Amsterdam-based bloggers Tim de Gier and Ernst-Jan Pfauth took up a month-long residency in New York to interview their favourite bloggers about that one book they cannot live without. Episode 1: Choire Sicha. Location: the tucked-away bar Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan. Book: Janet Malcolm – The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).
„Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Choire Sicha (40) shows the opening line of The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) on his iPhone. The co-founder of The Awl and former editor of Gawker warns the non-fiction work by Janet Malcolm ‘gets darker from there.’
„The Journalist and the Murderer is the most influential book for people who do what I do”, says Sicha, „I have a bunch of friends who read it every year.” It’s Janet Malcolm’s take on the relationship between an army officer who is thought to be guilty of killing his family and the journalist he hires to guarantee his innocence. The men live together and eventually become friends during the court case in 1979. Sicha: „But then, the book comes out and it’s this shocking indictment of how the army officer did kill his family. He was completely betrayed by the journalist and the book cements his reputation as a murderer.”
Eleven years after the case, Malcolm argued that the journalist hoped to have found his Perry Smith – the murderer in Truman Capote’s notorious novel In Cold Blood (1966) – but soon discovered his subject was actually a very dull man. To save his book, the journalist allegedly decided to accuse the army officer of being a ‘pathological narcissist’ and a murderer.
„I often profile people for magazines and one of the things I take from Malcolm’s book is being superconscious about what you know and what you assume about your subject. So, if I were to interview you, we would have an engagement, a personal involvement. I’d ask you all these personal questions and then, I could basically betray you and write down my coloured version of everything I thought about you. The book is a reminder about the fact I’m continuously selling people out.”
The old puppy dog called Gay Talese
When Sicha first read The Journalist and the Murderer, he wasn’t a journalist yet. „I guess I always wanted to be a writer, but in the US journalism is very much a middle and upper class profession. I didn’t go to college, so I had no way in.” But when blogging gained popularity, Sicha zealously adopted the novel medium and soon edited New York’s most popular blog, Gawker. He quit in 2008 to start his own publication, The Awl, where high and low culture are ingeniously combined. Sicha tore down the walls of the journalism establishment and was soon a household name in New York’s media industry. He has never met Malcolm though. „I’ve always wanted to.” But Sicha, who isn’t typically afraid of literary giants – he calls Gay Talese ‘such an old puppy dog’ – admits he’s frightened of Malcolm’s reputation.
„I’m a huge fan of her writing and read everything by her. She’s interested in psychotherapy and isn’t afraid to talk in a very funny way about her own assumptions, misguidances and blind spots. She values logic highly. In her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011), she relentlessly looks at the logic of both parties in a Queens murder case. Together with Joan Didion and Renata Adler, Malcolm forms the pillar of non-fiction.”
These days, Sicha doesn’t have much time to read books anymore. But when he does, he’s into science fiction. „Even Jennifer Egan plays with science fiction now. It’s not just the losers anymore.” He recommends Ursula Le Guin. Sicha reads from his iPhone. “I’ve always got my library with me, plus, it’s more convenient in bed. At some point I fall asleep and my phone automatically puts itself to sleep as well. No book hits my face.”
It’s a dude’s world
So far, Sicha hasn’t recommended any male writers. „I actually almost never read men.” He argues that the women of Malcolm’s generation all had to work three times as hard to get their slots at the magazines and newspapers. „They were actually fundamentally better because they had to work a lot harder ” New York still is a place for ‘dudes’, says Sicha. „Most men only read men. If you look at the founders of [New York literary magazine] N+1, they all live in a boy’s society. Chad Harbach, Marco Roth, Keith Gessen and Benjamin Kunkel; all these dudes hang with dudes, publish with dudes and don’t seem comfortable with working with women. It’s becoming less of a guy’s gang, since I think they’re actively trying to break themselves from that habit. But overall it seems hard for straight people to get along in America. There aren’t many places where they’ve learned to talk and hang out as equals. So the guys get all nervous and sweaty, and the women get annoyed. It’s a mess. It’s funny. At The Awl, women write half of the pieces. We’re pretty careful.”
For all the female writers Sicha mentions, there’s none who is not in her seventies. „There’s a mid-career problem which happens a lot”, says Sicha, „So you’re hot and famous in your twenties and thirties. But when you’re forty through sixty, that’s it for you. Then suddenly in your seventies you’re revered. You have this body of work behind you everyone loves, but in between it’s just toil.”
‘Thirty-year’ old blogger working on a book
Sicha is forty years old, so is he heading towards temporarily obscurity as well? „People think I’m younger. Why would someone who is forty have a job blogging? I just pretend I’m thirty.” It helps Sicha looks merely thirty and his now three-year old blog The Awl gains popularity. Together with co-founder Alex Balk he’s fighting the dumbness of the blogosphere. Hence the ‘be less stupid’ tagline, Spartan layout, small headlines and the odd mixture between 2000-word essays and one sentence posts. „We’ve turned into a business lately”. Their two-room office houses several employees. Sicha, being modest about his success, considers it ‘boring’ and ‘sad’ they’re ‘not just a blog anymore’. He still hacks his own WordPress themes though.
When Sicha is not blogging, he’s writing a piece of text that will not instantaneously hit the web: a book. „In 2009, I followed a group of four friends around in New York City, to see how they were coping with the crisis.” Reporting, writing and editing cost him a year each. You’ll be able to read it in 2013. Sicha remembers his own younger years in New York as ‘amazing and terrible at the same time’. „You have to live of four dollars a day and you’re continuously confronted with how much money everybody else has. Somehow it always seems other people have more opportunities. Then again, New York also gives you things. You’ll be invited to someone’s amazing party and meet the most bizarre people. Then the dark times will subside and you’ll tell everyone the old days in New York were better. Your amazing time will be behind you. 2012 is someone’s amazing time right now. It’s just not mine.”