Little Orphan Annie’s Observations on Stephen Bloom’s Iowa

When Stephen Bloom described Iowa’s population as a foreign land of meth addicted waist-oids and skuzzy slum towns, it prompted the writer to chat with a spunky, red-headed little girl who shared her thoughts on gravity, journalism and the night Bloom announced he’d invented a new genre.

– I – 

(Those who already know the story may wish to skim down to section two.)

IOWA CITY — On December 9, The Atlantic magazine published an article by Stephen Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, that trudged through rural stereotypes, factual innovations, dichotomous worldviews and long sentences comprising entire paragraphs – whatever it took – to convey to readers that the State of Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucus status is the most rootinist, tootinist, hog-wild hootenanny of anachronistic political wackiness this country has ever known.

If you’re reading this, you already know it was poorly received. A happy holidays greeting card to the state it was not. [1]

After national media found the story, Bloom announced he’d retreated Dick Cheney-style to an “undisclosed location” adding he would not be bullied and would return to the classroom at the University of Michigan where he’s a visiting professor, and had turned down opportunities to appear on several national talk shows because it would not add to the discussion.[2]

This stance changed upon hearing from NBC’s 30 Rock Center with Brian Williams [click for video] which flew him to New York City so the ten Americans not watching college football could watch Willie Geist ask him about the description of rural Iowans as:

“the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Bloom defended the article saying, “Gosh I raised some unspeakable truths. In my mind, they’re opinions, and it raised a firestorm.” Having stated that an opinion in his head and the truth are synonymous, he protested he’d been misunderstood. Of the Little Orphan Annie line and the article, previously identified as journalism, he said, “I’m sorry; this is the way I do it. This is called satire. This is called parody.”

Dubious definitions of satire and parody aside, what caused pause in this observer was the business about only fools not knowing the sun, reportedly, will not be coming out tomorrow. I’m no journalist, but this sounds like it fits the criteria for news. Or satire. Or maybe even parody.

– 2 – 

Which brings us to current Iowa resident, Little Orphan Annie.

What, you may ask, does a spunky, red-headed little girl living in rural Iowa have to do with astrology, physics and an analysis of why some people still become quaintly upset about questions of accuracy, truth and trust?

Fortunately, I asked her that very question the last time we went on one of our weekly walks around Iowa City. “Walk n’ Talks,” we call them.

“Annie,” I asked her, “what’s the deal with the sun coming out tomorrow?

“Oh it’s going to happen. You see, the way it works is the sun is this giant ball of exploding gas and it’s so big it holds all of the planets in our solar system kinda close by with its gravity — do you understand gravity?”

“Is that a band?”

“No, it’s kinda like the Force in Star Wars. It binds things together. Anyway, because of gravity our planet drifts around the sun in these lazy circles while spinning which you’d think would make us super dizzy but doesn’t. Anyway, so that’s how it works and it’ll come out tomorrow like it has for something like 4.5 billion years which, okay, so that’s not a guarantee, but the chances are pretty good.”

“Well, that’s a load off.”

“It is.”

“So how do you feel about getting dragged into all this? I mean, most folks remember you from the movie and maybe as an adventurous right-wing Depression-era comic strip heroine who, as little girls are wont to do, foiled crime while complaining about the New Deal, labor unions and communism — but no way would they know you live in rural Iowa.”

“That’s true, mostly I  get mistaken for that girl who’s daddy named the hamburger chain after her but once people realize who I am they always ask why I’m in Iowa and not, say, New York City.  It’s a long story but suffice to say people got tired of me and I couldn’t get any more comic strip work. Everybody walked away. Daddy Warbucks, everyone. They’re all creeped out by a woman pushing 100 who still  looks like a little girl. If it weren’t for Social Security I’d be in deep trouble.”

“I guess you regret ripping on the New Deal then.”

“I was young, you know? I did what they told me. That’s life as a medium. I’m poorly self-actualized, very poorly. When you’re so one-dimensional it’s hard to be independent.”

