Literary television, tragicomic starlets, and objects galore.
Kate Durbin and I sat together to gossip and eat pink food on her pink leather sofa—the only fit way to celebrate the publication of her most recent book, E! Entertainment, which was printed on pink paper. She wore a pink angora sweater (she’s always a little cold) and I wore a pink Lycra jumpsuit (and was therefore too hot). We had fish eggs, salmon, radishes, wild strawberries, Pink Lady apple tart with blush crème fraîche, and a dry rosé wine while we discussed the best shade of nail polish (powder rose) as well as writing and process. In the background the television set was muted and I could see flashes of a gemstone infomercial.
Gabriela Jauregui What made you want to write this book? In a way, the topics you touch on are terra incognita in literature in general, not to mention poetry, and they are a departure from your earlier works.
Kate Durbin I love the idea of popular culture as terra incognita—it hides in plain sight. The seeds of E! are in my first book, The Ravenous Audience, with its focus on Hollywood screen ciphers and sirens, and, of course, the ekphrastic poems based on Breillat’s films. With Ravenous, I was watching the silver screen from my blue velvet couch; with E! I wanted to climb inside the television set, but not to go “behind the scenes.” I didn’t want the E! True Hollywood Story; I wanted the meta-reality of the trashiest of television, the reality-television shows. I wanted to meditate inside them, and make them into literature. E! is a truly experimental text, in that I didn’t know what the results would be. I only knew the process and was committed to seeing it through. I intuitively selected shows that seemed rich with social and political significance, shows having to do with female friendships, courtship rituals, glamour, bling, harassed starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Anna Nicole Smith. Shows and women that are dismissed as cultural garbage, not worthy of the novelist’s pen, unless they’re being derided—though I think Flaubert and Shakespeare would have been into it.
Reality television came out of documentaries, of which there have been so many groundbreaking ones, like the Up series, and of course Josh Harris’s work. Some of the early reality shows like An American Family were quite provocative, shaking up the culture and introducing urgent ideas to the mainstream, such as with The Real World cast member who had AIDS. More recently, these shows have become more corporatized and contained, but despite that, I maintain that there is something essential about the medium itself—if you look at it in a particular way, you can see all kinds of things about our culture in a way that only the medium of “reality” can reveal. I would apply this even to those shows people think are totally “fake,” tracing those shows’ histories to films such as Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project.
And you, Gabriela, wrote a bit about Cannibal Holocaust, didn’t you? What fascinates you about that work?
GJ I did. For a while I was obsessed with mockumentaries. I think they’re a particularly revealing genre, too. And what obsessed me about Cannibal Holocaust was everything it does to our perception of reality. Or rather, the ways in which it reveals how artificial and constructed our notion of so-called reality can be. How one little detail detonates our suspension of disbelief to the point that we think we are watching “the real deal.” Which in some ways, of course, is what you touch upon with these “trashy” shows. But what’s also quite daunting is the question of how to write about them in a way that isn’t pure mockery, or a brainless celebration. You strike an eerie balance between the cold and analytical and the human and sympathetic in your writing. Speaking of which, could we talk a little about how you framed this book? Would you consider this a form of conceptual writing? Craig Dworkin wrote a wonderful blurb for your book: “Conceptual writing has always been a kind of literary reality television, and reality television, in turn, has always been a sort of vernacular conceptualism.” This kind of writing, in a way, could also be called uncreative writing, to borrow Kenneth Goldsmith’s term?
KD I love that Craig called us all “girlfriends”—I like the idea of Craig Dworkin as a girlfriend. I sought a strategic variety of blurbs for the book so that E! could slip into many categories, conceptual writing being one, without fitting easily in any of them. Critics have called E! conceptual writing, a novel, short fiction, and poetry—and it has been shelved in various pockets of the bookstore, which I love. My dream is that one day someone will hide it in a potted plant at the Playboy mansion.
However, I do have my own genre for the book and that is literary television.
Also, it was important to me that Jerry Saltz and Heidi Montag both have blurbs on the back of the book, and that Heidi’s sounded smart.
GJ I know! Who knew? Heidi Montag ended up sounding like a PhD and Craig Dworkin spoke of you as a girlfriend. I was surprised by the responses this book has triggered, which is why I wanted to talk to you about it in the first place. I think it has a lot to do with how it’s framed, and the different ways in which it can be read. So could you speak about the structure of the book and how it came to be?
KD I wanted to create channels for each show instead of chapters, since the book is television, and also because I was channeling the medium via my writing process. As you read through E!, the reading experience gets weirder and more de-stabilizing: you switch from channel to channel—kind of like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But you can switch and skip channels, too. Just like watching TV. What about you? How do you come up with structures for your books? Do they come early on or later in the process?
GJ That’s a tough one. Sometimes I feel like they come later in the process, as a sort of organic result of the writing. Other times you have these bones, and you know what they should end up looking like, so then you add the muscle, the flesh, and so on. I work both ways—inside-out and outside-in, if that makes any sense.
Can you say more about this idea of literary television? It almost sounds like an oxymoron, or like a BBC series, which obviously it is most definitely not.
KD Literary television consists of taking something we normally watch in a “mindless” way, and making it mindful. Reading is an active process, physiologically, compared to watching a screen, where our neurons aren't firing as much. I like the idea of playing with the concepts of watching and reading—the idea of reading television, or viewing a book.
GJ I remember reading somewhere that you burn fewer calories watching TV than you do sleeping. I suppose it’s because of this mindless, gaping consumption common in TV watching—but of course, you make us lift some weight. You change television through the writing. Could you expand on the writing process itself? Did you spend hours scouring reality television shows, sitting on the couch eating bonbons and transcribing details? (laughter) Taking notes? What?
KD Did I ever tell you that story of when I told my Dad I wanted to be a writer and he said, “We'd all love sit on a pillow and eat bonbons all day”?
GJ Yes, you did. And that is exactly what I imagined you doing when writing this book.
KD Now I’m curious as to how you write: Are you eating something salty and looking out the window?
GJ I am a salty snack kind of person. I could eat salt and vinegar chips until my tongue falls off. But no, I usually don’t look out the window much. I mostly stare at the page or the screen or into space. Nowadays I write in public places a lot. I used to write in my “study.” How old-school of me, I know. But now that I have a child, I just end up working in cafés most of the time. So I am sure this will, to run with the metaphor, percolate into my writing, modify what and how I write. So, no bonbons? How do you write?
KD I always write in bed. For E!, I’d be in bed with my laptop, and I’d watch about ten seconds of a show. Then I’d pause and painstakingly transcribe everything on the screen. I did this until I was done with the episode or section. It took about three years, including editing, when I would allow myself certain tiny liberties depending on the section, like turning Kim’s husband into static, or erasing or adding in certain details. I looked up brand names on Google. Some brands I knew offhand from my time working for Hollywood.com. Others I made up.
It’s funny, in a way I think the liberties I took in E!—again, like turning Kim’s husband into static—are equitable to the amount of liberty one finds in these mediums. They are so strictly enforced in so many ways—the freedoms of the characters are quite limited in certain respects. This makes sense to me. After all, reality is quite enforced, isn’t it? How much movement do any of us have? We like to think we have a lot—the whole bootstraps mentality—but that’s really not the case. The problem with reality television is not the sophistication of the medium, but the barbaric GDP values of our culture, which restrict movement and thwart the medium’s potential. And yet, due to the nature of the medium itself, there is still a little bit of potential within these shows to move, to break out, to wiggle a little bit against these values. To crack them a little bit. And so these liberties I took are kind of like that—tiny cracks in the master meta-narrative.
GJ In "Channel One" you don't judge, you don't express personal views, you simply pay attention to detail and give it to us, and through this we can make up our own minds about what we are reading. And yet, simply by doing this, it becomes a poetic and strong commentary on feminism and the object status—or not—of women today.
KD In “Wives Shows&rdquo,; I juxtaposed various housewives shows—although only one is an actual Bravo Housewives show, the others are knock-offs on other networks—in order to demonstrate how they all follow the same script. I chose dinner party scenes revolving around wedding planning and discussion of men, these women’s relationships to men—but really, of course, the shows are about their relationships with one another, with other women. The men are absent, mostly. These shows are really about these women’s relationship to patriarchy, not to individual men.
