David Shapiro and his Tumblr Pitchfork Reviews Reviews once felt “big on the internet”. Roughly five years ago, Shapiro – then fresh out of college with a shitty job and some self-esteem issues – started writing meta-reviews of the music reviews published on Pitchfork each morning. As he commuted to a conservative clerical gig, he’d frantically type out ranting but sharp essays on his Blackberry memo pad (sans-capitalisations and with few paragraph breaks), deconstructing the music critics’ arguments and logic, and even commending certain reviews a “Best New Review” tag – a play on Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” symbol of indie gold status. From his office bathroom, he’d often write colloquial personal essays in the afternoon about his relationship with music, which are the only remaining fossils of his site today.
The website got very popular, earning Shapiro over 100,000 followers, writing gigs at The Wall Street Journal, Interview Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as a profile of his Tumblr in The New York Times. Shortly after he stopped posting on Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, he wrote a screenplay and a novel, both which sold and made it out of production limbo. Despite the success, Shapiro has sworn off writing (save the occasional New Yorker piece), and has since finished most of law school and now works at a white-collar firm in Manhattan.
His new book, You’re Not Much Use To Anyone, which comes out later this month, is a semi-autobiographical account of Shapiro’s life right out of college. It details the creation of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews and what was going on in his life at a time when he was especially insecure and looking for a form of authority and influence.
The book’s main character, David, is both anxious and hyper-analytical – fanatical with trifling metrics of success like how many Internet followers he has, or ways his life doesn’t compare to the lives of Pitchfork writers he both idealises and envies. So even though his Tumblr is just a Tumblr, he feels validated and important when people he was once infatuated with start paying attention to his thoughts and ideas.
On a surface level, You’re Not Much Use To Anyone, sounds nominal: a physical book about a Tumblr about a music reviews website. But the story is a punchy and sometimes poignant read for any young person trying to figure out how he can become significant or simply noticeable to the people he/she admires. Over the course of a boozy, four-hour interview, we talked about his book being “almost desperate” to get you to finish it, feeling guilty about writing a semi-factual story about friends who didn’t sign up for being characters and on his relationship with Pitchfork today.
VICE: The inspiration for your Tumblr and writing came from an unlikely source, but can you tell me about the actual inspiration for this book?
David Shapiro: I was seeing this girl who was working on a novel and she wouldn't tell me anything about it. I felt a little resentful that she wouldn't share it. Later, she broke up with me. And I thought, what better way to get back at her then to write a book myself? It was months after I stopped posting on Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. I refilled my prescription for anti-anxiety medication prescription and wrote a draft in a week.
This must have been insane to pitch to a publisher. It’s a physical book about a meta-Tumblr. How would you describe it to someone with zero context?
[Laughs] I still don't even know how to describe it. I don't know how to talk about it. I don't have an elevator pitch. It’s a book about a blog about a popular music reviews website – after a certain point of shopping it around to publishers, I realised it was better to stay quiet during meetings and let my agent talk.
To me, I mean, if you read the book, in many ways, Pitchfork is not the focus.
Definitely. You could say Pitchfork is incidental. In another time, it would have been... I don't know, like a car magazine? It could have been written about any fountain of authority.
That's what I found really interesting. In a lot of ways, your book details the rise of social media as a platform for anyone to assert their opinion and influence.
Yeah, or throw rocks at the throne.
And it takes place between 2008-2010, as Twitter and Tumblr and even Facebook started to gain more authority as a legitimate platform for opinion and influence. Whether that's implicit or not, it does kind of evoke a certain technological zeitgeist.
Totally. In the book, David asks the character Mike what is the coolest platform to blog. If Tumblr didn't exist, I never would have written my blog, and obviously I never would have written the book. Even at the time, it seemed Wordpress or Blogspot was embarrassing in some way.
Or, like, having a Yahoo email account. Why is 2014 the best time for this book to be published? You wrote it three years ago, but do you think it will be more successful now than, say, 2020 or 2012?
I think if it had come out a lot earlier, it might have felt too soon. In a way, when someone like Tao Lin writes about Gchat, it feels like he's writing about a historical phenomenon, and so it stands on its own. Long after people stop using Gchat, Shoplifting From American Apparel could stand as like a cool document of Gchat and communication behaviour during the time period it takes place in.
Wouldn't you say the same thing about your book and relationship to Tumblr?
Tumblr seems to be more popular than ever. I guess I don't exactly have my finger on the pulse anymore. I guess part of it depends on, like, what Tumblr winds up doing. I don’t know. There’s a reason I rarely mention Facebook.
Another one of the biggest themes of this book is about feeling guilty – about privilege, about not being good enough, about not pleasing your parents. It is riddled with a mixture between self-consciousness and self-awareness about those feelings.
When you are expressive of your own flaws, in a way, that makes it hard for other people to say critical things about you.
Would you call the character and story semi-autobiographical?
