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BlogFebruary, 2008
The NY Times Magazine insults our intelligence; the truth about Gilbert Arenas and Jeremy Shockey

I'm pissed at New York Times Magazine writer Charles McGrath:

Charles Bock, whose first novel, Beautiful Children , comes out on Tuesday, used to be one of the horde of struggling, would-be writers who still flock to New York, even though novel-writing isn't what it used to be. They hang on because every now and then a first-timer – a Colson Whitehead, a Zadie Smith, a Gary Shteyngart – hits the jackpot and makes the game seem worth staying in for just a little longer. You can spot them in coffee shops in Brooklyn and the West Village, clicking away on their laptops – when they're not wasting time on Gawker, that is. You also see them at readings at Housing Works, KGB Bar and the Half King, dressed in black, leaning forward intently and sometimes venturing to ask a probing question. They idolize Lethem, Chabon, Eggers. They study The New Yorker religiously so that they can complain about how predictable the fiction is.

I sent my Letter to the Editor:

How many generalizations can Charles McGrath make about struggling writers in a single paragraph (Jan. 27)? McGrath claims that they "idolize Lethem, Chabon, Eggers" and "study The New Yorker religiously" and dress in black and waste time on Gawker. I can respect McGrath's attempt to contrast his subject – Las Vegas-raised novelist Charles Bock – with New York's horde of wide-eyed aspirants. But his characterization of the horde is too reductive and too reliant on stereotypes to be believed.


My letter scratches the surface. I have four other complaints:

(1)  "Novel-writing isn't what it used to be." What evidence does McGrath provide for this sweeping assertion? None. Then there's the nauseating imprecision of the phrase, isn't what it used to be.' McGrath doesn't even supply a decade.

(2)  "They hang on because every now and then a first-timer...hits the jackpot...." Again, McGrath provides no evidence; he just pigeonholes all struggling writers as fame-seeking missiles.

(3)  Later on in the story, McGrath describes Bock's apartment as "a classic first novelist's apartment: leaky faucet, brick wall, rock posters, desk made of a shelf and some dinged-up filing cabinets." At this point, I'm skeptical about McGrath's pride, effort, and intelligence. I'd at least like to know his basis for employing a facile phrase like "classic first novelist's apartment." Did he see a documentary about rookie novelists? Has he been inside the apartments of several rookie novelists? All I want is some sourcing, attribution, or journalistic responsibility. His bylined status as "former editor of the Book Review" means nothing to me.

(4)    "Bock, who is now 38, a little old to be a first novelist...." So now McGrath is making age-related judgments. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for judgments. I've made mine about McGrath. Apparently, McGrath doesn't know that Willa Cather (age 39), Norman Rush (58), Charles Frazier (47), and Mary Gaitskill (37) were also "a little old" to be first novelists.

Thanks to Sarah Wheaton, owner of Full Moon, for sharing the article with me. Let's hope the Times prints my letter.

***


Can anyone deny the Washington Wizards (24-19) are better without Gilbert Arenas? As of January 29, they were 21-14 without him. The 21 wins include two against the Boston Celtics (35-8) and two against the Dallas Mavericks (31-13). Yet ESPN's Chris Broussard recently claimed the Wizards were not better without Arenas.

Obviously, Arenas is a more gifted scorer than his replacement, perennial backup Antonio Daniels. But Daniels is a better fit for a team running a "Princeton" offense with two all-star forwards. The Wizards don't need a point guard who averages more than three turnovers per game and can't crack a .430 field-goal percentage. They need a selfless, steady distributor like Daniels, who's averaged 1.69 turnovers a game and shot .462 this season.

What's happened with the Wizards mirrors what's happened with the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks. The Knicks (14-30) are 8-12 without guard Stephon Marbury, 6-18 with him. The Bucks (18-28) are 4-2 without guard Michael Redd, 14-26 with him. There's more at work here than what ESPN.com's Bill Simmons popularized as " The Ewing Theory," wherein a team excels in its star's absence. No, this is simple basketball chemistry. Teams shoot higher percentages when guards do less of the gunning. The Bucks excel without Redd because center Andrew Bogut – averaging 17 points per game in January – is more involved. The Knicks are better without Marbury because forward Zach Randolph – who averaged 18 points per game in December, when Marbury missed 10 of 14 games – is more active.

***


In football, the New York Giants lost tight end Jeremy Shockey (leg) in Week 15. Then they crushed the Buffalo Bills (Week 16), nearly beat the New England Patriots (Week 17), and won road playoff games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (wild-card), Dallas Cowboys (semifinals), and Green Bay Packers (NFC Finals). And yet, I recently heard Mike Garafolo, the Giants beat writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, deny that the Giants were better without Shockey.

Shockey's replacement, rookie Kevin Boss, caught only eight passes in those five Shockey-less games. So how have the Giants thrived? Simple: Shockey hindered the offensive balance. Had Shockey played in the 23-20 victory in Green Bay, wide receiver Plaxico Burress would not have caught 11 balls for 151 yards. Running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw would not have amassed 37 carries for 130 yards and two scores. Instead, Giants quarterback Eli Manning would have forced six or seven passes to Shockey. And one of them would have been intercepted.

Indeed, what's most revealing about Shockey's absence is how Manning has thrived in it. He's thrown nine touchdown passes and only three interceptions in the five Shockey-less games. In the previous five games, Manning had thrown five touchdown passes and six interceptions. Meanwhile, in the five Shockey-less games, the Giants running backs averaged 29 carries. In the previous five games, they averaged 25 carries.

In short, it's not farfetched to create a cross-sport comparison between Arenas and Shockey. In both cases, a star's absence streamlined an offensive. In both cases, the teams' records improved dramatically. And in both cases, journalists denied the obvious.

Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has been honored by Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari