April 2004

Michael Schaub

features

An Interview with Marty Beckerman

In the past ten years, precocious young writers have made some of the most forgettable contributions to American literature. There have been at least a dozen prodigies penning fantasy novels, not to mention the kid whose dad is a famous magazine editor, or the college student who wrote the book about the death of irony before 9-11. The U.S. literary scene is in dire need of a young, outspoken, original bomb thrower. Enter Marty Beckerman, 21 years old, and already garnering critical praise for his second book, Generation S.L.U.T.: A Brutal Feel-up Session with Today's Sex-Crazed Adolescent Populace. (One notable exception was online magazine Salon, who ran a somewhat patronizing gotcha piece about Beckerman and his book.)

Beckerman has a long history of pissing people off -- as a teenager, he became the youngest writer ever fired by the Anchorage Daily News. Shortly thereafter, he published his first book, Death to All Cheerleaders: One Adolescent Journalist's Cheerful Diatribe Against Teenage Plasticity, through his own Infected Press. Now a student at American University (he's graduating in May), Beckerman spends his days studying and doing interviews like this one. Bookslut corresponded with Marty Beckerman via phone and email from his home in Washington, D.C.

So do you have a tape recorder, or do you just want to write this down?

Do you mind if I record it?

Yeah, go ahead. I'd actually prefer that, post-Salon. Fucking communist assholes.

I don't want to make you talk about Salon the whole interview, but there's one thing about the article I didn't get. (Salon writer) Rebecca Traister wrote, "(H)is name may sound like that of a guy who tees off with your grandfather on the Coral Gables golf course..." What does that even mean?

Well, nobody's named Marty anymore, but I thought that was kind of a cheap shot to start an article out with. That whole Salon article was just -- I didn't come off well, and I think at the time I was really pissed off at the reporter. I was pissed off at her for being, I guess, unethical -- I felt that she misquoted me a couple of times, and quoted me out of context, and juxtaposed things that weren't supposed to be juxtaposed. I think in retrospect, it wasn't so much that she was trying to smear me, she just couldn't really capture my voice in print. I think she tried to get the sense of humor -- I think it wasn't so much vindictiveness on her part; she just couldn't get the profile down right. So I think I got a little too pissy with the response letter, but I think some of it was justified.

How do you like living in D.C.? It seems, somehow, a fitting location for you, though I'm not sure why.

It's okay, even though I'm tucked away in a suburban campus setting, so I'm not exactly a socialite. Honestly I like New York way more than D.C., just because there's more street-level energy there. But also way more snooty hipster assholes. It's like, do you want to hang out with power whores or pretentious assholes? Tough choice.

So are you pretty much banned from Anchorage now, or what?

Probably. Too many people want me dead, and not for the kind of things that blow over in three or four years... Maybe eventually I'll find a shack in the Alaskan wilderness and eat wolves for breakfast, that's kind of appealing to me. But all my friends from high school are very different people now -- and by "very different people," I mean "addicted to things" -- and I just made way too many enemies with my writing.

Death to All Cheerleaders seems equally influenced by Dave Barry and Hunter Thompson (and God knows what else). Did you have trouble integrating these two influences? Or was it a conscious decision at all?

You know, I actually don't think I discovered Thompson until after finishing Cheerleaders. I think maybe I picked up Fear and Loathing the summer afterward. But Dave Barry was a huge influence on my really early stuff, because I just wanted to be a humor columnist. And then I started reading more intense social criticism like Huxley and Orwell and Golding, and I became very pessimistic in my writing, whereas before I'd just been wacky like Dave Barry. Cheerleaders is a decent book for a 16-year-old, but it's very much the product of an extremely cynical, extremely zit-faced virgin who masturbated five times per day. To the extreme.

Do you ever hear from any of your high school teachers or classmates? I'm curious as to what their reaction to your books would be.

Sometimes. It's strange how I've already lost touch with some of my best friends from high school, because people changed so ridiculously fast. I mean, the ones who turned into total zombies are starting to come back down to earth -- which is good -- but what is there to talk about? "So, you're not cutting yourself while having sex with your 35-year-old coke dealer and barfing up all your food anymore, are you?" That's just depressing. Really, Generation S.L.U.T. is an effort to make peace with the fact that my friends are just memories now, even though most of them are still alive.

You write in Cheerleaders (or on the back cover, at least) that high schools are infested by "fickle pretensions, capricious brand name loyalties and plain old idiocy." I don't think any of us who went to high school in the '90s can disagree. Why do you think this is? Is there any way to improve it, or are we all pretty much fucked?

