I tend to be a little skeptical when a celebrity not known as a literary author comes out with a book or appears in a literary magazine. For the poetry of Jewel and T-Boz, or of Jack Palance (who gave a reading from his poems at my college years ago) I had very low expectations. These were clearly vanity publications. So when I recently saw that B.J. Novak, known primarily for his work on The Office, was this month’s author in one story and that in fact he had a collection of short stories coming out of which “A Good Problem to Have” was a member, I worried a little. Was one story – almost certainly my favorite of all the magazines I’ve subscribed to in the last decade — selling out by putting a non-literary celebrity’s name on their cover?

Anecdotally, there’s a little detail that lends some credence to the idea: Consider the end matter for the issue:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 39 December 30, 2013. ONE MORE THING by B.J. Novak. Copyright 2014 by B.J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Now compare that with the prior month’s copyright notice:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 38 December 2, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jen Fawkes. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to One Story, 232 Third Street, #A108, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

I thumbed through a handful of a dozen or so issues from the past year or so and found that almost without fail, the end matter read much more like the latter, with credit given to the author rather than a publishing house. This gels with the way that magazine publication often (not always) works. An author has a story accepted for publication at a magazine and only later assembles a group of stories into a collection for publication in book form, so that when the magazine publishes the story, the copyright notice lists the author rather than the publisher or a book title. So a copyright notice that lists a major publishing house and a book title is something of an anomaly in my recent experience with one story. This becomes important, so hang onto the fact for a moment.

Among the last dozen or so issues, there is one other exception to one story‘s usual copyright notice. In issue number 183, a story by the well known Elizabeth Gilbert is cited as an excerpt from her book The Signature of All Things. Gilbert announces her publication in one story here, and interestingly, she’s friends with the publishers and is listed in the magazine’s end matter as a sponsor. I’m not suggesting timely impropriety here; she’s listed as a sponsor going back well before her publication. Still, in two recent cases, we have celebrity status figures (vs. just well-known writers) headlining one story just as they have new books coming out. It smells just a little bit of large press sponsorship to me. Is it possible that Knopf and Viking have given one story money to shill for the well known authors of forthcoming books?

If so, I honestly have mixed feelings. It takes money to run magazines, and it’s clear from the donation and subscription solicitations I keep getting from one story that they’re not exactly rolling in dough. So on the one hand, who’s to blame the magazine if a Knopf or a Viking comes along with a fistful of cash in exchange for publication of the authors of reasonably good stories?

But on the other hand, what happens if the story quality suffers and the magazine begins to lose credibility as a source for good literature? I thought Gilbert’s story was pretty good. I knew Gilbert only because I had heard of the movie adaptation of her Eat, Pray, Love, and my expectations weren’t very high. I was pleasantly surprised by her story. When I saw Novak’s name on the cover of the magazine, my knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes. Surely this guy was a hack, and with a new book coming out, gracious me, was it possible that my favorite little magazine was selling out? But Novak’s not just a comedian. He studied at Harvard and had writing and producer credits on a very funny, popular television program. He is not without talent. I was skeptical but open-minded.

And boy was I pleased when I started reading his story! It centered on a very clever sort of creation story behind the old math problem about two trains traveling toward one another at different speeds. It was funny and had some heart. It was well written and had the promise to be a really fantastic story. And then it ended abruptly with a feeble callback to a statement made earlier in the story and with all its goodness left unrealized on the table.

A story as good as what I’m accustomed to reading in one story would have pretty well put aside my worries about what was beginning to seem like an occasional bit of quid pro quo with publishers who might be in a position to help a little magazine out (and again, who could blame the long-suffering magazine?). But I don’t think Novak’s story should have made the cut. Or, it had plenty of potential but needed a lot of editing before making the cut.

Of course, there’s the problem. Think back to my description of the way magazine and book publication often work. Vetting by magazines happens first, and the books that stories ultimately make it into acknowledge the magazines for their initial publication of the work. Magazine editors have the opportunity to work with an author to polish a story and bring it up to snuff, and in fact, I’ve read accounts from one story authors describing how useful that process has been to the improvement of their work. I imagine this is a big part of why the stories in one story tend to be so consistently good.