“And then you end up as a punchline to the whole Iowa caucus thing.”

“Wasn’t the highlight of my week, but I wasn’t entirely surprised, either.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we go back a ways actually.”

“Who? You and Bloom?”

“Mhmm.”

“You know Steve Bloom?”

“Oh sure. I took a class from him several years ago.”

“On?”

“I don’t remember, to be honest. What I remember is perhaps at the mid-point of the semester he strode into class and announced he’d invented a new genre.”

“A new…”

“Genre. Yes. He handed out copies of a story he’d written in it. It was about a man who owned a tie shop. As to the events in that tie shop (or maybe it was a hat store?) I remember nothing else. What I do remember is he informed us he’d made up the story and yet—this was the kicker—the owner of the tie shop was really named whatever he was named in the story (let’s say it was Rob) and Rob really owned a tie shop just like the one described in the story.”

“Okay.”

“He called it ‘faction.’ A combination of the words “fact” and “fiction.” Said he had a bunch of these stories and he’d made up the stuff that happened to Rob.”

“Isn’t that called fiction?”

“Let’s not quibble. Later, I realized both the idea and the term is old. Shakespeare did it with historical figures. So did E.L. Doctorow. When Jorge Luis Borges died, The Guardian called him the “Blind genius of faction.” Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is the story of a fictional First Lady who happens to closely resemble Laura Bush. To my knowledge, the earliest account of “faction” (a.k.a. the fake memoir that doesn’t admit it’s fake a.k.a. fiction told in the first person) in this country dates back to 1836 and a book called The Slave, or Memoirs of Archy Moore which purported to share the first-hand account of abuses suffered by a slave but ended up being a novel by a Harvard student disgusted by the institution of slavery. Abolitionist reviewers didn’t care who’d written it for they found the story accurate and truthful regardless.”

“You certainly seem to know a lot about this, Annie.”

“Oh I’m just getting warmed up! For instance, while writing on the history of memoirs, Daniel Mendelsohn landed upon the critical point that “the reactions to phony memoirs often tell us more about the tangled issues of veracity, mendacity, history, and politics than the books themselves do.” Adding “intent” to the list explains why the literal truth of Archy Moore’s story was accepted as valid whereas James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, written as a means to make money (or inspire recovery from addiction depending on who you believe) was not. Frey’s public flogging can also be seen as partly an outgrowth of fatigue with the lies of the Bush years since in terms of satisfaction gleaned, a little redirected anger at the almost whole-cloth fabrications of a memoirist is a distant second to telling off the president but it was better than nothing. You can imagine why Frey felt safe doing so. If people believed Iraq was involved in 9/11 who’d bother checking the facts in a memoir?

“Right. Or a professor who says he’s invented a new genre? Like who’d bother?”

“Nobody. So anyway, as a means of pre-empting cries of invention, writers like Ben Mezrich in the preface of The Accidental Billionaires warn the reader he hasn’t let the verifiable truth get in the way of a good story. These little legal disclaimers, operating like advisories that coffee is hot (except in some cases the coffee isn’t even coffee) are in part the result of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and operate as what Tom Scocca calls “a false certificate, a stamp of limited authenticity on a work of no authenticity at all.” Yearning for “true” stories, the publishing trend over the past several years has been to push the “truthiness” of fiction with coy marketing emphasizing how (wink-wink) the author’s biography syncs up remarkably well with the scandalous events therein.”

“Well, Annie, that’s certainly a good point but plenty of (better) writers have been more open about the slipperiness of truth, making the question central to the story as in Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir or Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which is both a memoir and testament to the small truths sacrificed for the good of a story, Eggers warning the reader in subtle and less subtle ways that (ultimately minor) adjustments have been made. And then there’s Hunter S. Thompson. Among his many deviations from the strict confines of reality, during the 1972 presidential campaign he wrote that Edmund Muskie had an addiction to the Brazilian psychoactive Ibogaine. It was reported as fact, very much to Thompson’s surprise since he was, well, Hunter S. Thompson. The difference is his writing was true in the 1960s the way The Onion is true today, and if the reader couldn’t catch on that was on you.”

