Small World, Big Feet

Eric Spitznagel is quite a character. He used to walk around Chicago with a haircut to make Prince Valiant envious and a five o’clock shadow that would do Fred Flintstone proud, wearing boxer shorts on the outside of his long johns, and a tie knotted around his neck,over a t-shirt that said “Men Suck.” When we roamed and roomed together, over a decade ago, he would frequently (and loudly) act crazy to amuse himself on long L-train rides, babbling incoherent but friendly absurdities at whatever poor commuter looked most likely to be unsettled while I stood as far away from him as I could and fought down paroxysms of laughter. He worships at the idols of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, and Hunter S. Thompson. Since those days, he’s become quite a gonzo journalist in his own right. He’s co-authored an entire book about the cultural impact of Baywatch, penned another on the virtues of junk food, and his latest novel, Fast Forward, is about his brief stint as a screenwriter in the Burbank porn industry. (“Fast Forward” is the industry’s term for dialog.) He is a contributing editor at  The Believer, and a frequent contributor to such magazines as McSweeney’s, Playboy, Harper’s, Monkeybicycle, The Nose and He’s the acknowledged ghost writer for Ron Jeremy’s latest biography. He can be very, very funny, and very, very irreverent.

His also has a knack for pissing people off.

He’s written a piece for Vanity Fair, “Everything’s Bigfoot in Texas,” in which he “infiltrates” the Texas Bigfoot Conference. He hangs the piece on a researcher who claims to know everything from Sasquatch’s top speed, to his exact and very specific diet, to his sexual habits (apparently having observed a gang of Bigfeet at play.)

Drawing on interviews with dozens of eye-witnesses, Fahrenbach went on to say that Bigfoot’s diet is rich in mussels, clams, peacocks, and the “hindquarter” of deer. He insisted that Bigfoots enjoy wrestling, tickle fights, and, most surprisingly, gangbangs.

When quoting people who are this specific about something so unbelievable—tickle fights, really?—it’s hard not to snicker. I confess, I found the piece very funny, though I thought—as many of those who commented online at Vanity Fair did—that it struck a balance between the serious cryptozoologists and the starry-eyed true-believers, between those who tried to bring science to bear on Sasquatch’s trail and those who were off their rocker.

Eric says:

At least during the first half of this year’s conference, the speakers tried to prove that all Bigfoot researchers aren’t con artists or rednecks who subscribe to the Weekly World News. Most of the morning was devoted to raw data, delivered in a grave monotone by Daryl Colyer, a member of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. He rarely used the word Bigfoot, opting instead for vague descriptions like “unlisted primate species” or “unknown, upright hair-covered species.”

And he affords David Paulides, a Bigfoot researcher from Northern California, the opportunity to make this very good point:

…the biggest headlines are for the hoaxes and the people who probably aren’t doing the best kind of research. The guys in the background, who are sitting in the woods and doing the hard work, they aren’t getting the press they deserve.

This sort of media bias is something that is perhaps all too familiar to us in the science fiction field, when the press eschews talking to the eloquent, award-winning author at the science fiction convention in favor of seeking out the fattest and most socially dysfunctional Klingon in the room.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Hard SF writer Mike Brotherton has taken issue with the piece on his blog, in a post entitled, “A Rant about Non-Geek Geek Reporting.” Brotherton spells out his criticism thusly:

Whenever an outsider goes to a conference like this, or a science fiction convention, or an astronomy conference, or a Star Wars premiere, or anything specialized and strange to the public at large, and reports back just what the public wants to hear: the place is full of weirdos who believe weird things, and you can safely ignore them save for a quick laugh.

As the editorial director of the Pyr science fiction and fantasy imprint, I know where he is coming. Mainstream author Barbara Ehrenreich just recommended Ian McDonald’s River of Gods in the July issue of Time magazine, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz told us recently that he reads quite a few of our books (and gave us a killer endorsement for three of our authors and the line as a whole), but that sort of stuff often gets overlooked in favor of the aforementioned fat Klingon.

That being said—have you seen that TV commercial where the (chubby) father buys his (chubby) son a Viking helmet, horns and all, so they can watch football together in matching helms? Geeks are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, and geek has been the new cool for a long time now. I’m not sure we need to think of ourselves as a disenfranchised minority any more, not when science fiction novels are winning Pulitzer Prizes and ranking on The New York Times bestseller list both.  And I disagree that a Bigfoot conference is analogous to a science fiction convention, in the same way that I think a UFO conference shouldn’t be confused with a science fiction convention either. Not surprisingly, very few science fiction writers that I know put any stock in UFO sightings. Reason—SF writers know a lot about science, Faster Than Light travel, the vast distances involved, the unlikelihood of something biologically similar enough to us to care about Earth making such a journey just to nab a few homo sapiens for the collection, etc… I’m not sure that Ian McDonald and “the foremost expert and collector of Sasquatch hair” really need to be equated.

Brotherton goes on to say:

How about when it comes to geeky but practical science? Us scientists don’t get hit quite so hard by the press, but sometimes, and the attitude is out there in the world at large. A friend of mine had a cousin who overheard a remark by former Vice President Dan Quayle before he addressed the American Astronomical Society some years ago. Quayle, regarding a significant fraction of the country’s best and brightest astronomers said, “They dress badly.”

Brotherton is right that we have a serious anti-science bias in this country, which has lead to the election of George Bush twice, the lack of support for valuable stem cell research, the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, government mandated misrepresentation of climate change data, and America taking a radical drop in the last decade in the number of people graduating with science and engineering degrees. So I agree with him in principle that the media needs to get behind rationality, science, scientific endeavor, literacy, etc… and get over outdated stereotypes.

But I have to agree with Eric as well when he says:

It was impossible not to smile … when Paulides made the disturbing revelation that Bigfoot might be drawn to menstruating women, and has been observed digging though garbage cans, looking for used tampons.If they don’t want to be ridiculed by the media, then they should try a little harder not to make it so easy.

 One of the comments on Vanity Fair declared that “Spitznagel manages to combine satire and true affection in this hilarious piece.” That’s my take, but I understand where Brotherton is coming from only too well. So what do you think?


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