The way I viewed things in high school is different than how I view things now that I'm about to graduate from college. But generally I've got the same gripes -- individuality is more discouraged than ever before in youth culture. There aren't any heroes or inspirational figures for this generation, only worthless media whores like Britney or Justin or Paris Hilton who stand for nothing. And that trickles down to 12- and 13-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are. They've got no aspirations, nothing to inspire them, so they buy into the hedonism and mindlessness of Britney Culture. Suddenly, placing a label across your chest like Abercrombie -- although it'll be another corporate brand name in a few years -- means you've got an identity. And I hated those kids in high school, I thought they were conformist swine with no souls, but what I realized while writing S.L.U.T. is that they're some of the most confused, most depressed human beings walking the planet. If anything, Cheerleaders was a book for the kids who hate the popular kids, and S.L.U.T. is a book for the popular kids who hate themselves.

Any plans to re-interview Henry Rollins?

Well, considering that he threatened to break me in twine and rape my mother the last time we met, I don't believe I'll be spending too much time with Mr. Rollins in the future.

How did you hook up with Simon and Schuster/MTV Books?

The short answer is that I worked like a motherfucker for six years. A lot of young authors get published thanks to family connections like Nick McDonnell, or they suck some editor's dick at a party, or some other form of nepotism/sluttery. And most of the time, they get paid ludicrous advances, sometimes more than $500,000. So I'm very careful to say that my advance only covered one semester of college, and honestly I feel that's better in the end because if the book tanks, at least I won't lose the publisher five editors' annual salaries.

Anyway, I self-published Cheerleaders, which took unprecedented levels of patience and business acumen, and John Strausbaugh from the New York Press found a copy, loved it and hired me as a columnist. So I was working on S.L.U.T. over summer 2002, rooming in Brooklyn with my friend Ned Vizzini -- who's a great writer and has a fucking hilarious novel coming out this summer -- and I met a literary agent who shopped the book around to a bunch of editors. We felt that MTV could get it to teens better than any other publisher, and despite my personal opinions on MTV as a network, that was the most important thing.

MTV has pretty much always been a whipping boy for the religious right, but it's always seemed pretty innocuous to me. Is their "immorality" really all that bad? Is it exaggerated?

Well, I don't defend the network whatsoever, but MTV Books is a very good imprint. A few fans of Cheerleaders told me I'd sold out, but the publisher gave me total creative freedom and contributed some very cool artwork/layout innovations. Also, MTV published my single favorite contemporary novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so that certainly helped justify my decision.

Does Simon and Schuster or MTV Books have some kind of media adviser for you, someone who watches what you say in interviews?

I don't know if I should... I haven't been keeping my mouth shut about this, and I probably should have, but I don't give a shit. After the Janet Jackson thing, MTV got very, very paranoid about any kind of controversy related to sex. There wasn't ever any a national media campaign planned for Generation S.L.U.T., but at one point there was a TV commercial planned, a few magazine advertisements planned, and those all got cut. The book is not for sale in the MTV Store in Times Square. It's still in bookstores; it's not like they refused to publish the book once Janet Jackson showed her titty. I could feel there was a little bit of pressure for a little while, that I should be a little bit more cautious. But I think that's kind of passed now. MTV has been really supportive of this book, and their publicity department is really cool. They're not really watching what I'm saying. But at one point I could tell they really wanted controversy for this, and now I can tell that they're a little bit more hesitant to cause much of a ruckus with the religious types, especially.

You've been attacked by critics who seem to think you're part of the Christian right. How have you responded to them, besides pointing out that your last name is "Beckerman"?

Well, those attacks came from Salon readers responding to an extremely condescending article about me, which took many of my quotes out of context. And I know it's annoying to hear successful young people bitching about being misquoted, but I felt that piece really distorted my message from a moderate viewpoint to an anti-sex viewpoint, which isn't what I'm going for at all. So really, I feel that most of my harshest critics haven't even read S.L.U.T. And that group -- the Tolerance Police -- are some of the most closed-minded, ignorant, reactionary dipshits on Planet Earth. But seriously, nobody under 21 has a single negative thing to say about S.L.U.T., you know? All I've heard from actual teens is amazingly positive, so I really don't give a shit what politically correct, brainwashed 30-somethings think about my writing.

Have you been hearing a lot from teenagers who have read the book?

Yeah. The responses that I have heard back -- I mean, everyone under 21 who's written to me has said, "This is my world; you've got it." This girl from Argentina wrote me, this Latin American beauty wrote me -- she's 18. And I'm not even making this quote up, she said, "I always felt alone in the world until I read your book, and now I know there's another mind that works like mine." So the reaction from kids has been really positive. But the reaction from Gen X-ers... I know it's partly envy, and I can't do anything about that. I mean, I paid my fucking dues. I self-published; that was a fucking nightmare. I worked from the ground up here. I didn't have Daddy to ask the president of Atlantic Books to publish my book. I fucking paid my dues. But I feel that a lot of Gen X-ers think that things never change, that kids today are just the same as they were, and that every generation is rebellious, and this is just alarmism. But that's why I included all the fucking numbers in there, and the article clippings. And look, maybe one statistic by itself you can't quite trust, but put so many of them together, there's an irrefutable pattern being shown.

