It’s that time of year again, when you try to buy a cute little Christmas tree-like plant for your apartment—to be festive-like—and the cat knocks it over within like 0.3 seconds, so you spend the evening vacuuming up dirt and the bits of Christmas-tree-like-plant tendrils instead of basking in the feeling of accomplishment slash self-pity that comes with buying Christmas decorations probably only you yourself will see, but so you go out and buy a new mini Christmas tree plant anyway, decorate it, and Instagram it to feel better.
Also known as the holidays.
Cat lady moments notwithstanding, the end of the year brings with it a flurry of “Best of 2012” lists, designed to inform you of all the great writing produced over the last 12 months, and guilt trip you for not having read enough of it. How I’ve gotten through a book every week, and yet somehow managed to avoid reading even one of the NYT’s’ 100 Notable Books, is beyond me. In a related query, how could they have snubbed Sookie Stackhouse No. 12??
In March of this year, Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs,” in which he outlined his decision to end a 12-year tenure with one of the most successful investment banks in the world. In that declaration — which I wrote about back when I reviewed Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia — Smith put the fault on a shifting Goldman culture, where “the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.”
Critics called Smith’s op-ed naive, but I found it decently badass, and so was fairly excited for Why I Left Goldman Sachs, the book. It held the allure of additional juicy Goldman tidbits — like the Times essay’s disclosure that clients were often referred to as “muppets” — and other embarrassing examples of the kind of corporate greed and financial whimsy that lend credibility to the idea of the 99% versus the 1%. I didn’t expect Smith to divulge any massive illegal folly on Goldman’s part, so much as to remind us why we should be angry that these are the people who run the institutions we’ve deemed too big to fail.
Unfortunately, not only does WILGS fail to be particularly earth-shattering with respect to the financial sector, it for the most part fails to be particularly interesting as a book. Smith, a mediocre writer at best, gets lost in the story of his own humdrum advancement at Goldman, and appears to be confused about what does or doesn’t rate as memoir-worthy. While some degree of exposition is to be expected, it’s not until more than halfway through the book that Smith even begins to outline the subject on which its title is based. Nor does the first half feel particularly relevant, except as an overt ploy to qualify his ultimate disillusionment (“Before we get into why I left Goldman, let me explain that I am clearly a smart and awesome person.”) Listen, I don’t care that you took three years of Zulu, Greg. I don’t care that you visited the first-ever Wendy’s, or how good you were at using the trading desk’s time-stamping machine, or where you buy your shirts, unless it’s a shirt store fronting for a purveyor of diamond-encrusted toilets, or something I don’t know, a little more Goldman Sachs.
The Assassin of Secrets story is extra interesting because, unlike some of his plagiarizing predecessors, Markham (the pen name for poet Quentin Rowan, who also happens to be a part-owner of Williamsburg bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown) made what seems like zero effort to hide his ripping. Here are two sample paragraphs (a comprehensive list is available here).
From Assassin of Secrets: “The boxy, sprawling Munitions Building which sat near the Washington Monument and quietly served as I-Division’s base of operations was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular work space.”
From Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency: “In June 1930, the boxy, sprawling Munitions Building, near the Washington Monument, was a study in monotony. Endless corridors connecting to endless corridors. Walls a shade of green common to bad cheese and fruit. Forests of oak desks separated down the middle by rows of tall columns, like concrete redwoods, each with a number designating a particular workspace.”
In the age of Google, I find it downright amazing that people still think they can get away with this kind of stuff. Which isn’t to say that I expect publishers to spend all their time googling various paragraphs from manuscripts they receive, but rather that authors, whose entire goal is to get their work distributed to as many people as possible, don’t realize (or choose to ignore) that someone somewhere is going to pick up on similarities as blatant as these.