Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Scott Thomas Affair at the New Republic -- maybe a different take

My agent always urges me to provide a sound bite version of any idea I put out in public. I don't actually think there are very many interesting ideas that fit into sound bites, but here's the short version for those of you without much in the way of attention spans, followed by an explanation laying it out in some detail (and including some of that scary semiotic stuff I do for business and industry, along with a bit about writing and publishing these days):

Based on a mix of semiotic analysis and my seat of the pants experience as a frequent reader of professional and near-professional writing by new writers, my guess is this: I think "Scott Thomas" is actually an MFA writing student, or a recent graduate of such a program, probably with some military experience – he may be serving in some non-combat specialty in Iraq – probably from one of the elite MFA programs, the twenty or so from which college creative writing faculty and small-press staff come disproportionately. I also think I know how his piece came to be published in New Republic, in outline if not in detail, and that story will also be somewhat instructive and revealing.

All right, that was the bite, here's the meal:

There has been a great deal of uproar in the last few days over who or what "Scott Thomas" is. (Aside from being the name of a really nice guy from my Boy Scout patrol when I was about twelve years old). I hadn't been paying much attention either, but it's the pseudonym of a writer who claims to be an American soldier currently serving in Iraq, whose byline has appeared on three articles in The New Republic in the last few months. Actually the only article by "Scott Thomas" that has drawn any real attention is the last one, "Shock Troops," about bad behavior by American troops, which has severely torqued off the right wing press and blogs for a variety of reasons.

Let me begin by stating up front that I'm fairly indifferent to the clash now embroiling The Weekly Standard, National Review, The New Republic, and swarms of mostly-conservative bloggers; I have a slightly different perspective, coming out of a background different from other people's. I think I have a pretty good guess as to who "Scott Thomas" is – not his identity but what sort of person the Thomas-hunters should be looking for -- based mainly on looking at his writing and at the social context of The New Republic from my unique perspective. I seriously doubt there is another consulting semiotician who is also a book doctor and part-time agency reader, and doubt even further that there is another one who has read "Thomas's" New Republic piece.

If you haven't read it, what all the uproar is about is that "Scott Thomas" recounts three anecdotes in "Shock Troops," in which Thomas claims to have witnessed (and perhaps participated in) three morally appalling incidents: mocking a female IED victim with severe facial burns, taking a part of an Iraqi child's skull from a mass grave and treating it as a toy or souvenir, and running over stray dogs with a Bradley for fun. Since the war currently has what the corporate types I have worked for might call a "major image problem," obviously this is very displeasing to supporters of the war, who are kicking up a fuss.

The fuss is easy to kick up and sustain because it has also become clear that in a host of factual matters, "Scott Thomas" seems to get things just slightly wrong – wrong in a way that suggests someone trying to do a good fake but without himself having the experience – and because Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, has been slow and lame in his defense of the story, claiming that it is hard to get hold of corroborating sources and of "Scott Thomas" himself in Iraq.

I just like a good mystery and I think "Scott Thomas" is apt to be outed anyway; furthermore, I think in running the story, the New Republic once again demonstrates why the whole center-Democrat DLC Clintonista armada offers nothing to any genuine radical of any stripe from green to red.

Let me begin with my qualifications, such as they are. I do critiques for literary agencies, covering mostly genre fiction and some literary fiction and non-fiction as well. I get a few dollars for answering the question, "Is there anything in this manuscript that indicates we ought to think about signing the author up? Why or why not?" and quite a few more for "If we take this talented but not yet publishable writer on, what will the writer have to do to become publishable?" I have a good enough track record to keep getting work.

I have also done a fair bit of book doctoring, which is an odd occupation; every so often someone writes a book that has a great idea, some strong potential in various areas, and a great whacking raft of problems that make it unpublishable. Sometimes it's a writer who has already gotten a contract and an advance, sometimes one who is achingly close to breaking in. What the book doctor does is whatever it takes to get the book all the way to publishable – for some writers that may be a detailed, line-by-line critique and a plan for revisions, which the writer then carries out, and for others it may be an outright rewrite into a publishable draft. Sometimes a writer pays for it, sometimes a publisher, or even the writer's agent – whoever has the money to take the book from "almost" to "there."

