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Getting It Straight October 29, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, publishing, Toulouse Street.
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Let me get this right out front: this piece has not been fact checked. Hell, on a good day I manage to swat all the homonyms that jump up on this screen like roaches on toast. And at the end of the day Toulouse Street is more about fidelity than facts. Not an unusual state of affairs according to James Pogue, who says the problem with the famously aggressive fact checking of magazines like The New Yorker is it collides with “the emerging new essay…trying to do something that is obviously art” in which writers change facts.

Fortunately, I spent the morning with a panel of the checkers and the checked–local magazine veterans Pogue, Nathaniel Rich, and Chris Rose–who have been on both sides of the fact check desk at publications including The Paris Review, GQ, The New Yorker and The Oxford American. All appear in the current issue of Ox Am, including Pogue’s piece “Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker”. Rich was fiction editor of The Paris Review and worked as fact checker at The New Yorker where even the poetry and fiction is fact checked “which really surprised some of the poets.” His piece in the current Ox Am is about bird watching and we have absolutely no idea if a Connecticut warbler is exactly the size Rich represented with his hand. However, since you can’t see this on the podcast we have decided to let it pass in honor of the greater truth. In the middle was Chris Rose, who hold the Brittany Spears beat at the Times Picayune among other duties, who put his case plainly: I just write it the way I’m pretty sure it happened.”

The problem with the approach Pogue describes, citing Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as the textbook illustration, is that for most writers “just making stuff up . . . completely destroys your credibility” and ends up just creating a media event a la James Frey. Still, the panel title was “New South Journalism” and depending on how you parse that sentence, it might include HST’s famous description from Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail of how to handle an uncommitted delegate. Or bats. The panelists made clear, however, such nonsense is not going to get in the mainstream of American publishing unless dressed as the deli delivery guy. It may, however, come to prevail in the online world. Rose noted that reporters filed copy directly onto NOLA.COM at the same time it was sent to the without passing through the copy desk. There were some howlers among the examples but Chris Rose’s probably deserves its 15 minutes in print somewhere. Trying to describe the important of Cosimo Matasa’s recording studio to this history of rock-and-roll, he wrote for the upcoming Ox Am music edition that Matasa was making rock-and-roll “before Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan ever laced up their blue suede shoes.” Until the fact checker called him to ask if either of these gentlemen were noted for wearing blue suede shows. I think you can see where this is going (and it not skip to 54:40 on the podcast), but you won’t read that stylistic bit in the upcoming Ox Am.

[The topic seemed to have leaked out of the room into a poetry interview/reading hours later, when Louisiana Poet Laureate Julie Kane shared an anecdote about the poet she knows who was published in The New Yorker and was told that the constellation he mentioned could not possibly have been in the sky at the time of day and year the poem was describing. "He was surprised they didn't call his lady friend to make sure she absolutely was in the sleeping bag next to him that night," she said.]

The panelists spent two-thirds of their alloted an awful lot of time on fact checking, but Rich’s tales about bird watchers at Grand Isle means I’m going to have to go back and unskip his article when I get a minute. (Nothing personal, Nathaniel, I just don’t have time to read a magazine one and through, and the leisure time for second passes through my magazine stack is measured in feet on one side of my couch), and on the transition away from pulp-and-polish to digital media Rose, who’s piece on the Ox Am was about the gradual demise of the city’s newspaper the Times-Picayune summed it up best “I make something you can hold in your hand at the end of the day–a story, a book, a newspaper–and after I’ve worked my ass off and bled, where is it?”

This is all good fun, whether the panelists are trying to on-up each other with the best example of overzealous fact-checking or when Rich tell us about his week in trip to Grand Isle to find birdwatchers in their natural environment, but there is a long, thoughtful discussion of the evolution away from print toward digital about midway through the podcast and I don’t have time to transcribe and which you really ought to listen to. Jump to 31:06 and listen through 40:22 if you are as pressed as time for I am. Bob Mann poses the question, Pogue answers first and Rich second, and Rose gives the coup de grace.

Podcast: New South Journalism – Louisiana Book Festival 2012

Tiny Demons October 27, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
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The New Orleans blogosphere is quiet about the news that that Chris Rose was arrested in some sort of alcohol-fueled domestic dispute. Rose is a frequent target of blogger jibes (the term “douchebag” and “Rose” being nearly synonymous), and he is annually brought up as a possible guest speaker at the NOLA Bloggers’ annual Rising Tide conference, and the suggestion is routinely and ritualistically hooted down.

