Almost a year and a half after starting a Tumblr dedicated to reviewing each of the five reviews that appear on Pitchfork every day, David Shapiro—colloquially known by the name of his blog, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews—is releasing The World’s First Perfect Zine, a New York Times-mentioned compendium of writing from, among others, novelist Tao Lin, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and the members of Das Racist. In advance of tonight’s launch party for the zine, David and I exchanged emails touching on the difference between the web and print, criticism of criticism, how to email your favorite celebrities, and pictures of naked men.
Let’s start with a few questions about the zine. First, how did this thing come about?
One night last year I was reading the Cometbus zine compilation on a bus trip back to New York and I really fell in love with it, and it made me want to put out a zine of my own, although I guess a different kind of zine than Cometbus. A few hours later I got back to New York and I went to the Pitchfork #Offline festival and Ryan Schreiber was there, and I was writing a blog about Pitchfork at the time and we had met once before, and I gushed about Cometbus to him, and he said he used to make zines too and I asked him if he wanted to put out a zine with me and he seemed ambivalent. So I said, “What about if I could get Tao Lin and Hima [Suri, from Das Racist] to be in it too?” And Ryan was like, “Well, if you could get those guys…”
And then the next day I asked Hima and Tao if they wanted to put out a zine with me and Ryan, like I had Ryan’s contribution in the bag, and they both said yes, so my bluff worked (sorry guys if you’re reading this), and I went back to Ryan and he was like, “Okay let’s do this!” After a while it became clear that Ryan wouldn’t be able to contribute, but by that time I had gone too far with other contributors to turn back. I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway.
So besides Tao and Hima, how did you assemble this group of writers and bring in music people like jj?
Some I knew personally or met at parties, others I reached out to via email. Something cool I learned about emailing people to ask them to contribute to my zine is that most peoples’ email addresses are just firstname.lastname@example.org. (If your email address is email@example.com, this is maybe a moment for you like when you’re reading a celebrity magazine and you see a celebrity pumping gas and the caption is “Celebs: just like us!”)
Also the dots in email addresses don’t matter. You could send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com (or even firstname.lastname@example.org), and it would still get there if that’s their address. So go email a famous person, and tell me how it goes.
You wrote on your tumblr that putting this together took ten times longer than you thought it would, what caused for the delay?
I’m used to having an idea, typing it out, emailing it to someone, and having them post it on my Tumblr. The time from conception to publication could be like 15 minutes. So that sort of spoiled me. By comparison, putting a print product together took forever. I didn’t expect to have to get so many ducks in line, I guess I just had an unreasonable expectation that it’d be a shorter process.
You’re self-publishing this, correct?
Well, a printer printed it professionally but yes, it’s self-published. Two managing editors helped me.
How did you get the Strand and McNally Jackson to carry copies?
Me and the managing editors held the people who make stocking decisions at those bookstores in my apartment without food or water until they acceded to our demands. The guy from St. Marks Books actually didn’t make it, which is why it’s not there too. Psych! He just didn’t email me back.
And the password to the zine’s online content (and answer to the riddle on you left on your tumblr) is Sophia, right?
It’s not! Finding the password through the riddle takes some real online legwork. I didn’t want it to be 18 seconds of Googling and then my private box of Tumblr treasure just pops open. It’s a 10-minute internet odyssey. You’ll know the password for the private Tumblr when a) You get the right password and enter it in and it works (it wouldn’t work for Sophia for example) or B) you buy a zine and we send you the password via email. I suggest you “choose the path of least resistance,” as my mom would say.
I’d like to switch things up and ask a couple questions about your writing and success. These days a lot of editors—even at publications that once opened their arms to this sort or thing—resist criticism that discusses other critics and their ideas, referring to this sort of thing as “wonky” or “inside baseball,” and yet you’ve managed to amass howevermany hundred or thousand tumblr followers by doing precisely that. Why do think that is?
For the 15% of my followers that aren’t hate-followers, I think it’s maybe because I was really passionate about what I was writing about (Pitchfork, obviously), and other people happened to be passionate about it too and hadn’t found any real outlet where they could read about it or comment on it. Or at least another outlet with content produced at the levels of regularity and focus with which I was writing. I guess I also revealed a lot of personal stuff so maybe reading my writing was like hanging out with someone you’re just getting to know and kind of like (or are darkly curious about or just loathe but who is very open with you).