Between these two bread-and-butter sidelines, I would guess I read about half a million words by new writers per year in very close detail, and probably skim another two million or so (since I don't take works with no potential and since finding works with potential is part of what I do for the literary agencies). That's one side of the experience.

Now, for those of you who have been dying to know what a semiotician does – come on up front, both of you – semiotics is the study of signs, signification, and semiosis, which is not a disease but the process by which meaning gets made– two simple example of semiosis:

1. if you're driving in Australia for the first time and you see a yellow diamond-shaped road sign with a black silhouette of a kangaroo on it, you know it means "slow down and watch out for kangaroos,"

2. if you're seeing your first Slobbovian movie and you always hear the Slobbovian nose-harp plunking out a few slow, sad notes every time there's a love scene, you come to realize that the nose-harp theme means "love scene." If later in the movie you get that nose-harp theme playing when a young man bumps into a girl on the bus, you know it means they're going to be involved romantically.

The word semiotics, by the way, comes from the Latin semio-, which originally meant seed, grain, or kernel and was a common metaphor for sign or symbol. It's got nothing to do with semi-trucks or semi-automatics, or rather only as much as it has to do with everything else in the universe.

Anyway, the particular variant I do, which has considerable commercial application in advertising and marketing and so forth, is statistical semiotics. I get paid to use various semiotic methods to encode enormous databases of texts (e.g. samples of hundreds or thousands of blog entries) into a processable form, and then use various kinds of math to find patterns and regularities in the way that all those messages make meaning, use signs, alter significance, and so forth. (The difference between a statistical semiotician and a regular semiotician is roughly the difference between an epidemologist or social psychologist and a doctor or counselor; there are also FrancoGerman types who call themselves semiologists, who are more like Freudian shrinkoanalysts or Tarot card readers, who helped to make sure semiotic studies would be isolated within the academy, irrelevant to life as lived, and unknown to the lay public except for occasional jokes, and I fart in their general direction).

So to sum up the angle from which I am coming at this problem: I have seen immense heaps of writing by writers at the beginnings of their careers as writers, and I have spent much of my working life staring into vast incoherent swarms of signs and learning to see the patterns in them.

Based on all that, here's how I read the text that is so far the only direct evidence most of us have about "Scott Thomas":

The text has the following characteristics –

1) Writing focused on a parade of cruelty and suffering.

2) A rigorously flat affect that refuses any sort of emotional engagement – stone-faced reportage of the sort that bad thrillers and suspense movies have taught us to associate with the mental process of sociopaths.

3) Enormous sensitivity to physical detail; a great concern with writing down what things look and sound like, to some extent the things that are apt to upset some readers' stomachs, but also in general. (As an agency reader I have seen writing of this kind in which literally more than 500 words are expended on describing drinking coffee).

4) Physical detail is mildly slanted toward the refined senses (sight and sound) rather than the vulgar senses (smell, taste, touch, and kinesthesia); the refined-sense details tend to be more specific, and the vulgar-sense details tend to be alluded to more than specifically named. (I think this is caused by a lack of actual experience; in actual experience the vulgar senses are the strong ones, but in library research the refined senses are the ones easier to paraphrase to avoid being caught in plagiarism).

5) Disinterest and senselessnes with regard to any emotional connection between people.

6) Lack of signs indicating what the intended point of any anecdote or individual story may be ("effacement of the author.")

7) Heavy use of brief, choppy, transitionless SVOs (subject-verb-object, the most basic kind of English declarative sentences), without much variation either for rhythm or for nuance, as in bad Hemingway parody or Raymond Carver or Chuck Palahniuk's fiction when either of them is badly off his game.

8) Raymond Chandler-style macabre wisecracks as the crescendo of a run of physical detail.