We tend to pick on Rose because New Orleans’ blogosphere is full of people who think they could do Chris’ Rose job better than he does. I’ll admit there are days I read his column and I am one of those. Frankly, there are reporters and writers in the blog list at the side of this page I would hold up any day against anyone at the Picayune. Still, most of the bloggers have never written for a newspaper, have never had space to fill without an idea in their head, with a deadline bearing down on them. Sometimes you pound out some crap and if you have half a talent and more than a little luck, everybody is happy and gets to go home to dinner. Forced to fill the columns of a newspaper Living section, Rose does his 60 Second Interviews and slavers over Brittany Spears in a distasteful way most middle age men secretly understand.

He is certainly full of himself in spite of the crap he sometimes passes over to the copy desk, and so an easy target. Still, I tend not to pick at him in my own little space here. I’ve lived that life where the line a good editor can file any hole isn’t just a lewd jibe over after deadline drinks but a daily fact of life, so I give him some slack for the nonsense. Being the Angus Lind of the X-and-Y generation probably isn’t as great a gig as we all think it is.

I did write one slightly snarky piece when Rose discovered his fellow writers on New Orleans in the blog space after Ashley Morris’ untimely death. I suggested we were more like Rose than many of my colleagues in the NOLA Bloggers group would happily admit. The first time I gave Rose some notice was something I wrote long ago, when the weight of survivor guilt watching It all unfold in my city was almost unbearable. It was a letter to Rose, posted on Wet Bank Guide but also sent as an email. I never got a response, but I didn’t expect one. If you can find your way back to the original Rose column I referenced in Shadow of the Elephant, I think it explains in part at least why I find myself writing this today when something tells me I should just leave it alone.

Back in his post-K hey day, Rose often wrote about his family, in particular about taking his children out to experience everything New Orleans. My children were not raised here, and I have great sympathy for that experience. In fact he wrote so often about his family I was surprised to find that this weekend’s incident took place at an ex-girlfriend’s. It’s hard to feel complete empathy for Rose. If you live here long enough you’ll know enough stupid drunks or worse, and you start to lose patience for that sort of behavior. Maybe it’s just my age. But then I think of those kids.

Rose also wrote about his battle with depression. Down here where people pop Xanax like breath mints it wasn’t as important a story for us as it was for the rest of the world. They need to know that Living in a post-disaster landscape is not anyone’s idea of easy, much less Big and Easy. Of course people go though Zoloft like they’re Chee-Wees. At least the pills are better than the alternative: for example, finding yourself dead drunk at an ex-girlfriends trying to explain how fucked up your life is when she (and her new beau) don’t want to hear it.

It’s been three years since Rose sat on that stoop he wrote about in late 2005, in the middle of the post-Flood bedlam, trying to figure out what happened to his world. Back them I felt an immediate empathy for him which time and his own goofiness have not completely erased. He set himself up to be the poster child for New Orleans post-K but to do that he had to stay through it all, had to continue to find new ways to tell a story we all sometimes wish had an end.

I was immediately reminded when I read the Rose story of Picayune photog John McCusker’s own confrontation with the police. It has taken them a while to catch up, but the demons that chased McCusker like the police have finally caught up with Rose.

Somewhere deep inside my own demon is chuckling as I read about Rose’s mishap, but I shove him back down and tell him to be quiet. We’ve all seen the demons down here get the upper hand. McCusker’s story has always stood out in my memory, as did the story about the elderly gentleman who couldn’t hold on any longer waiting for his Road Home money and walked into the river to drown. We all know of the marriages ruined, the children still afraid of thunderstorms.

It’s best we all just let it go. We don’t want all of the demons let loose down here by the flood and its aftermath to think they’re getting the upper hand. Pay no attention to that guy perched on the edge of your night table in the checkered pants. Demons are like that crazy lady down the street. If you start to pay them too much attention, you’ll never be rid of them. Best we all mix a strong drink and flip on Rob Zombie’s Halloween horror movie festival on cable TV, pretend that demons are only in movies and always meet their well deserved end about the time the popcorn runs out.

The Underground Man April 17, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, Debrisville, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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“So long live the underground. I already carried the underground in my soul.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground

New Orleans Times-Picayune pop-culture columnist Chris Rose discovered the city’s digital underground, as he puts it, when he stumbled into the occult and hermetic bloggerhood of New Orleans, “…a massive community of underground writers, cranks and misanthropes who are keeping it real around here.”

