the video. I found myself transfixed for the next 4+ minutes. Somehow, a major label felt that they needed to position this girl as Tiffany’s sluttier sister. The hair was teased up, the skirts were short, and she spent the last two minutes of the video bouncing to a beat, with the camera strategically trying to catch some jiggling.

No, really. Tori Amos. Jiggling. Now, this isn’t to say she wasn’t kinda hot, especially in the part where she was wearing leather low-riders and a little green top. But considering how her career took off when she was re-positioned as a demented art-school girl of doom (I’m generalizing; don’t kill me) a few years later, it’s sort of an amazing transformation.

I mean, there are times that I marvel over the career progression of The Beatles. They managed to go, in 4 years, from (incredibly gifted) pop music writers into innovators whose work is so profoundly uncanny that we barely recognize its influence upon us. By which I mean, a bunch of aspects of contemporary music are so Beatles-derived that we have a hard time imagining that they didn’t exist previously. Not to give them sole credit/blame for music today. In fact, they were part of a pretty insanely creative matrix of musicians that drove each other to greater heights through competition. But that’s neither here nor there.

What I’m getting at is that, given the Lilith Fair-like aspect of her later career (which, from what I gather, has led to a bizarrely esoteric recent release), it’s hard for me to imagine that she would’ve been so willing to be marketed like that back in 1988. But then, a lot of people do crazy things for fame. I’m fortunate enough not to have come anywhere close to fame, and instead have negotiated my way through a whole ton of regular life.

And, though I’ve barely listened to Tori Amos’ work since about 1995, I’ll always hold her in a certain regard. After all, without her Little Earthquakes album (plus Diva, by Annie Lennox), getting girls during my senior year of college could’ve been a lot tougher . . .

Straight But Not Narrow

Spent yesterday down in Philadelphia, helping out my friend Robert Drake. In 1999, Drake was beaten nearly to death by a couple of queer-bashers in his apartment in Ireland, and has been slowly rehabbing since (he’s in a wheelchair now, and likely will be for the rest of his days). After the attack, his loved ones moved him back to Philadelphia, where he lived before moving to Sligo. Yesterday, I drove down from northern NJ to help move him into a new apartment. Turned out that most of the big move was done, with the furniture and TV getting moved on Thursday by Drake’s “chief operating officer,” Butch. The remaining job was moving 70-80 boxes of books to the home of Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, a queer bookstore on 12th & Pine in Philadelphia.

[For reference’s sake (and I know I’ll come off as vaguely homophobic here), I’m straight. I have a lot of queer friends, and one of the books Voyant has published is about as queer as it gets, but hey. Before he was attacked, Drake and I were walking to The Book Trader, and he mentioned that I fell into the “Straight, but not narrow” category. I was glad to find out this exists.]

After leaving Ed’s place, I met up with an old (girl)friend from grad school. We had tea at a little cafe (I quit drinking soda, particularly my greatest friend/deadliest nemesis, Cherry Coke, back in October), talked art and geopolitics, and probably riled some antiwar protestors at a nearby table. My pro-war stance and its rationale tend not to go over very well. My tea-companion, however, understood where I was coming from.

Many of my friends don’t. While my suburban coworkers tend to be much more in support of deposing Hussein, my friends tend to be against it. They tend to believe that it’s solely a blood-for-oil war. I understand where they’re coming from, and I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. Obviously, stabilizing the oil supply from that region would be a boon for America, Europe, and other industrialized countries. However, I’m not sure that these protestors are truly grasping the significance of 9.11 and the necessity of this pre-emptive military policy. I’ll write more about this later, when I’ve put it together more cogently.

PS: If you’re a charitable soul and want to help Drake out, make a tax-deductible contribution to the Robert Drake Health Fund, c/o Arch St. Meeting, 320 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19106, or call 215.629.0257.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It was a happier Valentine’s Day than I was expecting. As if in response to my Pattern Recognition complaints, something astonishing happened yesterday. I received what may be the first legit post-9.11 novel.

Background: in addition to editing a pharmaceutical trade magazine by day, I run Voyant Publishing, a small press publishing house, by night. One of the authors I’ve published, Paul West, recently asked me if I’d be interested in looking at a new book of his. We worked together last year to reissue his great novel, The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests and, though sales have been sluggish (we’ve done much better with the scatological queer porno romance mystery academic thriller novel, The Mad Man, by Samuel R. Delany), Mr. West seemed impressed enough by our operations to offer me the new book.

