“Well, what do you think?” – Homer Simpson
“This is a joke, right?” – Springfield Shopper Editor
Thought Catalog is one of those small, independent new media outlets that’s trying to make its place in this brave new on-line publishing world. Their about page is full of noble sentiments and phrases like “an experimental media group”, “We believe all thinking is relevant”, and “help shape culture by empowering you”. Their shtick is to be “value neutral” editorially, which means that you can publish a piece there about whatever the hell’s on your mind provided that you can string two words together.
This approach has its positives and its negatives, but inarguably manages to expose a wide array of viewpoints to the internet’s unflinching gaze. So you’ve got Snow Days: The Ultimate Example Of White Privilege just a few spots down from Sluts With Daddy Issues And Stockholm Syndrome and Here’s How Porn Makes You A Rapist, all of which is interspersed with the near obligatory link bait parade of titles with numbers in them: The 8 Men Who Taught Me What I Don’t Want In A Relationship, 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Taco Bell, and 7 Artists You Should Absolutely Hear Now.
There is, of course, criticism of this method, expressed neatly in a post published there a couple weeks back, Dear Thought Catalog, I Still Love You:
Criticism of Thought Catalog and other similar websites is insightful. But I still love to read it.
Yes, you do have a moment. Just Google “Thought Catalog criticism”. The auto-detector spells it out for you before you finish typing the search term. You may find some interesting writers that argue against this forum.
Words are thrown about like: entitlement, over-privileged, hate-reading, trolling and best of all, smug.
And Google does indeed think of those as the prime critiques. This one is from Gawker two years ago:
Me-centric angst dump Thought Catalog is like some superhuman internet time-wasting android, rotely performing ever more jaw-dropping feats of repetitive navel-gazing as we wait nervously for the moment that it will become self-aware and DESTROY US ALL.
Rest easy; self-awareness is not coming any time soon.
First of all, let’s just stop for a second and marvel at Gawker(!) criticizing anyone for time wasting, navel gazing, and a lack of self awareness. Nick Denton’s occasionally impressive monstrosity doesn’t have half a pixel to stand on in any one of those categories. That does not, however, mean that they are wrong about Thought Catalog and the things they publish being unaware to the point of self ruin.
Case in point would be a new Simpsons ebook by Justin Sedgwick titled “We Put The Spring in Springfield: Chronicling the Golden Era of The Simpsons“. The ebook, an ambitiously priced five bucks at Amazon, is an earnest exploration of the best years of the show and what made it so popular and endearing. It’s got chapters on some of the brightest and biggest guest stars, Halloween episodes, musical numbers, and all that other fun stuff. It’s a little light on research (O’Brien, Reiss and Jean are the only writers mentioned in more than passing) and a little heavy on personal assertion for proving this or that the best thing the show ever did, but it’s a Simpsons geek unabashedly geeking, so neither of those are fatal flaws.
The problem is that whatever fun that can be had along the way is impossibly buried behind a seemingly endless stream of half formed sentences, gross misquotes, and other basic problems. Some of the sentences, if that is the right word, are so hopelessly mangled that they read as if translated to Japanese and back again by Google. A few random examples:
- “Last Exit” seemed as some sort of wonderful experiment in taking every single possible reference and offhand gag the writers could get their grasp on and blending it into a delicious Simpsons stew.
- But in “Stark Raving Dad”, Jackson isn’t voicing an animated version of himself or a stranger, but a fat white bald character who is so utterly convinced and convincing that he is truly Michael Jackson despite all the evidence contrary.
- Only until the family captures the doll do they realize that Krusty has been accidentally switched to the “evil” setting.
- “A Fish Called Selma” is the episode most divergent of common Simpsons storytelling but still arises to be one of the best.
In between great white whales of editorial fail like those are plenty of glaringly obvious grammatical problems: erratic capitalization, splattershot apostrophes and commas, near miss homophones, straight up incorrect words (“implore” instead of “explore”, “skimpy” instead of “skinny”) . . . and it goes on like this. The carelessness is everywhere on display, including in numerous misquotes of the show:
- “Truckosaurus the movie, starring Marlon Brando as Truckosaurus” (Actual quote: “Coming soon, it’s Truckosaurus the Movie, starring Marlon Brando as the voice of John Truckosaurus.”)
- “Surely no man who speaks German could be evil” (Actual quote: “No one who speaks German could be an evil man.”)
- “the bee bit my bum, now my bum is big!” (Actual quote: “The bee bit my bottom, now my bottom’s big!”)
Those are perfectly understandable mistakes if you’re sitting around quoting the show with friends, but to publish them in a book for which you’re charging real dollars bespeaks a woeful sloppiness. Nobody should have to pay to read things like this:
“When Burns finally surmises to the hands of Homer, he lets out a phrase that would sum up the inevitable mistake of all of Homer’s enemies in the future: “I’m starting to think Homer Simpson isn’t the brilliant tactician that I thought he was.”"
That’s enough to make even the most embittered and alcoholic English teacher cringe, and that’s before you get to the mangled quote, which two minutes with a Simpsons DVD could’ve easily corrected: “Smithers, I’m beginning to think that Homer Simpson was not the brilliant tactician I thought he was”. Even the most basic editorial review should catch sentences like that, but from the text it isn’t clear that anyone except the author actually read it before Thought Catalog (a publishing company complete with full time employees) slapped a price tag on it.
So, what’s underneath that thick carapace of typos, misquotes and middle school grammatical mistakes? It’s hard to say for sure. It’s a mildly interesting Simpsons book that would serve as a decent refresher course for a casual fan on some of the show’s highlights, but, with one exception, doesn’t touch on any topics that are likely to be new or terribly interesting to actual Simpsons geeks.
That exception pops up at the beginning and end of the book: the way The Simpsons helps people relate to each other. The first involves young Sedgwick as a fresh arrival in New York City making friends with shared Simpsons quotes. The second is father-son bonding on Sunday evenings, even through the toughest of times. They are moments of genuine affect that touch on heartfelt realities that should’ve been the core of the book. More like them, and a broader look at why that happens between so very many people, would’ve been welcome.
Whatever those are worth, however, doesn’t begin to make up for the unreadable shambles that is the rest of the text. In its current condition, this book isn’t worth five cents, much less five dollars. It isn’t doomed to stay that way forever, of course, and really feels more like a first draft than a completed product anyway. And that’s the beauty of ebooks, you can revise and edit and make updates, which is exactly what Thought Catalog and Sedgwick should do. Put it through the wringer a couple more times (and fix all those grotesquely broken sentences) and they’d have something worth selling.
Or they could pull it from Amazon. It’s their call, but leaving the book up for sale in its current condition is an all around shitty thing to do and would reflect even worse on author and imprint than the decision to go ahead with an obviously unfinished tract in the first place. Sedgwick is a first time author, Thought Catalog is but four years old, both could have promising futures. But they won’t if they keep trying to sell incomplete work like this. After all, it’s okay to put yourself at the center of a story; it’s not okay do a half assed job of it.