I almost feel as though (detractors) are just looking for something to nitpick. They're not even reading the book. Most people who have given me shit on the Internet, who say I'm not worth reading, actually haven't ever read me. I think they're reacting more to my personality. But I can't really care about them, and I really did for a while -- I really started to have like a nervous breakdown over this, because a bunch of Salon feminists sent me death threats; one of them threatened to show up to one of my readings in New York City and piss in my mouth: "You misogynistic, patriarchal, classist Jew bastard." She actually called me a misogynist and a classist, and then she insulted me for being a Jew. I can't figure that out.

Are there any other young writers you admire?

Well, Ned Vizzini's really good. His (forthcoming) novel is called Be More Chill. He's really good, and he's one of my best friends. He's a writer, I'm a writer, and we go through the same shit, have the same doubts. Our careers are kind of moving at the same pace. Generation S.L.U.T. wouldn't be around if it not for him, because he put me up at his apartment for so long.

Most (young writers) kind of suck. There are certain authors who are getting contracts when they're 14 years old, for a quarter million dollars, to write their memoirs. A 14-year-old has no perspective on his or her life. I mean, I wrote a book in high school, and it's good for the bitter rantings of a 16-year-old virgin, but it has no real perspective. So, yeah, I feel that this fetish for giving young authors an insane amount of money -- maybe it's an old thing, but it seems like it's coming back. And I don't think it's healthy for these authors, and I don't think it's healthy for the publishing world. I'm just waiting for an 11-year-old girl to get a contract for a book called The Diary of My Pubes Coming In, (with a jacket quote by) Naomi Wolf: "This book explains the dilemma of women worldwide as they sprout pubes and fight the patriarchy. Howard Bloom molested me, but it never happened, 'cause I'm a crazy bitch!" Quote all of this; I don't give a shit.

Are there any humor writers around that you read?

I haven't really picked up a humor book in a while. I love P. J. O'Rourke, he has a book coming out called Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism. I'm looking forward to that one. My roots are still in humor writing. Some of my old fans have told me that they don't like the direction I went in when I started doing social criticism, and they just want me to go around and make fun of people again. And I could do that, but it just stopped working. You can get away with some shit when you're 16 years old. You can interview Christian cheerleaders, and then trash them, and say there's no God. That was cool at 16. But if I did that at 21, it's not cool anymore. It's just kind of fucked up.

It's not like I sat down with this fucking plan of "This is how I'm going to be marketable." I saw all this fucked-up shit; I saw a lot of my friends get really fucked up. That's what I wrote about, not because I thought it would sell books. That's what was going through my fucking head. Parts of Generation S.L.U.T. had to come out of me, or I would have fucking killed myself. I swear to fucking God. Too much insane shit happened to me in the last three years since high school. So I hope people going through the same thing read this book, and feel that someone else went through it, too.

Do you consider yourself political?

That's what I'm going to get into more with the next book. What I want to say with the next book -- it'll continue the generation theme. Now I'm saying that war has always shaped generations -- you know, World War II shaped one generation; Vietnam definitely shaped our parents' generation. And this war is going to shape ours, but it's not Vietnam, it's not World War II. I mean, six hundred soldiers have died, but in Vietnam, sometimes six hundred soldiers died in a day, and especially in World War II. So I'm asking, is this going to escalate, and what are the long-term effects going to be on us. The kids fighting this are twenty, nineteen, eighteen years old, and nobody's really told their story. But as far as being political -- I've got some pretty strong libertarian leanings. I think the most dangerous thing in the world is when you put a bunch of people in a room that all agree with each other. And it doesn't matter what they agree on, but they'll just push each other so fucking far in one direction, whether it's left, right, whatever. I try not to fall for groupthink. You have to be a skeptic. You have to study history. Some of the most liberal kids I know don't know anything about the USSR, or about what communism is like all over the world, or what it was like, and why it failed. So I wouldn't consider myself political, but that's what I'm moving toward. I want to start exploring deeper territory than teen sex, because I'm 21 now, and I don't want to be Blink-182. I don't want to be fucking 30 and writing about prom.

Or like Dashboard Confessional...

That's another fucking thing, emo. God fucking dammit, the worst fucking music in history. People ask me, "Why do you say this is the most depressed generation in history?" But no one ever listened to emo before. No one listened to music that's supposed to make you commit suicide.

I've met a lot of educators who are bitter at Bill Clinton -- or Ken Starr, depending on their politics -- that their young students know what oral sex is. What effect, if any, do you think the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal had on young people's attitudes toward sex?