Hmmm. I think he gets curmudgeon in there at some point as well. I don’t think we’re quite as far underground as he finds us to be. Certainly there are a lot of people who would recognize bloggers Karen Gadbois of Squandered Heritage or Bart Everson of b.rox. Karen was written up in the Wall Street Journal (with a picture, no less). Bart was one of the leaders of our neighborhood’s recovery process and before his daughter was borne sat on more committees than most know exist. Both spoke at the 2007 crime march. Not precisely misanthropic. Now we certainly can be the cantankerous bunch, especially when confronted with the class of people Ashley Morris liberated the movie line “fuckmooks” to describe.

Later, Rose is a bit kinder (possibly after he recovers from being called a douchebag by one local blogger, although I have to wonder how easily offended a guy is who calls his standup comedy routine “the Asshole Monologues.”) We are, Rose continues in a more positive vein, “…members of the vibrant New Orleans blogosphere, virtual warriors who lock and load for hours over their computers at night, driving legions of opinions, complaints, vitriol and humor out onto the Information Superhighway, giving both locals and outsiders alternative, sometimes insightful and always uncensored accounts of life in the Big Uneasy. “

Damn. Well, that was nice enough, although I often write early in the morning. After a long day in the Big Uneasy its often difficult to put words together that would make any more sense than the drunken and incomprehensible speech I gave (or should I say attempted to give) rather late at Ashley Morris’ wake. And it’s certainly a bit nicer than his opening gambit. Still, on balance he makes us sound like 21st century variants of Dostoyevsky’s unpleasant character, well versed enough in modern technology to make our mark but consumed, at least some of us, with complaints and vitriol.

The Big Uneasy. Most people down here actively hate that trite bit of marketing nonsense Big Easy. But this play on it I rather like. It summarizes us all and where we live with a minimum of fuss. It fits in well with the neologisms of the NOLA Bloggers: Debrisville, Federal Flood, We Are Not OK. Rose has taken on for himself the stage role of Mr. Big Uneasy, beginning with a fabulous column he wrote back in the Fall of 2006 and later when he first dropped from the paper’s columns, then returned to publicly recount his struggle with depression.

In case you are not from around here, and fall into that group of fu——–, uh, I mean people who think that 1) New Orleans was wiped from the face of the earth two years ago by a vengeful god and is no longer your problem, or 2) everything down here in just peachy after Mardi Gras, the bowl championship game and NBA All-Stars, let me set the record straight: We Are Not OK. I am one of the few people I know not taking some sort of psychoactive meds to combat a condition I think strongly resembles combat fatigue as much as anything else. Chris Rose became the poster child for this condition, but he is one among tens upon tens of thousands.

Almost 1,000 days after the failure of the Federal levees life down here is still a struggle most Americans can’t imagine. For people who have invested themselves beyond just their own house and circle of friends and family, the people who have taken on in some small or large way the rebirth of the entire city, it can be as bleak at times as the denuded WWI battlescapes I believe the stage directions for Waiting for Godot were meant to invoke.

The thing is, Chris, you’re not unique; not in the way Ashley was unique. Most of us who write as you do, as we all do, about the city and our lives here share a common stage and read from the same script, function not as characters but as members of a chorus. We act from the same flaws and echo each other’s lines, waiting to share that moment of carthasis with the audience. Now Ashley, there was a character. When he walked onto the stage it was: cue the lights and orchestra (snare and kettledrum, fortissimo please). We’re glad you found him, sorry you missed knowing him, and appreciate that you helped to share his story to the larger world of newspaper readers.

He struggled as we all struggled, but as with everything else in his life he did it with more gusto that most. If he seemed at time cantankerous or misanthropic and downright cranky, he was entitled. We’re all entitled: you, too, Chris. The NOLA bloggers are not, however, the caricature of the cantankerous blogger: that 21st Century, Web. 2.0 version of the crank with a typewriter and a mimeo machine, guys who write and mass mail letters to every member of Congress, who litter coffee shops with uncollected petitions.

We are, as you admit in one moment, a lot like yourself. We are people who write about this city and the people in it, not for a living as you do but as a very important part of our lives, as one of the tethers for our sanity in this crazy place where It’s After the End of the World. We are underground men (and women), but not in the Dostoyevskyan sense. We are in part an underground resistance to the poor, lost fuckmooks on Perdido Street and everywhere you can find them, here and away; to the “shootings happen to someone else, to bad people but not to me” mind set; to the “charter schools are wonderful, just like Catholic school without the tuition or the knee patches and let the rest rot” view of the world; a resistance against anyone who would profit from our pain or settle for less than something better for New Orleans.

We’re not paragons, of virtue or anything else. We’re as dysfunctional a band as any mid-career high school class, mad as bats as often as not, cranky as an Ash Wednesday hangover and drunk 24-7 on the elixir of New Orleans.

Welcome to the underground.

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