Friday, April 30, 2010

Reading for the sheer pleasure of it all

This week's question: Does being a writer change the way you read for pleasure?

By Shane

Clearly, that's not me in the skirt. I don't have the legs.

But the answer's still the same:

Yup. Being a writer changes the way I read for pleasure.

Sometimes, it makes the books better.

Sometimes, worse: That verb could have punchier. This adjective is too arch. Lose the adverbs and the pace will race. That's an awesome character name; I hate you!!! (And, how do I steal it for my next book?) Geez, what a lame-o plot, I knew by the third page that this dog was gonna lift its leg and pee on The End . . .

In other words, I mind-edit every ^&$#% sentence I read.

The better: I know how hard it is to write a book, so it magnifies the pleasure of coming across an astonishing word-portrait. Almost every book out there--even lousy ones that should be donated to the Salvation Army before Chapter Two--has at least one truly nice word painting. Books by writers like John Sandford have them on every page, sometimes every paragraph. Being a writer gives me an appreciation for the craft of writing, for the power of the perfectly chosen word. So it enhances the pleasure of my reading experience.

Unless, of course, said book involves a (take a deep breath) gorgeous FBI agent who's so desperate to have a baby that the unibrow'd kidnapper she's chasing gives her mommy issues so she pulls her Glock and flicks off the safety even though Glocks have no safeties but the kidnapper turns out to be a brilliant Russian-Israeli secret agent who's really on her side so they join hands to defeat the real bad guy, who's the vice president of the United States . . . no, wait, it's the veep's body double! And then they tumble into bed all lathered up from the whiny-white-guy song titled in the lead-up but have a violent argument before Love's Sweet Release and she stalks out nekked and he gets shot by the madman who was hiding in the closet shooting a porno and she feels responsible so they whack the madman and have make-up sex but Himbo's not wearing even a Band-Aid though he was shot 107 gazillion times with a machine gun ...

In that case, I've got a migraine the size of Toledo from all that mind-editing.

If I haven't sprained my wrist throwing the book across the room.


Following is one of the best explanations I've read yet of how Goldman Sachs and its Ayn Rand-inspired ilk caused our current Second Great Depression. (My term, SGD. To call what we are going through "a recession" is to call the Nazis a political party.) Here, Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi argues that the investment bank’s cult of self-interest is on trial against the whole idea of Civilization--the collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even if we can. Even if you don't agree with them, Taibbi's polemics are brilliantly written, which is why I bring them to you today. He's a Brit, so I don't know what his references "s" and "s and s" mean, but it's some sort of reference to the recent past, probably the Reagan era, where America's "greed is good" mantra became most inflamed with the deregulation of everything from savings and loans (remember that collapse?) to Ma Bell. Enjoy!

So Goldman Sachs, the world’s greatest and smuggest investment bank, has been sued for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Legally, the case hangs on a technicality.

Morally, however, the Goldman Sachs case may turn into a final referendum on the greed-is-good ethos that conquered America sometime in the s- and in the years since has aped other horrifying American trends such as boy bands and reality shows in spreading across the western world like a venereal disease.

When Britain and other countries were engulfed in the flood of defaults and derivative losses that emerged from the collapse of the American housing bubble two years ago, few people understood that the crash had its roots in the lunatic greed-centered objectivist religion, fostered back in the s and s by ponderous emigre novelist Ayn Rand.

While, outside of America, Russian-born Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilisation has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom.

Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who’ve never read her books or even heard of her. The right-wing “Tea Party” movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.

Last summer, I wrote a brutally negative article about Goldman Sachs for Rolling Stone magazine (I called the bank a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”) that unexpectedly sparked a heated national debate. On one side of the debate were people like me, who believed that Goldman is little better than a criminal enterprise that earns its billions by bilking the market, the government, and even its own clients in a bewildering variety of complex financial scams.

On the other side of the debate were the people who argued Goldman wasn’t guilty of anything except being “too smart” and really, really good at making money. This side of the argument was based almost entirely on the Randian belief system, under which the leaders of Goldman Sachs appear not as the cheap swindlers they look like to me, but idealised heroes, the saviours of society.

In the Randian ethos, called objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (ie, the rich) and the “parasites” and “moochers” who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics.

Rand believed government had virtually no natural role in society. She conceded that police were necessary, but was such a fervent believer in laissez-faire capitalism she refused to accept any need for economic regulation - which is a fancy way of saying we only need law enforcement for unsophisticated criminals.

Rand’s fingerprints are all over the recent Goldman story. The case in question involves a hedge fund financier, John Paulson, who went to Goldman with the idea of a synthetic derivative package pegged to risky American mortgages, for use in betting against the mortgage market. Paulson would short the package, called Abacus, and Goldman would then sell the deal to suckers who would be told it was a good bet for a long investment.

The SEC’s contention is that Goldman committed a crime - a “failure to disclose” - when they failed to tell the suckers about the role played by the vulture betting against them on the other side of the deal.

Now, the instruments in question in this deal - collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps - fall into the category of derivatives, which are virtually unregulated in the US thanks in large part to the effort of gremlinish former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who as a young man was close to Rand and remained a staunch Randian his whole life.

In the late s, Greenspan lobbied hard for the passage of a law that came to be called the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act of 2000, a monster of a bill that among other things deregulated the sort of interest-rate swaps Goldman used in its now-infamous dealings with Greece.

