A short opening notice: I have a few signed copies of my book left for people to buy (because the hardback edition is being gradually retired from sale in favour of the paperback). If you would like one for yourself or as a gift, please use this form to order it and tell me what inscription you want.
After a year of remaining fairly aloof from the Zoom revolution — I am lucky not to need to be on it all day to teach or collaborate — this week I was suddenly plunged into it as a few public events coincided on my calendar. I've always enjoyed doing talks at literary festivals or conferences and public speaking isn't something that particularly bothers me. Although different, talking on a screen is still fun and honestly, a welcome interruption to my current routine of sitting, eating, sleeping and watching Seinfeld.
For all that we have quickly acclimatised to this new way of doing things on screens, there are still these awkward little gaps in the experience that there isn't yet the social grammar to close. The disjunction at the beginning as people are let in from the "waiting room", and then the "no you hang up" problem at the end, when it takes slightly longer than anyone expects between clicking the "leave meeting" button for the call to actually close.
It's the abrupt transitions that mess with my head, especially at the end of a session. After an hour or so everyone has adjusted nicely to each other's voices and the format of the talk, but when it's time to finish there is no gentle easing out of "public mode" as the audience drifts away, chatting to the participants and getting their books signed. It gives me mental whiplash, the sensation of going within seconds from speaking in front of 150 people to being alone in my living room with a blank computer screen. All of which is to say: if you come to any of the events I take part in (there's another one on Sunday) I apologise if the first or last thing you see is a frozen, unflattering image of my face on your screen. I'm trying.
I've posted about this a few times on Twitter, but I really want to make sure that everybody knows how good the Google Arts & Culture browser extension is. If you use Chrome as your main internet browser, enabling this fills every new tab with a work of art, rather than a blank page or a tempting buffet of your most visited sites. You can choose whether you want it to show you a new work every time you open a new tab or if you want to see the same one all day before it switches to something else at midnight. I initially went for the former but found that all the art became a blur. Now I spent time with a single work for a day and look forward to what I'll see when I come back tomorrow.
The extension chooses works at random from the vast number of institutions that have their exhibits digitised, and you can click through to read more information about them and sometimes even see them in situ in the gallery using Google Street View. Here is a small sample of the ones that I've liked enough to screenshot over the past couple of months:
One word of warning: if you do like a particular piece, you need to save its link and details before it disappears, because there's no way to see your own art history, as it were.
Something really overdue has happened this week around the Reply All podcast, which if you're not familiar, is a narrative storytelling show loosely about the internet and is (the makers say) downloaded around five million times a month. For the last two weeks, the podcast has published episodes as part of a mini series called "The Test Kitchen", essentially a detailed recap of the events that lead to a mass staff exodus at American food media brand Bon Appetit last summer over racial discrimination and disparities in hiring and compensation. I used to enjoy watching their cooking videos on YouTube, and the wholesale unravelling of the now departed editor's regime has been enlightening to observe as someone who has worked in magazines myself. I also used to report regularly on the podcast industry, and even though I'm not doing that work right now I felt compelled to take a closer look at this.
The Bon Appetit story has been covered well before, of course, principally by The Sporkful and Rachel Premack at Business Insider. What the Reply All treatment tried to add was a longer view of a quickly evolving internet scandal: the first episode, after all, starts at a point many years prior to summer 2020. I also found the decision only to feature the voices of the employees who were on the receiving end of this discrimination in the actual show interesting — the host says she talked to the various white managers involved, but used their interviews as background only in the final podcast.
I was intrigued by this choice because I thought it had potential to shift the narrative on from just a comparison between two competing versions of the same events or interactions. Rather than getting too bogged down in "He said this" / "I don't remember that conversation like that", we get to hear in detail how emotionally isolating and corrosive it is to be doing your work without fault and yet have no idea how to progress within a company because the secret steps to advancement aren't shared with people like you. I think a lot of people who have felt voiceless in a bad workplace will hear something they recognise.