Good question. You know, I avoided addressing that directly in S.L.U.T. even though I considered it. I'm not going to say that Clinton getting blowjobs from a girl his daughter's age led directly to 50 percent of 13-year-olds having oral sex, because I think there's more going on here. We grew up in Utopia, with unprecedented prosperity, peace and opportunities. And instead of becoming the greatest American generation, we became the most hedonistic and self-indulgent. And I'm not against fun, I'm not against sex -- I'm very careful to say that I've got a girlfriend and I like to put my dizznick in her fuckity-slit whenever possible -- but human beings aren't wired to have anonymous partners every single time. That's the real problem -- not the fact kids are having sex, because kids have always had sex. The problem is that none of them care about anyone else, and hardly any of them care about themselves. This has to be the first generation in American history where the majority could be diagnosed as mentally ill, if not totally schizophrenic.

The numbers of self-mutilators, the numbers of suicide attempts -- which is now 10 percent -- why are these people so fucking sad and crazy, and have so many emotional disorders, and so scared of emotional attachments? The thing we're lacking is identity. No one has a sense of self, and no one wants to have a sense of self, and people need to have a sense of self. You know, you reach out to Abercrombie, put their brand name across your chest and now you have an identity. There's no passion, no sense of self, and that's leading these people to be fucking crazy, because they don't have the basic things that human beings have always had. That was a good long rant. Now I should say something funny about my dick or something.

Do you consider Generation S.L.U.T. a work of fiction or nonfiction? Or neither? Or both?

It's both -- the core of the book is the novella, but then I've got all the statistics, quotes from real kids, news clippings and other nonfiction elements. So I'm making the emotional case with my fictional characters, and the journalistic case with the hard numbers and quotes.

The use of comic strips in the book turned out to be really effective. How did you come to the decision to use graphic art in the book?

That was MTV's idea, and I'm really happy with the results. The artwork adds another dimension to the book -- I mean, you flip through it and you can just feel this energy burning from the pages. Plus we're aiming for a demographic that doesn't necessarily read a lot of books, so the comic elements probably make it more appealing to teens and college students. Which is fine, because the substance of the narrative is still there underneath the flashier visual tricks.

To what degree (if any) is the Boom Generation, or even Generation X, to blame for how Generation Y is turning out? Do you feel like your forbears have let your generation down?

That's what I'm really exploring at the end of S.L.U.T. -- what exactly were the effects of the 1960s? Because we're so brainwashed into believing that every social change from that decade was positive -- and a lot of the changes were positive -- but if that's 100 percent true, then what happened to Rockwell-style Americana? What happened to the idea of a happy childhood or young love? That doesn't exist anymore. Fifty-three percent of married couples get divorced. Ten percent of American teenagers attempt suicide every year. Sixty-two percent of American teenage males believe forced sex is acceptable if a girl is drunk and dressed "promiscuously." Something is deeply sick in American culture, and it can be traced directly back to the Vietnam War. That decade killed the American dream forever. As one character says in S.L.U.T., "The death of our parents' innocence was the fucking abortion of ours." And now Bush is trying to re-ignite those flames of morality and security, but it's just not going to happen. It's too late for this generation.

Your work reminds me a lot of Hunter Thompson, but you've also received a lot of comparisons to Lenny Bruce. Did this surprise you? Was Bruce an influence on your humor at all?

Not directly, but I like how he challenged the left and the right. He took shit from everyone because he was an independent thinker and refused to follow either party line. That's how I feel about South Park too -- they're libertarians, not liberals. And with Bruce, feminists and Christians alike hated him, so I guess I can relate.

I'm contractually obligated to ask you this. Is there anything you'd like to say to the editorial staff of Salon.com?

The USSR didn't work, guys. You lost. Sorry. Now please throw yourselves off a bridge.

What are you working on now?

Trying to talk my girlfriend into letting me fuck her super-cute lesbian friends as a graduation present. And I want to go to Baghdad, but first the lesbians.

This is kind of a trite bullshit question, but I'm actually interested in your answer. How do you want to be remembered as a writer?

Honestly, that's something I think about a lot, because I used to want to be famous like any young writer, but then it hit me that fame is Paris Hilton, you know? Fame is Ashton Kutcher, and in ten years he's going to be the guy whose name you can't remember. So I'd rather write something that impacts people so deeply that they'll carry it with them for the rest of their lives. Maybe that's the height of my pretension, but I'm sure any literate person would agree that books affect people in ways that television or movies never will. So that's my calling. And if it's pretension, or if I'm a "self-centered blowhard" like one Salon asshole said, that's fine, because it's in my DNA. That's who I am, and people can choose to love it or hate it, but at least they won't be ambivalent. Nobody can read Generation S.L.U.T. and say, "Eh... it's okay, I guess." You're either going to think I'm your personal savior or the most loathsome piece of shit in the world -- and either way I get the last laugh.