But if a story is already ready for press in book form and the book publisher offers it to a magazine, it seems likely that the magazine will have a reduced privilege to make editorial suggestions. Of course, I don’t know anything at all about the life cycle of Novak’s story, but it’s hard for me not to think that because the piece made its unfortunately abortive way into a book and was then offered to the magazine, one story pretty much had to take it as it was, and as a result, the magazine this month featured an inferior story.

This all makes me feel pretty sad. For one thing, I think that with better editing and a jaunt through the usual publication meat grinder, Novak’s story might have been a great deal better. It could have been a wonderful piece, in his hands or the hands of another who’d thought it up and done it full justice. So there is a horrible waste at hand here. Skirting the standard editorial process here diminished his achievement. I also feel like Novak’s fame more than his ability may have played a role in his sudden publication of a book of unvetted stories. He reportedly got a seven-figure deal for the book this story will appear in and a second book. As far as I know, otherwise unproven authors aren’t generally entitled to such deals, so it’s hard to figure the deal arose from much beyond his reputation as a comedic actor and writer — which is fine but which doesn’t mean he’s entitled to a literary stage for ultimately sub-par work. And of course I mourn one story‘s involvement for two reasons. First, I hate that a quality magazine has to (if I have things right) make deals with publishers to peddle the work of celebrity authors with forthcoming books (as if taking money from amazon.com, which has done much to kill small presses, wasn’t indignity enough). And second, I’m sad that for the first time since I’ve been a subscriber (admittedly only a year or two), the magazine has published a prose story that I really thought wasn’t worthy of the magazine (and, worse, that it might have been).

I suppose I’ve offered qualifications enough, but just to be clear, I have no insight into what deals one story may have made with any publishing houses. I may be wearing a tin-foil hat, and everything herein that’s not verifiable should be considered utter speculation, the ravings of a crank. I actually really hope I’ve got a lot wrong, that somebody will tell me what I’m misunderstanding about Novak’s story that makes it great.

If there is something a little opportunistic going on here, it’s left me very much on the fence with regard to Novak. I sort of want to read his book, but I also really sort of don’t now. Maybe I’ll choose to believe that one story has had its cake and eaten it too here, benefiting from a sort of payola while sending a coded message to its discriminating readers, by publishing a sub-par story, that the cited collection was not worth reading and the acceptance of the work one purely of financial necessity rather than a lapse in editorial judgment or a full-on sellout.

I’ve painted a lot of rooms in my years as a homeowner (and as a friend to other homeowners), but I do so at infrequent enough intervals, that I often forget what wisdom I’ve accumulated over time. This led recently to mistakes requiring repainting, which sucked. So I here memorialize some techniques I used to great success with some fairly tricky paint jobs over the last week.

My house has a tall entryway with walls that I guess must be 17 or 18 feet from floor to ceiling and a stairway that makes three turns up to the second floor. Painting this area was a bit of a different beast than just rolling a standard room with four walls and 8-foot ceilings, and the first time I did it, I did it wrong.

I borrowed a couple of ladders so that I could reach the high spots. I also got a long pole that my painting tools screw into. I never extended the thing all the way, but I think it goes to something like 15 feet long. Of course, it’s pretty unwieldy at that length. For my first try at painting the entry, I used a paint pad instead of a roller, as it supposedly made for a smooth application, and I thought it would do well for edging without having to climb all the way to the top of the ladder, which is no fun if you’re not too keen on heights, and all the less fun if you’re working over a hardwood floor. The pad did seem like a good idea while I was painting. The paint went on smoothly, and I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of edging, but later it was apparent that I hadn’t done so well after all. The top of the pad had been even with the ceiling, but it wasn’t actually applying paint, a fact that wasn’t apparent at the time because the paint colors were very similar but that was glaringly obvious later once the slightly darker paint had dried. I had also gone back over a few spots on the wall where I thought my application hadn’t been good enough, and these dried as streaky patches that just would not do.

I made some mistakes with my tools. First there was the pad. But also my method of using the pole just wasn’t good. Often I found myself painting (thanks in part to the way the pad brush’s handle was angled) with the pole at a more horizontal angle than was optimal, resulting in uneven pressure and a bad paint job. The edges looked horrible and the walls looked very amateurish in places, though not quite horrible. I was going to have to sort out a way of salvaging the walls.

The next day, I had the standard height upstairs walls to paint, and I decided to try rolling those instead of using the pad. I’ve rolled walls a million times, but, again, it had been a while, and I made some mistakes here as well. A few times, I saw spots that I felt like I hadn’t rolled well enough, so I went back and took another swipe or two with the roller. The problem was that they had already partially dried, so I now had a very uneven application that looked really bad. So I went and read a few things and figured out how to improve my technique.

The terminology you hear is to paint with a leading wet edge. This means basically that you start in a corner and roll from top to bottom if possible (no W rolling), then move over and roll the next column. This lets the roller blend the edge smoothly, so that the only seam that’s ever apparent is the one at the leading, wet edge of your paint job. Although we’ve long done the cut-in-first approach, some suggest cutting in as you go so that you’re always blending wet paint with wet and minimizing ugly overlap thanks to paint at significantly different stages of dryness.

When I went back to repair the entryway, I had lost access to the tall ladders, so I had to telescope my paint pole and use my 7-foot ladder. I started at an edge and used the leading wet edge approach, rolling with generous paint thickness and little pressure. I would roll from the top to as far down as the extended pole would allow, then roll the next vertical strip, blending nicely as I went. I’d do as many of these as I could without moving the ladder, and then I’d roll the next tier down, along the same width. I worked directly underneath the surface I was painting, vs. being farther out from the wall and having to fight gravity as I tried to extend the pole to reach areas with the badly angled pad. I worked in this fashion from one edge of the wall to the other, and I have a nearly perfect paint job. It also went a lot faster. Later in the process, I tended more toward rolling the full vertical length before doing the next column in hopes of avoiding horizontal seams thanks to different dry rates.

I went back and rolled the botched upstairs in the same way, with the same great result.

Having now given a surprisingly and boringly detailed account of how I messed up and then fixed my walls, I’ll part with a few quick tips I’ve picked up.

  • Don’t bother with tape. Wall paint wipes off molding and even hardwood floors pretty easily if you get it right away with a damp cloth. Tape is a big waste of time and can peel your paint if you remove it too early and have applied the paint too thickly.
  • I like to use a pad to cut in the ceiling, as I have a pretty shaky hand with a brush. In the future, I think I’ll try cutting in as I go, vs. cutting a room completely in before rolling.
  • I learned this time that rollers are better than pads for big wall surfaces.
  • Don’t press hard with the roller. You’ll get streaks. Just use enough paint in the first place, apply smoothly, and roll gently to spread it around. Do as many vertical stripes as you can with the wet brush to get a reasonable first covering with paint, then do more vertical blending swipes.
  • Don’t overwork the roller (or your arm). In the past, I think I’ve done a lot more rolling than was really necessary to get a smooth application. Again, use enough paint to begin with, so that you don’t spend so much time spreading too-thin paint around.
  • Don’t stop in the middle of a wall if you can help it.
  • If you see that you missed a spot, don’t go back and dab at it unless it’s still good and freshly wet. It’ll leave a mark or a streak otherwise.
  • Work quickly so that you’re always working with freshly wet edges that blend smoothly.

Hopefully I’ll remember all of this for the next time I paint. If not, at least it’s written down now. If you made it this far, you’re an indulgent friend (and you have my apologies), a desperate amateur home painter, or a future me.

I spent some time today thinking and writing about the recently announced movie, entitled The End of the Tour, that will dramatize the events of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book is an edited transcript of a road trip Lipsky took with David Foster Wallace on the Infinite Jest book tour. I’ve written extensively about Wallace elsewhere and occasionally here.

One of the things I’ve struggled to remember when writing about Wallace was when exactly I first got my hands on Infinite Jest. Of course I knew it was in college over some Christmas break, but I couldn’t remember the year. Fairly recently, I was able to recover some ancient email archives, and today I thought to check for any references to the book therein. I found one!

The reference lies in an email to one Jim Standish, dated January 2, 1998. So I will have gotten the book at Christmas of 1997. The relevant passage goes as follows:

I had such high reading ambitions for the break. I got through some Milton, a smidge of Eliot, most of a book on WCW, a few of Pound’s poems, and a fair amount of his prose. But I was hoping to get through PARADISE LOST at least two times, and I only managed one reading. Plus there’s a book on Stuart England that I wanted to finish besides reading most of Eliot’s poetry. What sidetracked me was a literary Christmas. My sis gave me three small books about language, two of them more glossaries than anything else, and a big fat fiction book. She remarked that it seemed like all I ever read was literary stuff and she wanted to make me slow down for some contemporary fiction. The book is about 1100 big pages long (100 of ‘em end notes in about 6 point font) and is called INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace. It’s been slow going, but worth it. I lack about 98 pages, and I’m pretty much in awe of the discipline required to put together such a complex work. Makes me feel inadequate for my struggles with coherent 18-line poems. So I’m glad to have been exposed to the book, but I hate that my academic reading’s been postponed.