Both the Paulson deal and the Greece deal were examples of Goldman making millions by bending over their own business partners. In the Paulson deal the suckers were European banks such as ABN-Amro and IKB, which were never told that the stuff Goldman was cheerfully selling to them was, in effect, designed to implode; in the Greece deal, Goldman hilariously used exotic swaps to help the country mask its financial problems, then turned right around and bet against the country by shorting Greece’s debt.

Now here’s the really weird thing. Confronted with the evidence of public outrage over these deals, the leaders of Goldman will often appear to be genuinely confused, scratching their heads and staring quizzically into the camera like they don’t know what you’re upset about. It’s not an act. There have been a lot of greedy financiers and banks in history, but what makes Goldman stand out is its truly bizarre cultist/religious belief in the rightness of what it does.

The point was driven home in England last year, when Goldman’s international adviser, sounding exactly like a character in Atlas Shrugged, told an audience at St Paul’s Cathedral that “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest”. A few weeks later, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein told the Times that he was doing “God’s work”.

Even if he stands to make a buck at it, even your average used-car salesman won’t sell some working father a car with wobbly brakes, then buy life insurance policies on that customer and his kids. But this is done almost as a matter of routine in the financial services industry, where the attitude after the inevitable pileup would be that that family was dumb for getting into the car in the first place. Caveat emptor, dude!

People have to understand this Randian mindset is now ingrained in the American character. You have to live here to see it. There’s a hatred toward “moochers” and “parasites” - the Tea Party movement, which is mainly a bunch of pissed off suburban white people whining about minorities consuming social services, describes the battle as being between “water-carriers” and “water-drinkers”. And regulation of any kind is deeply resisted, even after a disaster as sweeping as the 2008 crash.

This debate is going to be crystallised in the Goldman case. Much of America is going to reflexively insist that Goldman’s only crime was being smarter and better at making money than IKB and ABN-Amro, and that the intrusive, meddling government (in the American narrative, always the bad guy!) should get off Goldman’s Armani-clad back.

Another side is going to argue that Goldman winning this case would be a rebuke to the whole idea of civilisation - which, after all, is really just a collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even when we can. It’s an important moment in the history of modern global capitalism: whether or not to move forward into a world of greed without limits.

Matt Taibbi is a political reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, a sports columnist for Men’s Journal, and he also writes books for a Random House imprint called Spiegel and Grau. Visit his blog at The above article was posted at Information Clearing House.


All right, all right, it's Friday. Your reward for having read all that serious stuff is this, one of the worst chase scenes ever shown in a real movie that wasn't a spoof of real movies: the 1973 action-packer "Hard Streets." Grab yer popcorn and . . . action!

Shane Gericke is keen for you to see the fancy word-paintings in his new book, TORN APART, which launches at ThrillerFest on July 6, and did he mention he's festival chairman this year so you should come to the party and say hello? Please visit him at, where you can read an excerpt of TORN APART (but not ThrillerFest, for which there is no excerpt cause it's not a book though if someone paid Shane enough he'd certainly turn it into one and he thinks he's finally at 1,000 words so he can quit typing, phew) for FREE.

Hey, we all like free.


Mysti Lou said...

The one thing Brits and many others fail to realize is that we are in fact a polymorphic culture, and just because 37 yahoos out in Pleasanton are stumping for a Tea Party whose leaders will steal from them much faster than socialism can creep forward, there are those of us who read Ayn Rand in 7th Grade and then grew the hell up.

I love that they are going after Goldman on the simple basic level of "you can't sell people stuff that you know is crap without telling them, say, this is crap."

I don't know how the greedheads managed to convince so many middle-class Americans to identify with them, but they did it (much the way American Express makes people like me think if I get an AE card, I'm SOMEONE, when in reality I'm just someone with an over-expensive card)...

Anyway, sheer stockings (which I first typed as shear stalkings) and Goldman critique all in one post. Love you Shane!


Terry Stonecrop said...

Great post and article, thanks.I'm with you on the tanked economy and Rand.

I tend to read foreign news to get a better grasp of what is going on here.

Nice black stockings, btw. You have such sophisticated taste!

Shane Gericke said...

Love ya back, Mysti!!

In no particular order:

Shear stalkings. Wasn't that a summer TV show on some cable network a few years back?

Ayn Rand. Most profound thing I recall about Ayn besides what a silly way to spell her name was how she bored me half to death with ponderousness. I got what she was saying about self-interest being good above all. I didn't buy it then, don't buy it now. But I also read Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, the Bible, bomb-making books, The Secret, and the backs of cereal boxes. Don't take any of them as gospel, either, pardon the expression. It's information and points of view, pure and simple. So like you, I have no idea why people over there think 200 million Americans think alike on everything.

My thumbnail theory on Civilization: Ninety percent of America is perfectly sane and sober. The other ten percent get on TV. That's what's really wrong with our culture today: those 37 yahoos in Pleasanton are ALL that show up on television these days. Including and particularly in newscasts.

Normal people are driven out because only Angry White Screamin' Yokkers need apply. So all the world sees of us is Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, that whackadoodle U.S. rep in Minnesota, and other tea- and gas-baggers. (I'm sure there are liberal looney tunes I could cite, too, but I can't think of any cause they're not on TV!)

The printed and electronic media have ceased showing the world that we are a serious culture, and it's a shame. Except for the silk stockings. To me, that's DAMN serious :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Terry, I learned my sophistication at the knees of guys named Sonny and Spike and Danger, who ran the garage where I worked during college. The porn on the walls alone would take your breath away. Well, it took mine, young goober that I was then. (Now I'm an old goober.) Then they made me help them steal an air-conditioner from a construction trailer cause Sonny was too cheap to buy one, but security came around and lordy what a--

But that's another story :-)