There are many things that are false in the book, but it’s certainly semi-autobiographical. I spoke to someone about it and they were like, "Why didn't you just control-F 'David' and change the name and not put your picture on the cover?" But I just thought about the name – it would seem almost dishonest to change the name, because it's obviously somewhat autobiographical.
I feel guilty about a lot of stuff because I don't act in a way that's considerate of other people all the time. A friend who a character is based on said “I didn’t sign up for this”, meaning she didn’t ask to be the basis for a fictional character who does things she didn’t do. And I wonder how I would feel if someone were to write about me in the way that I did about other people. I'd probably feel so violated. I'd never say – I'd never disclose anything material ever again after I read something like this.
And you wrote a screenplay in the same year, too. The movie and the book don't really overlap in terms of plot, but they do in character and being semi-autobiographical.
They're based on different times in the character's lives.The script is about a person whose character is based on me who does things that I didn’t do. And, in a way, the book is a person who does things that I did, but isn't as closely based on me.
Do you think someone who is not from New York, not in your age group or socio-demographic group could relate to this book and feel connected to the characters and plot events if they're outside a certain bubble?
I think that anyone could really enjoy it because if someone is really passionate about something, then it can be entertaining to hear him talk about it and to see the intricacies that he sees. Plus, you can recognise that David’s passion is ridiculous. Like, the character has 200 Tumblr followers, and to the character, it's the whole world. It's this level of success that's unfathomable to him.
If you've accomplished something in your life and you're, like, driving home from work, and you're really celebrating it to yourself, even if you stopped someone on the street and explained it to them, they would not see whatever you value in it.
So your character’s passion is posting on his Tumblr about Pitchfork articles and the sudden attention and authority he has which he didn’t have prior. Why didn’t you include any of the reviews or blog posts about Pitchfork in the book then? You refer to this Tumblr throughout the whole story, but we never get access to it.
Because those, to me, seem like the most boring parts – and so ephemeral. The most boring possible thing I could include in the book was the substance of what the character is, like, writing about. Because it is boring!
The relationships are the more interesting part – the connections, the way of seeing how this eco-system worked was a more exciting thing to witness than the reviews. The reviews are so incidental. I felt like the more proper nouns that were included, the less the book would be readable in a year, two years.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Pitchfork? I know you’ve read it every day since you were 14.
It’s, like, somehow tied to my identity – as silly as that sounds. What you listen to defines your identity and Pitchfork was like my cheat code for alternative music, which made it feel cheap. I used them to develop my taste and identity.
But also, if you don't think of yourself as being successful, then whatever is successful becomes an object of resentment and enmity. That’s how I felt about Pitchfork.
Later, I think people in some positions of power at Pitchfork felt like I used them as a platform to draw attention to my other writing. Like, I exploited them for like a goal that really didn't have anything to do with them. And, and, maybe they don't care for me because of that, among other things. There are certain people to whom I wish the book didn't exist.
Do you ever wish you were a professional writer? You’ve said that this screenplay and book were the end of your writing career.
When you're a writer or a professor, you have to constantly be developing novel and challenging ideas. I think sometimes people are out of ideas and then they have to force it. I don't envy the position of having to generate novel ideas as a profession.
There's this one part of the book where you say you're at a bar and someone comments that you talk just like you write. And you reply that all people should be like that, and it really disappoints you when people who write on the Internet are different in person. Do you think that writers on the Internet should be consistent with who they are in real life?
Isn’t there's a Drake quote where he says sometimes I meet people who have cool Tumblrs, and then they turn out to be total turkeys in person? There's nothing lamer than being someone totally different in real life than you are on the Internet.
So then when you write freelance posts, you know, either for The Awl or for the Wall Street Journal or for the New Yorker, how does your approach to writing them change?
With The Awl, I wanted every sentence to be not the last sentence that someone could read before closing it. And I felt that way about the book, too. The book is almost desperate to get you to finish it.
It doesn't have to be instantly compelling because the anecdotes are short enough that even if you don't really care for it, you’re committing that much time. Once you start it, you're pretty much almost done. So why not finish it?
My book has an audiobook, and I talked to the director of the thing, and he said something about abridging it. I mean, how could you abridge it? If you abridge it, it's like a long magazine article.
Could you imagine the ideal voice for your audiobook?
A young Jason Alexander.
How do you think the media will respond to this book? What about your family?
I have a deal with my parents where they can't read it for ten years from when it's published. As for the media, I don’t think people will really care. Relevancy-wise, I think my stock is, like, way down. I think if the book had come out two or three years ago, it could have been a bigger thing.
Will you read your own reviews?
I can't. I will never read anything about the book. I would like people and critics to read the book. But I can't read anything about it because it feels too close to home. If someone doesn't like it, then they don't like me – you know what I mean?
David's book, You're Not Much Use to Anyone, comes out tomorrow but can be purchased now
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