Jim was a fellow I met on a Usenet group dedicated to poetry, which I was pretty into at the time. So the reading references may seem pretentious but were at least earnest and relevant, as Jim and I were in the habit of swapping reading lists and discussing what we were reading. I really enjoyed being pen-pals with him and have often regretted that our correspondence petered out not too long after I graduated. He was old — apparently sort of a long-time staple in the Stanford poetry scene — and died sometime in the five years or so following my graduation.

I write about this discovery in my email trove so that I can get back to it easily the next time I find myself wondering when exactly it was that I first picked up Infinite Jest.

The November edition of Harper’s included a story by Joye Carol Oates entitled “Lovely, Dark, Deep” that has had many in a bit of an uproar. If you’ve retained much of what you read in high school or college English, you’ll recognize the story title as a borrowing from a line of Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The story grips you right away, bringing you in as a voyeur as you join an interviewer who comes across the venerated man himself asleep and in disarray, and very human (which is hard to imagine of the famous). Frost bloviates and insults the female interviewer, even makes sexual innuendoes. He says predictable, rehearsed things he’s said in a thousand interviews, shows no little degree of hubris, and winds up showing himself to be ruthless and un-self-aware.

Toward the end of the story, the first-person narrator, whose boldness has grown during the story to the point that she ultimately begins needling Frost aggressively, turns into a third-person narrator. By the very end, she has disappeared altogether, leaving Frost stumbling around the yard jabbering to himself about demons until he falls and is collected by others on the grounds of Breadloaf who find him there. Notably, he has by this time begun expressing some self-doubt; he’s not a changed man by any stretch of the imagination, and he continues to puff himself up a bit as well, but there is at least a sense of rue, an acknowledgment perhaps of fallibility that has so far been missing.

The story, offered as the fiction it clearly is but citing some controversial biographical work on Frost as source material, is about as far from a love song to Frost as you can get.

And of course many have jumped on Oates for writing the thing and on Harper’s for publishing it. I’ll confess that my own feelings when reading the piece ranged from a sort of voyeuristic and probably vulturish curiosity (maybe the author had had such an experience herself and had some dirt to dish on old Uncle Poet!) to indignation at his behavior, which seemed possibly at least partly based on facts, to pity. I’m not sure what to make of the story. I don’t think it’s strictly a revenge piece. If it were, why endow Frost with any humanity at all rather than making him a monster pretty much all the way through the piece? And why would Harper’s publish a revenge piece (unless it’s Lapham writing about a Republican or something)? But what to make of it?

For the moment, I’m giving Oates the benefit of the doubt. Consider the shift in point of view and the disappearance of the narrator by the end (I’m not left with the impression that she walked away so much as that she faded out of the story — that is to say that she didn’t in fact exist to begin with). Consider the fact that the story opens with Frost asleep and ends with him raving on the lawn, perhaps still waking from a tormented sleep. For me, the story works pretty well as a plumbing of the old subconscious. When alone with our thoughts, we think and give mental (if not physical) voice to things we would never say aloud. We may puff ourselves up a bit about our accomplishments or linger on dirty jokes or less than flattering or chaste thoughts. Sometimes we’ll think about our failings. As often as not, we’ll start with puffery and end in doubt and despair.

So maybe it makes sense to think of the story as a portrayal of a great and probably misunderstood man grappling in a troubled sleep toward the end of his life with his successes and his regrets, with how they fit together. It’s a topic worth writing about, however controversial it may be when presented in a way that’s reasonably interpreted as a sort of defamation. But maybe that’s part of the point too. Even the greatest among us, and so on.

My wife requested pineapple upside down cake for her birthday, and even though it’s a day early, the kids and I decided the birthday weekend was a good enough excuse to make the cake a day early. I think we’ll be skipping over the remnants of two Thanksgiving pies already in the fridge to give this sucker some attention tonight.