“I agree completely. Of all these people, James Frey’s work most closely resembles “faction” and with the exception of Thompson (who’s a special case) none of them, including Frey, called their work journalism.”

“Annie, did any of them call it satire?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Thompson could be funny, but it wasn’t satire. In 1996 when the memoir was peaking in the United States, across the pond the English novelist, poet and Booker award-winner A.S. Byatt raged against novelists who placed real people in fictitious circumstances, Byatt describing “faction” novels as “mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention” saying it felt like an invasion of privacy and appropriation of their lives.”

“Annie, I suspect something similar festered beneath the reaction to Bloom’s observations on Iowa. The irritation wasn’t just with the errors and ill-chosen adjectives like “skuzzy” or even that it felt like a personal attack on choices and lives. It was all of that and the weird sensation of someone scooping up an entire state, laying it between two slices of bread (special Iowa bread made from corn tassels) and slathering it with mustard before tossing it into the consumptive gullet of our mediated society. Reality TV without the consent form.”

“That’s certainly the case. You know, as we walk around the neighborhood, enjoying the various bird-twitterings and dog-barkings, I’m reminded how it’s impossible to talk about the subjectivity of truth without mentioning how the near impossibility of achieving pure objectivity is a well-learned lesson by the many media outlets that also know rage maximizes profits. We are surrounded by unreliable narrators, and most of them aren’t novelists or memoirists or even journalism professors. The real serial fabricators are online and on television worrying about death panels, birth certificates and secret government work camps orchestrated by public radio. For some, the slipperiness of truth is both a club for use upon those who refuse their truth and an excuse to slather a patina of false objectivity upon fiction; an exercise that rather than erase the authors’ imprints manages to reveal more about its practitioners than its subjects. Somewhere along the way, the idea of privacy and respect for fact left to decay beneath our feet.”

“Annie, you sure do speak in amazingly well-formed paragraphs. Very unusual for casual speech.”

“Are you saying rural Iowans can’t express themselves?”

“No, I just…nevermind.”

“Do you mind if I continue?”

“Please.”

“Thank you. My point is when journalism becomes faction it becomes label-laden propaganda, portraying reality in a way that substitutes branding with information. If something happens or doesn’t happen it’s because the label caused it to happen. Because it’s conservative or because it’s liberal. Or because someone’s old or a waste-oid. Or because it happened in Middle America. Or because someone’s an “elitist” or a blue-collar, non-glitterati commoner. But reality isn’t conservative, it isn’t liberal and it isn’t a matter of opinion.

Distress over how others portray us is less a matter of hypersensitivity than an entirely appropriate unwillingness to let others define who we are. Aside from, say, threats to one’s corporeal being, I can’t think of a more profound exertion of power than a stranger defining who I am.

Pointing that out doesn’t mean it should stop, or even could stop as it’s part of how human beings create meaning from experience, but it means a reaction is inevitable and probably a good thing as it requires people still believe the portraits have enough value to require a reaction. This expectation of a standard and the standard itself was cleanly expressed by much of the journalism faculty at Iowa when they said good journalism—I would say, good writing—does not “entail scathing attacks on powerless people [or] work riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors and based on sweeping generalizations and superficial stereotypes.”

A desire for things to add up and make sense drives the constant revisions of memory so when Bloom wrote of the Cedar-Rapids Gazette printing the headline “HE IS RISEN” as prelude to Easter instead of “TODAY LET US ALL GATHER IN A DISPLAY OF INCLUSIVE UNITY AND TOLERANCE” he did so not because one happened and the other didn’t (neither did) nor (I’m guessing) out of a desire to be intentionally disingenuous, but because in his memory it became as real as if it had actually happened. And it became real because it coheres with the very human impulse to view our lives as narratives that have meaning and make sense. Suffice to say maybe it’s the things we take as absolutes that should be at the front of the fact-checking line.”