Yesterday, it showed up in the mail. I got home from work and found a shoebox with the return address of Mr. West’s wife, the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, sitting at my door. Any plans of going into NYC to meet friends on Valentine’s Day were dashed. I sat down and read the first section of the book (65 pages) after dinner, and was floored. Mr. West has thus far seemed to nail down the book I’ve been desperate to see since the terrible events of 9.11. I had to restrain my impulse to call him at home and tell him that we’d publish it. There’s still 350 or so pages, and things could go awry. But I’m amazed at what he’s written so far. (My apologies for the vagueness: it’s deliberate, in order to respect Mr. West’s privacy and not give away too much about an unpublished book.)

Always thinking as a publisher (in addition to an aesthete), it warmed my heart that Mr. West chose a title almost as difficult to remember as The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests: that is, The Immensity of the Here and Now. Never hurts, with books that need word-of-mouth promotion, to use a long and unwieldy title . . .

I’d Order the Fish

Feb 10: Traveling to Phoenix for a pharmaceutical conference (day job). Off my head right now, mainly from not getting enough sleep (the result of a double-OT finish to the NBA All-Star Game last night, and my compulsion to finish reading Gould’s Book of Fish before this trip. It bears re-reading, which is as high a compliment as I can give a contemporary book.
I wanted to finish that one so I could have a “guilt-free” reading of William Gibson’s new novel, Pattern Recognition. I was intrigued by the idea that he set the book in 2002, basing it firmly in a post-9.11 world, instead of an indeterminate SF future. However, that reality seems barely to exist, even though the lead character is a New York resident (she’s in London as the novel begins, and has now jetted her way to Tokyo). Only 150 pages in (as if Gibson had written the previous pages before the attacks) do we get a real mention of the attacks, and Cayce’s story of that day. And it was a pretty lifeless story. The character only expresses the moment-to-moment of that morning, then glosses over everything else. While the destruction of the towers was obviously the most traumatic, emotionally devastating part of the attacks, the reshaping of the world afterward should have been much more prominent in Cayce’s psyche.

As is, there’s barely any sign that this novel needs to be taking place in 2002 (so far). Outside of the necessity of talking about a “new century,” there’s no sign of a new world. Wouldn’t cool-hunter Cayce have noticed the hip trend of banging firemen, in the months after the attacks? With all her talk of grading athletic gear brands, shouldn’t there be some mention of seeing these things on donation piles for the relief workers? Not so far (halfway in). The resonances that could bring the book more vividly into our day-to-day are lacking. Perhaps it’s a function of Gibson’s living so far from here (Vancouver), not seeing what the fruits were borne in the months after.

So I”m disappointed thus far. I”ll probably finish the book before we land, given that this flight is actually FIVE HOURS long (I thought it’d be closer to four, for some reason), and they’ve already gone through the 90 minutes of Jennifer Aniston trying to act like she has conflict (“The Good Girl“).

Feb 11: Not much improvement in the book. Read all but 50 pages before the end of the flight. Get to that tomorrow, on the way home. Plenty of action and adventure, and a sorta mystical way of making art that doesn’t sound that convincing. It’s like my buddy Tavis Allison once said about Signal To Noise, a comic by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean: “I know this is supposed to be about the grand, final film in the movie-maker’s head, but all of his descriptions of it seem to add up to five minutes of screen-time . . .”

Gotta find something else to read on the flight back. And have to pray that it’s a shorter jaunt than the trip here, when we spent almost SIX hours in the air, thanks to those darn headwinds.

Feb 12: Finished it up in the morning. Hung over a little from gallivanting poolside with margaritas, but that didn’t alter my impression the book. Not a good sign, Mr. Gibson. So it was essentially a McGuffin chase across semi-exotic settings (London, Tokyo, Moscow), a la Count Zero, except this time it’s not an AI building bricolage, but something equally implausible. It’s a fantasy world, bearing little resemblance to our own. I suppose I was hoping for a more “literary” novel than this, but when you get down it, Gibson’s a potboiler writer. I ignored his last two books, mainly because he seemed like a cheap SF knockoff of Elmore Leonard (whose work I’ve only read a smidge of). No real change here. I’m being a bit harsh, because he DOES get at some of the peculiarities of our Internet culture (though not blogs, curiously enough) in the book. But that almost exists just as a method of moving the plot along.