Borges, Collected FictionsSome books you can’t make yourself put down, and others you can’t make yourself pick up. Gass’s The Tunnel ruined reading for me for months because I didn’t feel like I could read anything else until I finished it, and I couldn’t bear to read much of it at a time. Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions I carried around like some sort of a curse for a couple of weeks. These are books that you feel like you ought to read, that you know people admire, that you really do want to get through, that you know are probably good for you, but that just don’t do it for you.

I finally finished the Borges today and really don’t understand the fascination people have for him. His is a name you hear with awe and respect. I had meant to read him for years and was finally nudged into doing so upon reading several references to him in a John Barth essay collection recently. The Barth also nudged me to read Don Quixote, which I enjoyed a lot, and The Thousand Nights and a Night, which will take a good long time but which I’m digging. So I was optimistic about Borges.

His stories seem to take a few forms:

  • History (usually about gauchos or knife fighting or Argentenian politics) retold.
  • Revenge plots (some overlap with the history here).
  • Brief philosophical or mystical musings that fall really flat.
  • Fantasies.

The first three varieties generally don’t much interest me. I don’t have a head for or a particular interest in history or politics, and though the knife-fighting gauchos make for an occasional fun (if oddly subdued) read, I don’t need a dozen of them. The fantasies, and particular those that touch on the infinite and on doubling, are the stories that required less of a stiff upper lip for me to get through. Even those sometimes Borges delivers in a way that winds up feeling sort of deflated. He’s a master of telling a story and then adding a punchy closing line that wrecks the whole thing. In the shorter mystical pieces, he has a way of making simple statements about things and then adding a feeble flourish that seems designed to make you think the story is deep, but to me, it comes off pretty badly, as if he’s a magician doing the thumb-removal trick we all learned as kids and finishing with a big “ta-da” and a deep bow. His tricks, in other words, don’t merit nearly the response he seems to expect. It’s pretty annoying.

The later work appealed to me more than the earlier work, as evidenced by the sharply increasing frequency of dog-eared stories toward the end of the book. I dog-eared nothing until nearly halfway through the book, when I was struck by “The Zahir.” Others that I liked to some degree or another include the following:

  • The Aleph
  • The Interloper
  • The Encounter
  • The Gospel According to Mark
  • Brodie’s Report
  • The Other
  • The Book of Sand
  • Blue Tigers

The penultimate collection, The Book of Sand, is the strongest in the book.

A few references in Barth’s book aside, I’ve studiously avoided reading any criticism or even biographical information about Borges in hopes that I could form my own opinion unsullied. My opinion’s obviously not very high. I’ll be curious now to read a bit to discover all the ways in which my opinion is ill-informed and unjust; I’m sure there must be much to Borges that I’m missing. He seems to have been an awfully smart man, just not one whose fictions struck me in general as being as great as a whole as I gather they’re trumped up to be. I’m glad I read the book, and I’ll likely revisit a few of those dog-eared pieces. I’m also glad to be done with the book and eager to move on.

My 9-year-old daughter recently brought home an essay she had written in school that I liked quite a lot. The argument lacks nuance, and there’s a minor grammatical stumble or two, but I really love the spirit of the piece and thought I’d share it.

Have you ever seen those big, strong women on the Olympics? Did you notice that they are not allowed to compete with men? The reason different genders have been segregated is that many people think that men are better at sports as women. It is my opinion that they are the same.

Although men think that they are better at sports than women, there are many incredible female athletes who could easily beat a man. Here are some examples: Charlotte Cooper was the first woman in Paris, France to win an Olympic title. Wilma Rudolph was one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She won three gold medals!

Men think that they are bigger and better than women. I know that this is not true. My dad plays softball on a team. There are often women playing with him that are way better than him (sorry dad).

Many girls are as good as boys. Some are even better. Boys, you had better watch out.

A few weeks ago, my daughter had an opportunity to play Ultimate Frisbee with another girl or two and a bunch of boys. At the end, one of the boys taunted the losing team with their having been beaten by a girl (in spite of the fact that both teams had girls on them — talk about an argument lacking nuance!). My daughter was not just rightfully outraged but simply didn’t understand how one could come to say such a thing. She was incredulous that the thought could have crossed someone’s mind. This makes me feel pretty good about our parenting in at least this department. In spite of every thoughtless thing in the world suggesting that women are worth less than men, my daughter finds it inconceivable that anyone could think such a thing.