“Yes. Suffice to say. I concur. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”

“Thank you. Not that we can’t have some fun. Matt Taibbi, for instance. In April of 2010, he famously informed readers of Rolling Stone that Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful investment bank, “is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Great line. It went viral partly because its viciousness was (and is) both poetic and justified. The bank made tremendous sums of money with a business model causing outrageous levels of harm to millions of people. In a sane society, what they did would be illegal thus, while probably a little hurtful to vampire squid everywhere, the line otherwise felt fair. By contrast, describing rural Iowans as “the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” is putting the beat-down on those who’ve harmed no one.”

“Annie, do you think Taibbi’s a satirist?”

“No, he’s hyperbolic and a bit polemic but he relies on complicated, fact-based arguments.”

I told Little Orphan Annie she’d given me something to think and started to change the subject but she interrupted.

“I almost forgot. If you want an argument for Iowa being the first caucus state, how about the fact that it is small? I mean, if you can’t campaign in Iowa, you certainly won’t be able to do so in California. And if we start with a bigger state, or a national caucus day, then our candidates would have to raise even more absurd quantities of money than they already do.”

Pausing to make sure she was finished, I interjected that she was lousy at transitions but thanked her for sharing, adding that I had one last question.

“Sure.”

“You’re positive the sun will come out tomorrow?”

“Bet your bottom dollar.”

I told her that was great then asked if she felt like a beer. She said she did.


[1] Bloom expected it would be received poorly, if not necessarily the scale of the disgust, reportedly emailing a former student that “My order of Kevlar clothing hasn’t arrived yet…but I think I might need it.” After an avalanche of almost uniformly negative comments on the Atlantic’s web site and Bloom’s Facebook page followed by public disownments from the governor, the president of the university, his co-author on The Oxford Project who wishes Bloom’s name was no longer on the book and faculty members in his own department, a great deal of fun was had by wags both high, middle and low of brow (even inspiring a t-shirt), Bloom reporting he’d received death threats and rude phone calls. And yet, at least for the first week or so, the majority of responses were heartfelt expressions, often personal in nature, by people telling stories about how their Iowa differed from Bloom’s Iowa.

Arguably the best response both on the facts and analysis came from a writer who has covered the same Mississippi river towns as Bloom, and who called the article a, “poorly reasoned article plagued by factual errors and loaded with big-city stereotypes of country folk. His essay was, ultimately, a lazy piece of incendiary rubbish, which I guess is what passes for journalism today.”

[2] Bloom was recently quoted in the Washington Post saying,  correctly, “you have [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Santorum claiming victory when they only have 30,000 votes. What is this? It’s nothing. That’s not representative of anything.” Little Orphan Annie says while she finds the claims of Sirs Romney and Santorum amusing in the extreme, she also finds it a little confusing how the same person who says Iowa is a place that isn’t representative of anything in both makeup and vote count (and thus the results not mattering?) would also claim in the original article that it “may very well determine the next U.S. president.” So the results matter, except they don’t? Or do? She’s right much confounded. She also thinks this contradiction is a neat example of the tendency, for the sake of readership/viewership/hits, to make whatever might be happening in this instant into The Most Important Thing to Happen Ever. And how those who do so tend to get squozen between their words and reality like a big ol’ orange right before it’s juiced into a smoothie.

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2 responses to “Little Orphan Annie’s Observations on Stephen Bloom’s Iowa

  1. She may feel like a beer, but she kicks like a mule.

    NIce. Especially the Genre Invention of Faction.

    I rank that infotainment product somewhere above Ginzu Knives, but below the Snuglee. Maybe tied with Shamwow, dipped in Orange Glow and worn by the real corpse of Billy Mays. Wait! Faction! Wow. Total psych!

  2. I hope he’s planning to offer a course in faction when he returns to Iowa.

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