And of course the housewives are completely objectified. People talk about them like they are jokes! Making fun of their lips, their boobs. So I played up the object status in that section, too. Objectified everything, including objects. I think it shows that objectification is a kind of blindness, even when it’s done to a dinner plate. It’s a way of looking at the world and what we find there that is dismissive, othering.
GJ Ah, objecthood. In a perverse way, I feel it’s sort of Dickensian. We could make an entire conceptual poetry book just by listing the objects in Bleak House. And you sort of do just that in "Channel Two" by listing of objects—and more objects, objects galore, and the radical absence of humans, except through their stuff. This becomes a commentary on class. Somehow I ended up feeling a strong sense of loneliness oozing out of these rooms.
KD Yes, I think the whole book deals with class pretty intensely. Since everything is slowed down, we see all the side characters, the non-central and lower class characters, and their contrast with the main characters is more pronounced.
For the language in “The Girls Next Door,” I was inspired by decorating magazines, crime-scene investigations, and MTV's Cribs. Also Kubrick, since he was so good at making every object of capitalism convey that sense of horror embedded in it. I reduced the most objectified women in the world, Playboy bunnies, to the sum of their objects. I thought, What would happen if you became so objectified you ceased to exist? The objects themselves become uncanny, and the Playboy mansion a haunted house.
GJ Playboy mansion as haunted house is the perfect idea for a slasher movie. (laughter) But seriously, there is a sense of horror that does permeate your book. Even in the most charmed lives, you sort of see the cracks. By simply presenting, or rather re-presenting, what one sees on TV, in "Channel Three" I started to taste a bitterness—under all that icing, the cake seems to be rotting.
KD "Kim's Fairytale Wedding" is a tragicomic take on the wedding industrial complex: Martha Stewart, bridezillas, Disney princesses, and all. One of the things I love about reality television is that even as it attempts to forcefeed the Disney narrative of happy endings, the meta-narrative surrounding the story is often the original “reality” narrative falling to crumbs. I mean, Kim's televised marriage lasted seventy-two days, and was totally over in the tabloids even as it was all sparkles and fairy-dust on E! (the channel). When you read E!, you can see how much she and her fiancé hate each other's guts. They'd become a part of this machine churning out little bride and groom wedding-cake toppers made of diamonds.
GJ In fact, as the book progresses, this is more and more the case. It’s like when Martha Stewart was thrown in jail—an entire universe of make-believe collapsed. I could just imagine a certain kind of lady shaking her head, throwing out all her magazines with tears in her eyes. In the second half of the book, the fancy veneer people put on with so much effort begins to crack: prison, ugliness, crime, drugs, and overall depressingly nonsensical behavior. "Channel 6," the Anna Nicole channel, is the best example of this. It’s like looking at those pictures of hot celebrities without their makeup: terrifying.
KD It was important to me that the housewives, the girls of the Playboy mansion, and the Kardashians appear prior to the Amanda Knox and Anna Nicole sections in the book. I believe the way we judge reality television starlets based on their appearance is on the same continuum as how we've judged Knox, aka “Foxy Knoxy.” With the image of Knox behind bars, the reader has to face the real-life consequences of that insane level of projection and spinning by the media, all of which is done in pursuit of ratings and click baits.
With Anna Nicole, things become even more messy and disturbing. Anna Nicole had a reality television show—The Anna Nicole Show—but the video I used to create the section in E! was a video filmed by her boyfriend and lawyer, Howard K. Stern, and was used as court evidence to prove he’d kept her in a drug stupor. Stern argued that Smith was acting for the cameras. In the video, she’s wearing clown makeup, intoxicated, denying she’s pregnant when she is clearly pregnant. A child lectures her about how to be a good mom, and there’s a mechanical baby that Anna claims is a real baby. There are all these bizarre role reversals going on, and denials of certain realities, while other realities are being enforced. That piece is very complicated, and very of the moment, I feel. Also, the fact that Anna Nicole had a reality show meant that Stern could argue she was acting, instead of taking ownership of his participation in the ritual murder of the blonde icon, à la Marilyn Monroe.
When we see the world through a green filter—the filter of cash—we all turn into a bunch of sad clowns, like Anna Nicole.