I am a little disappointed that in her argument, she says “many girls are as good as boys” and “some are even better.” I can’t decide whether she’s actually lapsing into the position here that only a subset of women can be as good as or better than men at things or whether she’s just using sloppy language (or perhaps a sort of intentional rhetoric that’s less troubling in other contexts). I suppose the ambiguity gives me an opportunity to raise the issue and reinforce the feminist perspective. In spite of any little bugaboos, I loved reading this.


I spent last week in Mexico with a couple of other small teams from work. It rained a bit and was otherwise super humid, but we had some great weather as well, and some memorable meals. We took one day off to drive a few hours to Chichèn Itzá, a well-known Mayan temple that did not disappoint. I took precious few pictures during the trip but did snap a few of the ruins. Because I don’t like taking pictures of strangers (not much enjoying having my picture taken, especially not by strangers), I didn’t take any photos of the shockingly numerous vendors of trinkets. Dozens of people hawked things like magnets, wooden masks, and jewelry, and everywhere their refrains rang out: “one dollar” and “almost free.” One guy even gave me the nickname “Mr. Whiskers.”

Over the last couple of nights, I’ve learned something about my reading preferences. For a long time, I’ve held that I don’t have much interest in things like character and plot. I’m drawn much more to the way in which the words are put on the page or in there being something innovative about the approach. Even innovation itself isn’t a first concern for me. For example, while I sort of enjoyed House of Leaves, I found it more annoying than likable; innovation of its sort doesn’t appeal to me. Similarly, while I find Cloud Atlas‘s nesting of genre, time, and characters pretty fascinating, it’s really that amazing middle section with its distinctive style that floated my boat about Mitchell’s book.

So primarily, I’ve thought, it comes down to style. Write your book in lovely prose and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll hook me. This may be part of why I’m no great fan of Franzen, for example. His prose tends to be more utilitarian, however well he attends with a comfortable sort of realism (some hold; I don’t) to the sorts of lives midwesterners live and how they endure crisis. I just read The Great Gatsby, and in spite of being prepared for a stinker of a story with dull characters, the style ran away with me and I deemed it a really solid book in spite of any of its other warts.

This week, I started reading The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (more widely known as The Arabian Nights), translated by Richard Burton. The book is sort of double-damned style-wise, since it’s both a translation and is translated in a suitably archaic style. I tend not to trust works in translation too much, figuring that it must be awfully hard to capture style in another language. How can I know that I’m reading anything resembling what the original author wrote? And if I’m looking for lovely or innovative formal things in Burton’s prose, well, it’s just not really there so far. It’s a pleasant translation, but it’s nothing to write home about in terms of pure style. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a 120-year-old translation of an ancient text.

But I’m really loving this book! I think we all probably have a general idea that the book is a series of Arabian tales, but I hadn’t known until I recently read some of John Barth’s glosses of it that it was a set of framed or nested stories in which a doomed concubine cleverly tries to avoid execution by her king by telling stories in which the characters often engage in similar life-saving cleverness of their own. And the heroes of these stories tell nested stories to boot. I think Barth wrote that the level of nesting in the book winds up going six or seven deep at some point.

So, with its fine but unremarkable style, what attraction can this book possibly have for a reader with an acknowledged lack of interest in matters of plot or character? Well, I guess it’s the cleverness, the playfulness. Come to think of it, the sense of play in Barth’s books is what keeps me coming back to them, even when I don’t love the story or his way of putting the words on the page. Well now I’m suffering a minor crisis of understanding: Is it style or cleverness that most drives my interest in a text? Is style perhaps merely a sort of cleverness? Maybe I’m trying to create a relationship here where none exists. At any rate, it’s fun to have discovered a book that confounds my sense of why I like the things I like, that makes me think about why I’m liking what I’m liking rather than just sticking to the pretentious old “blah blah style blah blah” story I’ve been hung up on for a long time now.

This summer, I attended a really good local conference called CodeStock at which I also sat in on what turned out to be a really bad session on being a remote worker. The original speaker for the session wound up not showing, so someone representing one of the conference sponsors stepped in to lead the session, since there was interest. So it was understandable that he didn’t have a bunch of information prepared. But he had worked mostly from a home office for a while, and he managed a remote team, so he felt equipped to lead a chat on the topic.