9) A peculiar cop-out in reported encounters with people who might be offended by the viewpoint character: the viewpoint character (who is of course the reported version of "Scott Thomas," as reported by "Scott Thomas," who reports himself to be the same soldier) is only rarely confronted with any reaction to his callousness. In the type of writing I am talking about here, mostly other characters in the narrative are struck dumb by the narrator's callousness and stare off into space. Occasionally (not in Thomas's text, except for the burn-victim woman) they may show small signs of emotional distress. The narrator thus gets a free pass on sociopathic behavior, and the narrative proceeds without empathy and hence with only the viewpoint character feeling psychologically credible. The narrator is always left with what is called, by semioticians, the "presence of an absence" in his reported feelings – after the victim or witnesses are out of the field of view there is an absolute emotional stillness in which a cold chuckle or an ostentatious yawn is implied but unstated.

I see manuscripts with all nine of these symptoms – you might think of it as one syndrome with nine common symptoms – about a half dozen times per year, generally from agents rather than as offers to book-doctor them since the creators usually have no money and the books have only limited commercial potential. And they all come from pretty much the same sort of person:

He (it is always a he) is an MFA candidate or recent graduate at one of the big-name creative writing programs in the USA, sometimes in poetry, usually in fiction, and increasingly in "creative non-fiction" (the litsy byline that "feature writing" took on when it moved uptown, became significant, and stopped having lunch with its old buds at the newspapers). Usually he is in his mid-twenties and is probably among the bright stars in the tiny constellation (and complicated pecking order) that MFA programs create. His particular niche in that social ecology will be the Big Talent With Big Balls, a role that requires some claim to a "dangerous" or "edgy" past, meaning some connection to interpersonal violence and to having seen some gruesome sights. (Being recently back from combat duty in Iraq, particularly if the young man is a reservist who will be going back for another hitch there, would certainly fit the bill nicely – at various times I have known such characters to claim to be motorcycle gang members, to have smuggled cocaine into the US in small boats, and to have competed as Ultimate Fighting professionals).

He will have a fetish for macho props and activities like guns and motorcycles or hunting and motor racing. Generally he'll have a drinking problem, or at least give a very good exhibionistic performance of having a drinking problem. (One teacher once said to me, "Some of these guys seem to think that if they can't write like F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least they can drink like him.") They swagger through their programs in a haze of raw manliness, sometimes hang around for a year or two afterward in the same town, and then vanish into the "I could've been a great writer" pose somewhere.

I can't say that all of them are fakes and pretenders in their macho credentials; I haven't met all of them and I don't want to. I can say that every single time I have been in a position to find out, the "used to be a cop," "I was a Green Beret," "I was a roof man for the Cleveland Fire Department," etc. etc. etc. has turned out to be a fake. Not that there are not guys with adventurous and romantic backgrounds around writing programs or in professional writing – I've known, among others, highly talented writers who were one-time paramedics, professional boxers, police, private eyes, back-country prospectors, and so forth.

But none of those guys wrote like "Scott Thomas". (For that matter they don't write much like each other, either).

"Scott Thomas", however, writes exactly like the mid-20s macho MFA student who is lying about an adventurous background. That list of symptoms I gave above is what every one of them I have encountered – probably around 50 in my lifetime – has written like. The point of those stylistic tics and content-fetishes is the same as the point of all the bizarre stories of mayhem, cruelty, and sheer shit-headedness that they tell in the bar after writing workshops: to confirm their role in the MFA program social system. Among the benefits of that role are free passes on certain kinds of bad behavior in class, sexual attractiveness to some other grad students (those with a thing for bad boys), and the maintenance of their interior movie in which they are played by some combination of James Dean, Bob Dylan, the younger Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Or in short, since "Scott Thomas" quacks and walks in such a ducklike fashion, that is the sort of duck I think he is.

Now, I have little doubt that in MFA programs around the country, there are somewhere between twenty and a hundred of these guys pulling this routine right now, probably any place where there are not real recent combat veterans to call them on it, and that would be more than a few MFA programs. So how did "Scott Thomas" luck his way into New Republic?

I have two flavors of the same guess:

The elite MFA programs have lots of contacts and meet-and-greets with national editors. My guess is that "Scott Thomas" wrote one or more of the articles for his MFA creative nonfiction class and wowed a room full of people who had no clue (including the instructor).