But there's a much bigger story going on around Reply All than merely a couple of reported episodes. Gimlet Media, the Spotify subsidiary that makes this podcast, is now facing the consequences of being exactly the kind of toxic workplace that is profiled on the show. Eric Eddings, co host of a podcast called The Nod that I loved and a former Gimlet employee himself, has laid it all out in this Twitter thread, which is very much worth digesting in its own right. In it, he talks about the way a secretive clique existed around Reply All that shut out and even in some cases actively worked against Black people and people of colour in the wider organisation who were attempting to unionise and negotiate better pay and working conditions. The fact that this was all happening when the Spotify acquisition was on the horizon, which was personally worth many millions to some of the original staffers, seems more than coincidental.
The host of "The Test Kitchen" series is heavily implicated in this, and both she and one of Reply All's main hosts have now both posted (somewhat remorseful?) statements and announced their departures from the podcast. At the time that I'm writing this, there has been no news about whether the remaining two episodes about Bon Appetit — which were due to deal with the magazine's implosion of summer 2020 — will be published as planned, or indeed ever.
More former and current Gimlet employees have followed Eric's lead and posted about their negative experiences at the company (this is a good summary thread). In many ways it all fits into the classic pattern of a tiny startup run by a small group of friends that grows into an influential corporation very quickly, with leaders who never quite let go of the idea that they're just bootstrapping something with their mates and the cliquey, closed off culture that flows from that. Except this was a media company built on the illusion that it prized transparency and self reflection — as shown through their fun podcast about creating their own podcast business — and it attracted many, many fans on that basis. Now, that audience is finally getting a small glimpse into what it was really like to work there, and it isn't fun at all.
I think if there's a point to take away here, it's that racism, discrimination and toxicity in the media (and other industries too) is a system wide problem, not one that's confined to a single organisation or group of people. Which is not to absolve anyone for their actions; both things can be true simultaneously. Eric's co-host on The Nod Brittany Luse has posted about how this isn't the first time she's experienced this kind of behaviour in the workplace and deep down, we all knew from the start that Bon Appetit wasn't the only shitty media organisation, or organisation of any kind, out there. There's just a depressing symmetry to this situation that draws the eye: one outlet reported on the bad stuff at another, only to be exposed for perpetuating the same problems. Shows like Reply All pride themselves on their extensive editing process, too, so "The Test Kitchen" series will have gone through multiple rounds of feedback and discussion, yet nobody with authority felt that it was necessary or relevant to examine their company's own history in relation to this work they were planning to publish to an audience of millions. That is very telling, I think.
While I've been thinking about this particular case study this week, I've been imagining the alternate reality that Brittany proposed on Twitter, in which she and Eric were still working at Gimlet and could tackle the Bon Appetit story themselves. But of course, by the time it came around, they were no longer employed there, in large part they've said because of the treatment they received. And even if they had still been employees, would they have been given the time, resources and latitude (as per my previous article about "The Problem of the Inconsequential Quest") to make an expansive and detailed series about racial discrimination like "The Test Kitchen"? I have my doubts about that.
Seven podcast episodes I have enjoyed recently:
Sorry by The Allusionist (which is highly relevant to the previous item!)
I would like to suggest that you make Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake this weekend. It is delicious and it's also extremely satisfying to bake. It's not like normal baking, which I think I understand — you combine fat, flour and a raising agent which the heat of the oven activates to produce a risen crumb. This is something other. It's also an admirably flexible recipe, because I used basically none of the quantities it specifies owing to the feast-and-famine way I shop now, and it still came out perfectly.
To make it, you must first boil entire oranges in water for several hours. Then you cut them in half, pick out the bitter pips, and place these soggy fruits in a blender. You run it until everything, skin, pith, flesh, the lot, has been reduced to a thick orangey goop. Into this you mix eggs, ground almonds, sugar and a minuscule amount of baking powder, and then when you bake this liquid it somehow turns into a delicious cake with a dense, moist texture. Incredible.
Until next time,
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