But, like, ultimately, what writer really knows why someone reads their writing? Isn’t every writer a little mystified by it unless they happen to have an earth-shattering story? There’s always a better story/better piece of content waiting to be read than the one you, writer, wrote, so why are people reading you? I don’t mean to be so self-deprecating here, I’m just being honest.
What do you see as the place of criticism of criticism within criticism as a whole, if that makes sense?
I think I remember hearing that it was Dadaists who held that the criticism of a piece of art was as important or more important than the art itself. That seems right on. Like when I see a piece of modern art that looks, like, you know, how modern art looks, I stand there and crave someone’s explanation for what the piece of art means, and I think that holds true through any level of abstraction or figurative clarity in art. I’m more into knowing what it means than seeing or hearing what it is, and from there I’m more into thinking about how the critic went at making sense of the art than the art itself. I wasn’t listening to much music when I was writing my blog, I was more into the writers’ arguments.
So obviously I’m into criticism. I love reading it and thinking about it. So why shouldn’t people be evaluating it like they evaluate any other art? Isn’t the critic an artist? The people who shape opinions at Pitchfork have a greater impact on music and mass taste than any actual musicians do. Criticism of criticism is just as necessary as the original piece of criticism, and I suspect it’s more fun to write. Why isn’t criticism of criticism more popular/written?
Yesterday a friend and I agreed that at a place like 285 Kent or Glasslands, and even Webster Hall on some nights, more people will have consciously read your music writing than that of, say, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Chuck Eddy combined. How does this success affect your voice as a writer?
I don’t know those places are representative (and therefore broadly meaningful) sample pools, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll suspend disbelief for a moment and say that thinking about anything like that is not helpful for me. Secretly, but perhaps you’ve noticed if you follow my writing, I can’t really write anymore. Have you seen any of my new writing lately? If you happen to have seen it, it sucks. Places I used to write for, who I would never expect to turn down pieces of writing, turn me down consistently now, and it’s not because they’ve realized they don’t like what I was doing. It’s because I don’t know how to write in a way that captures people anymore. Trust me, I read all of my writing and it’s not what it used to be, whatever that was. Those dudes are classic bands, I’m a one-hit-wonder.
Every time I start something I write like 200 words and then delete the memo because it’s bad. Even this interview is not revelatory or funny or engaging like one I could have written a year ago. I’m not joking, and I don’t want you to edit this part out. The amount of words I used to write in two days I can barely eek out in a month, and I don’t really like the stuff I do write when I put it out.
An older and established professional writer told me, at a party, that it’s natural to feel fallow as a writer sometimes, which seems true, but I’ve been waiting to feel fruitful again for longer than I spent writing in the first place.
Well I’m curious how the success you have had has affected your party writing, much of which is based around this fly-on-the-wall narrator in a world of people much cooler than him and much cooler than most of us? How does this change now that you’re, you know, hosting your own parties and no longer as much of an outsider looking in?
I’m exactly as anonymous as I was before I wrote anything, especially to Jay McInerney and Bryant Gumbel. Also, nobody is cool, cool is an adjective applied to people you don’t know very well and admire from afar. Cool is a straw man.
This is the first and last party I’ll host and I don’t know what it’ll be like, but I suspect the idiom “wherever you go, there you are” applies here. It’s not like hosting a party will suddenly make it easier for me to talk to people and not feel, you know, how I always feel.
You also often reference having to keep off your employer’s radar, and I’m not going to press who that is or anything, but how has appearing in (most notably) the New York Times affected your attempts to stay incognito?
People in my office don’t read the Arts section, nor your esteemed publication.
So no one at the office has any idea about your other life?
Two people do and I update them periodically on select projects, but they’re still people I’m down with professionally so I didn’t show them a copy of the zine I made with pictures of naked men and stories about drugs in it.
The launch party for The World’s First Perfect Zine, with DJ sets by Victor Vazquez of Das Racist, Tao Lin and Jenna Wortham, is at Other Music tonight at 7 p.m.