Then a visiting editor from New Republic came through, and a creative writing program always trots out its 2-3 most impressive pieces of student work for a visiting editor -- possibly not even telling the student. It might be that by the time "Scott Thomas" wanted to back out, it was too late, in something like the Janet Cooke "8 year old junkie" story, where if it had run and been forgotten, which is what she thought would happen when she faked up the story to meet a deadline, she might never have been caught; but she was doomed once it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer. The story quite possibly went to the NR editors without "Scott Thomas" having the nerve (or perhaps the warning) to stop it.

Much depends on how much of the truth Franklin Foer is telling. If "Scott Thomas" really is in Iraq right now, there are plenty of military specialties where he might not have picked up the details he needed for perfect verisimilitude; he might even have been told some bullshit stories for true. (This may come as a shock to readers, but soldiers, being mostly young men, have been known to enjoy telling stories just to shock their hearers, and it's quite possible that Thomas's source is a guy out to impress Thomas with his manliness, an irony which makes me smile in a quite nasty way). But fundamentally I'm betting on an MFA program Boy Wonder Macho Man, possibly in a military specialty that let him think he could fake combat experience, who had no idea that the story would draw this much attention, and may not even have submitted it himself.

Now, how did New Republic get so badly fooled? One might point out they have rather a record of being badly fooled – they were after all the home of Stephen Glass, and one of their editors was Michael Straight who belonged to the same Soviet spy ring as Kim Philby. But I think a more proximate explanation is simply to look at Franklin Foer's biography. He's only 31, and before becoming editor, he was at The New Republic for eight years. A bit of arithmetic tells you that he hasn't done much else.

Or look at this interview from when he took the job; you're not dealing with a guy with any broad experience of life here – he's essentially had one job in his life and he thinks about policy, not news. One of his major goals as the new editor seems to be to reverse Peter Beinart's pro-Iraq War stance, and to build up readership, which even a wonk such as himself can recognize will mean talking about the world we live in rather than the policies he plays with.

So here's our boy Foer. New on the job. Trying to move away from policy, which he understands (or at least does a credible job of manipulating the signs for) to reporting and attracting an audience, which he doesn't. Hasn't been outside the little world of big thoughts, but knows he's got to go there if the magazine that has been his whole working life is to survive.

And here's the "Scott Thomas" article, and it's all about manly stuff, stuff people like to read about (at least more than they like to read about subtle adjustments at Treasury or State). And here's Foer's chance for a little bit of performative speech (semiotics-talk for "speech that causes an immediate change in the world just by being spoken" – like "I now pronounce you man and wife," "I ask Congress to declare that since yesterday at midnight the United States of America has been at war with the Empire of Japan," or a shouted racial epithet on a busy city street.) Anybody have any trouble seeing what happened?

I suppose I wish Foer well. He's got a long life ahead of him and right now he's way up a tree and that looks like a long fall. But I can't help thinking that the sooner he falls out of that tree, the better for all of us on the left, and maybe for the country as a whole.

His blindness in this is exactly the kind of specialization, the belief that to-the-faculty-senate-born think tankers are where right thoughts come from, that has gotten us into a mess that goes way beyond "Scott Thomas". It is quite possible that somewhere in Iraq American soldiers have done (or are doing right now) things fully as noxious as what "Scott Thomas" describes. With 160,000 people, mostly young men, many armed, many beyond the eyes of authority, there will be some thuggery and sadism and it is doubtful that superior officers will be devoting any large amount of time and effort to finding or suppressing it. And despite the pleas of the war's apologists, yes, it is certainly relevant that some American troops, some of the time, are behaving badly (just as it should be relevant to the war's detractors that many American troops, much of the time, are engaged in things of lasting benefit to the people of Iraq).

I just don't think "Scott Thomas" is the guy who saw any of those things, good or bad, and I don't think Foer has the judgment to avoid being fooled again, and again, and again. You might say it's the tradition he was brought up in – and it's a tradition that needs to die with this generation.

1 comment:

John Ringo said...

Good post, John. Nailed it.

We mindless myrmidons use the term 'poser' (poseur, actually) for guys like this. They abound. Think Eddy Murphy's street-person character in Trading Places. 'I was in the Special Forces Ranger Detachment, Special Force Attack Missions...uh...'

If they're harmless wannabes we just roll our eyes and ignore them. If they're using it for gain we body slam them.

But your description was dead on.

Take care,