Reality TV and literary culture square off in Mark Haskell Smith’s latest novel Raw. Sepp Gregory, the shirtless sensation of "unscripted" shows like Sex Crib and Love Express, has written a novel. As critics fawn over the book, its unacknowledged ghostwriter Curtis Berman and lit blogger Harriet Post both grow incensed enough to pursue Sepp on his book tour. Their odyssey converges at a reading at Book Soup, a night at the Playboy Mansion, and a road trip into the desert, where all the characters redefine their notion of “reality,” regardless of the aesthetic medium through which they have chosen to understand it. No contemporary pop culture touchstone or literary idol emerges from the book unscathed by Smith’s playful scrutiny.
Raw also offers a satirical but ultimately affectionate portrait of Los Angeles and its literary scene. Some figures may be especially familiar to Angelenos. Novels by Los Angeles magazine’s own Steve Erickson make appearances, the character of Harriet seems to share certain traits with Los Angeles Times book writer Carolyn Kellogg while fictional radio personality Titus Goldberger might remind readers of a certain radio personality.
A screenwriter, onetime Star Trek: Voyager scribe, and author whose five novels all bear distinctive one-word titles such as Moist, Delicious, and Baked (“It was not a master plan,” he says), Smith is a Buddhist and Ping-Pong enthusiast who cites Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and China Miéville’s The City & the City as two of his favorite books. We talked to him about a broad swath of culture from swimming phenom Michael Phelps to Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt.
Mark Haskell Smith will read from Raw and discuss the book with David Ulin tonight (Dec. 4) at Vroman's in Pasadena at 7 p.m.
Your book stages a collision between reality television and literary culture. Why those two worlds?
I wanted the stupidest thing I could find in our culture, which I think is reality TV, particularly as shown by the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Last night, I watched Snooki and JWoww; it’s so deeply stupid. And also the highest or at least the most pretentious culture we have. Film culture is pretentious but not in the way that book culture is. I thought that was a natural high-low, opposites-attract kind of thing. I have an affection for both those worlds and that’s why I wanted to play with them.
What makes book culture more pretentious than film culture?
It’s not all of book culture. It’s just the way some people are about it. For me, the novel is the height of human creativity. You’re putting your ideas into a format that when someone experiences it by reading it, it’s a really intimate act. It’s an amazing art form but the way people treat it becomes precious. I wanted to take a poke at these people who are book fans. They’re not unintelligent people but they start a literary blog and all of the sudden they’re “experts” and they’re holding other writers to ridiculously high standards. It’s all about their ego and not about the book. I saw a lot of that in the early days of the literary blog explosion. It was an irresistible target for me.
Steve Erickson’s novels play a role in a few places in your book.
I like Steve Erickson—as a writer and as a person. Because his books are difficult, they attract these people who have sticks up their butts. He’s unabashedly experimental—this is what I’m doing, take it or leave it—and I like that.
When I encountered Titus Goldberger, the host of NPR’s literary show Bookish, I couldn’t help but picture our local bookworm Michael Silverblatt.
It’s actually not Michael. It’s Tod Goldberg doing an imitation of Michael. It’s Michael heightened in a way. I like him and I like his show. I tried to get the cadence of his speech right and the way he talks. Silverblatt is like the good version of Harriet. He’s smart. He’s well-read. He understands the conversation in literature. He’s having a high-level discussion of ideas and writing and writers. I think that’s important.
Is the character of Frazier based on former Book Soup manager and Rare Bird publisher Tyson Cornell? I like that he gives Sepp a copy of Being and Time.
Of course. You’re very observant. Totally something Tyson would do. There’s no way you’re going to understand this, here, read it.
Was the lit blogger Harriet Post inspired by Jessa Crispin? Carolyn Kellogg?