The problem was that he didn’t have a real understanding of how remote work ought to function. His advice seemed mostly to include ways of trying to shoehorn in-office work into a remote-office scenario. His approach, in other words, was to try to make working remotely mirror as closely as possible the experience of working from an office. I disagreed vociferously with nearly everything the man said, and it was all I could do to avoid rolling around on the ground in despair. I’ve worked from a home office for nearly a decade with companies that really embrace remote work as a new type of work rather than as a mere perk for workers, and so I figured that my experience probably wasn’t terribly relevant for the others in the session, who would likely be in just the type of environment the leader gleefully perpetrated and who gobbled up his well-meaning advice. I kept mum and swallowed my despair.

I’ve worked at Automattic for approaching three years now. We’re a fully distributed company, with employees happily working from at least a couple of dozen countries. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked, and I’ve been really happy at a couple of my other jobs. For a few months of my first year at Automattic, I worked with Scott Berkun, who has recently published an account of his time there in the form of a book titled The Year Without Pants.

I should go ahead and confess that this isn’t generally my sort of book. I like to read fiction, usually the more ponderous and confusing the better, and business books just don’t interest me a whole lot. I don’t have mental bandwidth for them. Still, it’s a book about my company and a book that — since I worked with Scott a little on a project to encourage people to blog daily — it was infinitesimally possible I might get a brief mention in (I don’t). So, tailor your reception of my brief review with this confession about my qualification for reading the genre in mind. My view of the book is that of an insider and not of a particular expert on business books.

Of course, being an insider makes the book hard to judge in a meaningful way. I know the people discussed in the book. I spent a few days last week actually hanging out with them at a company meetup, in fact (I’m famous by proxy!). And just as you hardly recognize your recorded voice as your own, it’s hard to know whether what someone writes about your company squares with 100% faithfulness to the company as you know it. Does the book have it wrong or do I?

Some of what Scott writes does seen genuinely wrong, or at least betrays a net cast too wide. For example, in writing about development process, he makes the unqualified statement that our method is to write a launch post prior to beginning feature development. This isn’t something I’ve ever done, though doubtless other teams within the company have.

Scott writes largely about the team he led while at Automattic, and I feel at times as if he assumes that team’s method of working represented that of the company as a whole. Whether he does so out of editorial expediency or out of myopia it’s hard to say. If it’s a defect, it’s a small one.

I don’t feel as if the book ultimately lives up to the promise of its subtitle (“WordPress.com and the future of work”). As a reader of a business book (if not an expert such reader), I expect something of a payoff or prescription for how the sort of work done at WordPress.com is leaching into the larger occupational consciousness, or of how other companies might emulate the Automattic work experience. The book does include three chapters that purport to make a sort of prescription, but the prescription is pretty squishy (necessarily — it’s the nature of the beast), and the chapters seem tucked into a book that mostly stands well enough on its own as a document describing Scott’s experience at Automattic. In other words, the book feels a bit like a memoir that got hammered sort of halfway into something that could be sold as a business book. I think I would have preferred straight memoir.

As semi-memoir, it’s a nice read. The affection Scott had for his team shines through, and the book shows enough of the work process to be instructive and thus not dismissed as pure personal fluff. You get a sense of the friendships that form at Automattic, which are unlike any I’ve had at past jobs (however much I genuinely like many of my past coworkers).

Put enough smart, compassionate, passionate people together in a company and great things happen. This is why Automattic is a great place to work. Scott touches on the fact and illustrates it in his portrayal of how his team was built and how they bonded and grew. I don’t think there’s a recipe for making a great distributed company, or if there is, it’s something vague like “use great ingredients,” which doesn’t make for a highly marketable business book.

If I weren’t an Automattic insider, I don’t know honestly whether I would have enjoyed Scott’s book or not. Chances are that I would have found it fairly interesting to read some of the stories he tells about individuals and gatherings. Chances are that I would have found some of the few prescriptions (e.g. “hire great people” and “set good priorities”) pretty disappointing, if inevitable and actually correct.

Read the book if you’re curious about Automattic and how we work, and I imagine you’ll find it interesting. If you’re looking for a cure-all for how to build a company, you’re probably doing it wrong to begin with, though maybe there’s something useful in Scott’s book at least in its portrayal of how one company has had great success with the distributed model. I don’t have enough distance from the subject matter to say much else, other than that Automattic is hiring.