In If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? (Penny-Ante Editions) Jarrett Kobek uses transcriptions of celebrity sex tapes to trace a narrative through decadent, post-internet celebrity in America. Beginning with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s 1998 honeymoon tape, fragments of amusingly vapid dialogue are juxtaposed with the celebrity’s criminal history (on inlaid black strips of paper) to sketch an era in which entertainment overrides justice, and a life without consequence is the norm for a privileged few. Kobek is the author of two previous books. We spoke over Skype. – Matthew O’Shannessy
THE BELIEVER: To start off with, why did you get interested in celebrity sex tapes?
JARETT KOBEK: There’s probably a twofold answer to that. The first is that I think in the last ten years, everyone has unfortunately had to develop an interest. It may not be as profound as my own, but everyone is at least aware of these things. The genesis of this project was whenever the first Paris Hilton sex tape came out, which was almost ten years ago at this point. And you know, the sex on these things is always really bland because probably the most uninteresting thing in the world is watching narcissists fuck each other. But what was really interesting even then, was the dialogue that was occurring during the sex or between the sex, or just watching Paris Hilton and her big dumb boyfriend try to talk to each other like human beings and their complete failure to do that.
I think in that tape there’s this really amazing moment where at some point she’s having sex and actually her cell phone goes off, so she just gets on her cell phone. So then you have three layers of dialogue going on. In the background they’ve left the television on because if you’re Paris Hilton you’re going to leave the television on while you have sex, and there’s the dialogue between her and the guy that she’s having sex with, and then she’s on the phone. It’s just an amazing biopsy of a certain kind of profoundly consumer American life. You know, taken to its furthest extreme.
BLVR: Obviously these tapes are much longer, and you’ve picked out certain elements and then arranged them, put them with the criminal records. In a way it’s more than a transcription. You’re going for a certain effect.
JK: If you put Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian on a camera for five hours, you would be amazed how little usable material there really is! So there’s some editing, but it’s not huge. And I really didn’t want to transcribe people moaning or whatever it would be. The sex part is by far the least interesting. The criminal records — I think I was transcribing one of Vince Neil’s sex tapes from Mötley Crüe and I realised that he had actually killed a guy. Then I remembered that the actress Rebecca Gayheart also had a sex tape and she had also killed someone, and I started to think about how we had gotten to this point as a society where there’s an actual distribution mechanism. There’s an actual product in which we watch felons fuck.
And I thought, that’s really interesting, that’s a way to elevate it beyond just being this sort of gag book where it’s like, Oh yeah let’s laugh at Vince Neil, or Let’s laugh at Tommy Lee. When you start to realise that – maybe not the majority, but a significant minority of the people in this material actually have criminal histories, they have committed really crazy or serious crimes, and that none of them did time¾ that’s the key. You start thinking about the way that fame in particular, but also money, perverts criminal justice.
If I had run over a nine-year-old kid, I probably would have gone to jail, but Rebecca Gayheart didn’t. I think she got 1200 hours of community service. So inserting the criminal records became a way to put some gravity into the work.
BLVR: The sex tapes are part of an era – the last decade or so – where it’s not about suppressing the tape anymore, it’s about turning it into a marketing tool. It’s a way to kick-start your career. What interests you about this era?
JK: That’s a good question. There’s a narrative in the book, I don’t know how evident it is to anyone else, where you can see the point where the tapes begin. At first, it really is just people’s home videos. Then in the middle of the book it shifts into people doing these videos with the intention of turning it into a marketing tool. Then by the time you get to the end of the book, it’s become an actual genre. I don’t know if I have that much to say about it other than it happened, that it’s a definite narrative progression.
That last decade was such a deeply fucked-up time that it just seems endlessly rich in terms of material to mine, in a way that I’m not sure the 1990s necessarily were rich. I mean, everyone in the 90s thought they were rich, but then if you look at them in comparison to the 2000s, the 2000s have a lot more of real consequence going on. At least from the American perspective, it’s a much richer time in terms of society just going really haywire and getting truly bizarre and truly baroque.
For me, I was a teenager for more or less the whole 90s, and I hated it, I really hated that decade. I hated the 2000s, too, but I hated them in a much different way. Where I felt like the 90s never made any sense to me, the 2000s made sense to me in this aspect where everything was just breaking in America. The 90s in my memory were just so incredibly superficial. Not that the 2000s didn’t have superficiality, but there’s something much darker about popular entertainment when Amy Fisher actually shoots someone through the head and now you can watch her have sex for money, on tape. I mean, that’s really deeply disturbing!
I don’t have any hard conclusions to draw about it, because it’s not completely clear to me what’s going on. Usually when I do these things, I do them to try and figure out how I feel about them, and I usually have a much better sense by the time the project is done. This one, I don’t. It’s still really murky to me. It’s like, maybe that stuff is beyond critique. Maybe the critique can only be indirect ¾ because how do you critique Amy Fisher’s artist statement? It’s just so bizarre.