No. Although Carolyn said, “Kellogg is a breakfast cereal. Post is a breakfast cereal. It’s totally me.” I’m like, “No, it’s not you.” She's sort of an amalgam of Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas. I borrowed Sarvas’s “we.” He’s always like, “We are not amused by this book.” Who are you, the Queen of England? I like Mark and his blog but dude, really, relax. I think a lot of these people got their book deals because they had popular blogs. At one point, Harriet says everyone who has a lit blog is an aspiring author. Of course her book was published by the University of Central South Dakota Press—and she sold 300 copies!
I know it’s fiction but how did you get over 300 people into Sepp's reading where he disrobes at Book Soup?
I imagined the annex was still there. I thought it was the appropriate place for him because they do a lot of celebrity stuff. People may have been outside or lined up down the street. Maybe not everyone saw the incident.
When his reading goes awry, were you thinking of Jim Morrison in Miami?
I was thinking about the fact that he was someone who was always asked to take off his clothes. The genesis of that whole character was a picture I saw on the Carson Daly Show when Michael Phelps had just won all these gold medals. He pulled his shirt up to show his abs and he got a standing ovation. No offense to Michael Phelps, but why are we applauding his abs? When I saw that, I thought, What is wrong with our culture? Think about France, which is fairly intellectual; they’re not going to stand up and applaud anybody’s physique.
French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy doesn’t button his shirts.
That’s true. But it’s a philosophical thing. It’s above our heads.
Are you a reality TV fan? Do you have favorite shows?
I love The Amazing Race. It’s my favorite television show of all time. I like to travel. To watch these average Americans go to a third-world country and melt down, it’s kind of great. I watched a lot of Jersey Shore. I don’t know why, but I found it addicting. When you watch reality TV you see these people on, say, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette (I watched a lot of those), there’s a bartender from Omaha, Nebraska who comes to L.A. and is on a show for maybe 6 or 7 weeks. He doesn’t go home. He’s changed in some fundamental way by being on that show.
I was thinking about the episode of Star Trek: Voyager you wrote, “Repression,” which is a Manchurian Vulcan episode.
How dare you bring that up! (laughing) We’re talking about books.
It explores similar questions of identity as in your books. The episode involves a murder that occurs in a holodeck version of an old movie theater. It’s not reality TV but it is an altered reality.
You thought about that episode more than I did. One of my favorite conversations with a journalist ever was a guy who asked, “So for your bio, you want me to mention that you wrote one episode of Star Trek?” I hesitated and he goes, “I know. It’s hard enough to get laid in this town without people thinking you’re a Star Trek writer.”
What did you leave out of this book?
Someone needs to write about how abusive the reality shows are to the contestants. I have friends who work on Hell’s Kitchen and they sleep deprive those people, get them drunk, and have them eat unhealthy food so they’re wrecks. Then they’re put in a stressful situation so of course they freak out. On The Bachelor, the producers will lie to them, they’ll provoke them. That happens on all those shows.
Sepp's got PTSD from doing reality TV. He doesn’t understand reality anymore because it has all been edited for him. My favorite part of the book is when he says, “We’ll just do this and they’ll fix it in post. I don’t have to make sense out of it.”
You're working on a book about nudism.
It’s the history of nudism interspersed with my experiences of going to nudist sites around the world. After I did the book about the world of cannabis growers and strain hunters [Heart of Dankness], I was thinking about other misunderstood subcultures, spitballing with my agent at Grove and I said, yeah, take nudists. They said that sounds great, we’ll buy that book. Then I had to hike through the Alps naked with a bunch of strangers, which I did. I have a nude cruise coming up in February.
Who are your favorite satirists?
That’s a good one because satire is really tough. For me, it’s satire that doesn’t present itself as satire. Nicholson Baker is sneaky. Geoff Dyer is sneaky. Sarah Levine wrote a book called Treasure Island!!! that is a brilliant satire. I try to be sneaky. I think comic novels are a bit of a lost art.
Do you anticipate some repercussions from your book?
I hope so. As Kingsley Amis said, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.”