Have been reading Natasha Stagg’s collection Sleeveless, which came out this year from Semiotext[e]. It’s sort of a short story collection, but it’s also a collection of essays and reported pieces about celebrities. What I love is that the book is unabashedly concerned with looks, style, and social status, but doesn’t satirize those things, doesn’t condescend to or look down to them, and, as a bonus, the book is also totally unconcerned with romance.
One of my favorite stories is one where a writer and an artist go home together after a show–it’s they’re first same-sex encounter, and both the women are excited and confused–later the writer mentions the artist in several of her articles and the artist’s reputation rises as a result, sending her on the road to a modicum of fame. The artist’s friends tell her, "Well, you know, that’s how it works, sometimes." The sex wasn’t at all transactional, but it still benefited the artist’s career. It just had a trueness that you don’t often see. In another story, a budding publicist listens to a group of friends at the next table discuss their problems. The publicist takes down their names, googles them, emails them the next day and books them as clients.
The reported pieces are just as good. These are mostly stories about minor celebrities: models, designers, and artists–most of whom fall in the ‘It’ girl category. The author has a keen eye for detail, and she’s good at ferreting out what is general to the time and what is specific to her subject. My favorite piece was where she noted that an It girl in the oughts is different than an It girl in the nineties. In the nineties, you needed to go out, meet people, and be charming. But in the oughts, you’re usually discovered on social media. That means your image is entirely in your control from the beginning. But it also means you don’t need to go to parties, you don’t need to be charming, in fact, you don’t need to leave your bedroom. Many of her subjects are, if not antisocial, then at least very reticent and a little bit awkward–kind of like how many musicians tend to be.
I’m reading the book slowly for some reason. Of course, collections never go as fast as novels, but still it’s not a long book, and I should probably be done by now.
I’m also listening to a book about Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork. Books about failure are so much more interesting than books about success, just like books about mediocre artists are better than books about great artists, because everything about the story can be encapsulated by the book. Success, like great art, is ineffable and inexplicable. You can try to understand it, but those understandings are usually post-facto and insufficient. For instance, I once read a book about Twitter and came away with the impression that it was a very poorly-run company, with a terrible technical back-end, that is badly monetized, and which has teetered on the brink of insolvency several times. Nonetheless, it’s only become bigger and more powerful. Why? Well…it’s hard to say! Why did Vine go bankrupt, when TikTok, essentially the same thing, become huge? It’s hard to say! Some companies continue to boggle the mind. Tesla’s valuation is insane. The number makes absolutely no sense. Yet that’s what people have been saying for ten years! People have gone bankrupt betting against Tesla. You can’t explain that in a book.
WeWork is a much more standard tale of hubris. But you kind of understand why it worked! I mean why not? Other companies have used gobs of venture capital money to blow up so big that they couldn’t fail. From the founder’s perspective, the moves he was making were perfectly rational. The venture capitalists, too, weren’t betting their own money (mostly). Often they were running immense funds, and it’s just not easy to find companies that can take a half billion dollars of investment. When you’re working with amounts that large, there are only a certain number of places to put it. The investors are really to blame: venture capital isn’t an amazing investment vehicle. They’d be better off just putting their money into an index fund. Yet most of the investors too aren’t sinking all their money into this. It’s part of a diversified investment strategy. You know, I wonder if there is a branch of economics that studies what happens when too much capital is chasing too few productive opportunities. That seems the case these days, and it’s likely to be even more true as investors buy up distressed assets from people who’ve been bankrupted by the pandemic. It just doesn’t seem very efficient for some private equity fund to borrow money at low interest rates from the government to buy up a bunch of property, when the owners of the property ought to be able to buy up the property themselves.
I do believe in economics. I’m a capitalist. I believe it’s important for capital to be able to move, so it can be allocated to more productive purposes. And I suppose someone could say that WeWork is just a sort of creative destruction: the investors made a bet, and they lost their money. Capitalism worked how it’s supposed to. And they might’ve run other coworking spaces out of business, but they didn’t use their VC money to destroy entire industries, as Uber did with the taxi industry. But I really don’t think it’s really capitalism when some companies use a bunch of fancy rhetoric to raise money much more cheaply than other companies can, and then use that money to drive the other companies out of business. That’s not a productive use of capital. That’s simply absurd. I’m just not sure how to stop it.