BLVR: In your other books, there’s an interest in the overlap between fact and fiction. But what you’re talking about here with the tapes is that they’re contrived or they’re a marketing tool.
JK: Yeah. I really feel like having read as much Philip K. Dick as I could in the 90s was like some bizarre training ground for the eventuality of the 2000s, in terms of this sense he had that everything eventually was going to become entertainment and everything eventually was going to be about how you can make money by transforming everything into entertainment. He strikes me as profoundly ahead of his time.
BLVR: So you’re interested in the sort of entertainment complex that produces these things?
JK: Yeah. It might’ve been about 10 years ago at this point — but there was a moment when the Russian Mir space station was crashing into the earth, and Taco Bell actually put a giant target out in the ocean. The idea was, if the satellite hit the target, then everyone in America would get a free taco for a year or something like that. That was the moment when I started to realise that Philip K. Dick may have been much more prophetic than I had given him credit for. Reality TV, these sex tapes, strike me as very Dickian. They strike me as science fiction — in the most mundane as possible way: there’s not a lot of science but there’s certainly a lot of weird fiction in there.
BLVR: There’s a lot of negative writing about this sort of stuff – “being famous for being famous,” all that. Are you critical of people who don’t earn their fame, or are you just observing?
JK: I feel like there are much better things to worry about. It doesn’t really matter why people end up famous. In an ideal world, everyone would win fame and glory for actual achievements, but I don’t think that’s the world we live in, and I don’t think that’s ever been the world we’ve lived in.
At the same time, it is dispiriting when you find out how much money Kim Kardashian has made in the last three months. When you live in a society where the people from Jersey Shore are making millions and millions of dollars for apparently nothing, it does become incredibly dispiriting.
I think there’s something useful in looking at these people and seeing the extent to which luck and base motivations can get you to the same place that you’ve been raised your whole life to believe that if you just work hard enough, America will reward you. Most of the time it won’t. Often it seems like success comes not so much from their hard work as from profound psychopathic tendencies.
BLVR: We haven’t talked about the sections with Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Why did you put them in?
JK: Well, Saddam has been like a lodestone over my literary career. My short story about him was the first thing that I ever had professionally published. I’d seen Saddam’s execution tape, and I don’t know how it happened, but he’s a genocidal dictator who used chemical weapons against his own people, and yet somehow in the tape he ends up coming out looking like the best person in the room. You know, he’s funny in it, and he’s calm in a way that no one else is.
I was thinking about these tapes and how it was interesting that the mechanism for the delivery of Saddam and Gaddafi being executed was pretty much the same mechanism of delivery for these sex tapes. They were all shot on really shitty equipment. I think Saddam’s was shot on somebody’s cell phone—probably Gaddafi’s was too—and then distributed on the internet.
It’s really interesting that it’s the same medium, and that it sort of works in the same way, in that the object of fascination in the tape is based primarily on these people being flashing images that have come before you. What’s an interesting contrast is that these are people who actually do end up suffering some kind of punishment. Whether or not it’s a just punishment, it’s punishment for actions they’ve done in their society, that then come to a definite termination point. I mean, I’m not trying to liken Saddam and Gaddafi to Paris Hilton in that obviously these guys were genuinely horrible individuals responsible for some really atrocious things, but it sort of seems like it’s a related if dissimilar genre.
The precursor to those execution tapes, much like the precursor to the sex tapes was Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s, is the execution of Ceaușescu in 1989. So there’s a real parallel. I thought, How much celebrity can you have without consequence? and, Okay here’s consequence: here’s celebrity, here’s consequence.
BLVR: People have talked about literature being, in a sense, behind other art forms – not having caught up to things like contemporary art or music. Would you agree with that?
JK: Completely. It’s weird that literature is always going to be bound to a human need for stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end. My big inspiration over the last ten years is the Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison. He’s really really fascinating because he’s been writing these really shitty superhero comics, which are the best things ever because he’s figured out that, okay, you have to have story beats here, here, and here, but you can use the moments between these beats to talk about whatever it is you want to talk about. It’s crazy when one of the major works of experimental fiction for the last six years has been a guy writing Batman, but it’s a really astonishing work.
BLVR: Your book is more like an artist’s book, in the sense that the design and physical aspect of it is so carefully crafted.
JK: Yeah. My interests and sensibilities may be better aligned with the people in the art world than the people in the literary world, and thus far my literary career seems to have had a pretty huge intersection with the art world. The literary world is — I mean, there’s a lot of criticisms you can hurl at the art world, but all of them can be hurled at the literary world in a much more severe degree. It’s kind of dismal. My one success was with Semiotext(e), who I don’t know if anyone in the world would look at them as entrenched within the literary establishment. I think there’s a certain flexibility in the art world that isn’t in the literary world right now.
I know the intention with Penny-Ante was to have the book be more like a limited edition or an artist’s book than, okay, we’re going to publish this thing that will infinitely be in print. It’s more like, We’ll do 1000 of these books or we’ll do 300 of them, and that’ll be the end of it.
Matthew O’Shannessy is a writer and member of the art collective Tape Projects. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.