GJ And speaking of performances—in this case, not of sad clowns but their opposite—could you speak about your own way of dressing—of Kate Durbin the persona, the author, the performer, and the way you have developed that in tandem with your writing? I do remember you once did a reading in a Pierrot outfit with a jeweled tear next to your eye. So, what about fashion?
KD There’s a direct relationship between the things I wear and the texts I create, or re-create, as it may be. Every outfit tells a story, and relates to the story that I am reading.
GJ Speaking of reading, and how we watch you read and how you watched and read these shows, you mentioned that you enjoy playing with the ideas of watching and reading. You also mention that you practiced being very mindful when writing about shows that are usually more associated with mindlessness. These ideas create a sort of paradoxical way of reading the book: one can just zap around it, or graze on it, reading fragments, jumping from channel to channel, lightly running our eyes over the words, floating over the paragraphs. Or one could also just as carefully gobble up and ponder every word choice, every detail you have chosen to transcribe and re-present from one medium to the other. Two very different ways of reading and experiencing the book.
KD There’s no right or wrong way to read E!—no judgment here. I will say that it offers a seductive challenge to a reader: Will you read this, or will you view it? Some will treat E! as a conceptual project along the lines of Kenneth Goldsmith's work, or something you flip through, like Ulysses. That's partly why I made it such an object, pink pages and all. The designer, Joseph Kaplan, was a dream to work with. I wanted it to be a beautiful object, like a woman. But it's also a beautiful object filled with over two hundred pages of text—text that has been waiting a very, very long time to be read, longer even than when I first discovered it on my television. Ancient text. Also I made sure to not include any visual images of the women, except for the final static faces image—which also looks a little bit like the Hollywood sign.
So that urge to “view” instead of “read” becomes thwarted, somewhat. Still, it’s up to the reader to decide what they will do with the book. Some people gobble it up, and others don’t want to read it because of the subject matter, and because the text has a strange affect—and they will say it’s not meant to be read all the way through. But they may doubt themselves, I think, a little, as they tell themselves this. They may wonder if they are missing something.
What about you, do you feel like writing in both English and Spanish, and going between Mexico City and Paris, creates two different aesthetic experiences for you or your readers?
GJ Definitely. Moving back and forth between Paris and Mexico City is a little like going from Mars to Venus. The two cultures are so different! I know that seems a silly thing to say—of course they are different—but I’m not talking about the difference between the Eiffel tower and the Aztec pyramids. I mean that people have different ways of asking for things, of moving in public space, of expressing likes and dislikes, entirely different senses of humor. Having lived in LA and Mexico City before...there’s a real connection there—it’s like they're two sister cities. As for writing in different languages, each language implies a different culture. And of course, this means that whatever I write in English is different, aesthetically speaking, than what I write in Spanish. Also, for some reason, I write more poetry in English, while in Spanish I end up writing prose. I just finished my first book of short stories. And then there’s also what I do in writing versus what I do when I play music—how one bleeds into the other, feeds the other, and complements it. Speaking of going from one medium to the other, would you call your book a new kind of ekphrastic writing?
KD I like to think of it as a new form of “channeling.”
GJ Okay, but do you feel this book continues and furthers issues and questions you had begun to address in your previous books, especially The Ravenous Audience? I mean, the idea of the audience was already there, of course, but your way of channeling and the channeling you ask your readers to do here are quite different. Or are they?
KD I’m not sure it’s different. I think I am always addressing an ambivalent audience: one that watches without witnessing, one that is hungry for women’s blood. This book’s strategy is more elusive than that of Ravenous; there is no authorial commentary, and so the reader isn’t given much. They are left in the dark—or the flickering light of television static—to figure out what they see in these women. I won’t help them, won’t be their authorial mommy. Some people—not many, but a few—have interpreted the book as me dismissing these women, mocking them, since I represent the camera’s gaze without labeling it "bad." But it’s the medium of reality television, the collective gaze, and we’re all implicated in it. I don’t hate these women, not at all. I feel I am them.
E! Entertainment is now available from Wonder.
Gabriela Jauregui is the author of Controlled Decay (Akashic Books/Black Goat Press, 2008) and co-author of Taller de taquimecanografía (Tumbona ediciones, 2012) as well as co-founder and editor at the sur+ ediciones publishing collective in Mexico. Her critical and creative work appears, most recently, in Frieze, Art Review and Make Magazine.