The Rumpus Interview with John Reed

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Some books double as a matchstick: if struck in the right conditions, they can cause a wildfire. Snowball’s Chance (2001) was one such book. The kindling, however was immodest: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). In the three weeks following 9/11, John Reed wrote a riposte to the Cold War fairy tale; the brilliance of Snowball’s Chance being that it expands upon Orwell’s parable to include terrorism, making the story a workable paradigm for the current global context. Immediately, Snowball’s Chance attracted the attention of Orwell’s estate (and their legal team), as well as Christopher Hitchens, Marxists, and war hawks. Far from deterred, Reed was ecstatic. You can imagine, then, how happy Reed was when he discovered that George Orwell ripped Animal Farm straight from Nikolay Kostomarov’s short story “Animal Riot” (1917).

This was a dangerous thing to put forth—that a book we went to war against the Russians with was plagiarized from a Russian. In fact, if Reed was the first to demonstrate the parallel, he wasn’t the first to suggest the parallel. News of “Animal Riot” hit English headlines in 1988, in The Economist. Reed came to the story in 2002, and realized that via a mix of Internet sleuthing and old-fashioned book-worming, he could put the pieces together. The final result was presented by Harper’s in 2015 (“Revisionist History”), joining other longform pieces that Reed had published in the Paris Review (Animal Farm Timeline”) and The Believer (“George Orwell’s The Freedom of the Press”) on the subject of Orwell and the Cultural Cold War, the history of Animal Farm, and censorship (I recommend opening these in your tabs while reading the interview). At completion, the Harper’s article rang in at 15,000 words, comparing 5,000 words in Animal Farm to 5,000 words in “Animal Riot.” The published piece clipped down to about 4,000 words; regardless, Reed’s comparisons and timelines leave little room to doubt that “Animal Riot” was the origin of Animal Farm.

And so for a few hours, I sat down with Reed to talk about soft wars, propaganda, weapons of mass instruction, and censorship in the United States today. Like most conversations I’ve had with Reed, this one begins beyond a beginning, but that seems to be the only place to start if we’re to make our way back through a thick political past.

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The Rumpus: When I was reading through your articles, Snowball’s Chance, and thinking about political propaganda, Orwell, and Hitchens, I was struck by how we take certain words, or stories, and we literally go to war with them.

John Reed: That’s true and Hitchens was a very good example of that. And Hitchens had learned how to do it from Orwell, who had learned how to do it through the course of a real war—several real wars—and a cold war, and the subsequent involvement with the congress for ultimate freedom. Really, what was the most successful Cold War campaign against the Russians.

Orwell took a turn to the right at the end of his life, but people often apologize for that, saying he was in love with a young, beautiful woman. I think he was hopeful that he could out-maneuver the right wing bedfellows. He might have if he had survived. His environmental stance was developing, and that was another avenue for him to explore—the more progressive side of himself.

He resisted a lot of the ways that Animal Farm was being put forward, as well as 1984. Hitchens, too, I think, was under the impression that his turn to the right was something he could manage.

Rumpus: Hitchens’s own turn, or Orwell’s?

Reed: Hitchens’s. He made his own turn to the right and became war hawkish in exactly the same way as Orwell had become war hawkish. But Hitchens liked glamour and didn’t make an effort to struggle against the tide. He just kind of went with it.

Rumpus: Orwell didn’t live much longer after his turn, though, right?

Reed: No, he didn’t live far after—only a few years.

Rumpus: Whereas Hitchens did, right?

snowballs chance (1)Reed: Yeah, Hitchens lived longer, but Orwell’s turn was much more justified. There was a lot of defense of Russia at a time when it was very sketchy to be defending Russia. Orwell was not going to abide an argument that excused Stalin. He’d been sort of war hawkish before, but he turned the corner. East vs. West. He understood what was going on at a very early juncture. When you look at Bertrand Russell’s writing, you see they had already figured out that propaganda was the best solution.

Hitchens did not have a good argument, you know—weapons of mass destruction were about the best argument he had, which is pretty pathetic. But Hitchens had been denied for a long time. If you look at Alex Cockburn as a counterpoint, the way that we control the message in the United States is not to censor people, it’s to ignore them. Orwell was very aware of that and wrote about it.

There are two kinds of writers for these broad market “sophisticate” venues: there are writers who don’t know that they’re producing propaganda, and there are writers who are willing to play ball. What they write probably isn’t outright propaganda, but they do just enough, which is a lot of what these venues want. Every once in a while you can push something over the edge. That’s how Orwell was playing with the newspapers.

Rumpus: That’s interesting what you say about censorship and ignoring, especially if you think about the media and Trump. Their attention adds gasoline to his wild fire.

Reed: Well yeah, and Trump appeals to ignorance. There’s always been a trend of know-nothing parties, or Tea Parties, or whatever you want to call them—but political parties that are primarily interested in your lack of understanding. They seduce you with your own stupidity, but that’s a very popular party in the United States. [Laughs] It always has been. It always has been.

Rumpus: Aren’t they just walking magnets?

Reed: Magnets?

Rumpus: Yeah, They seem to always attract sameness, or could care less about what they’re attracting, but just that they are.

Reed: I don’t think Trump or Bernie are about intelligent reactions. It’s very clear watching Bernie versus Hillary that Hillary knows much, much more. They’re pretty much on polar ends of the political spectrum—Bernie and Trump—but they’re angry. They’re angry about something and that’s why we like them. It’s completely emotional identification.

Rumpus: Going back to the idea of the two kinds of writers and propaganda—if Hitchens, for example, wasn’t quite accepted or revered, one way to become more revered is to become that weapon. It seems there is a parallel between the intensity of their words and the intensity to which they are used by other people. If Orwell had that idea he was still going to control his turn but then dies, then what happens? He becomes a tool and the government moves in.

Reed: Yes, and they did. The government moved right in. Really quickly, they controlled the message. With the film rights, I really doubt Orwell would’ve sold the film rights. He certainly wouldn’t have given them to the military.

Rumpus: Do you think at some point Orwell would have ever mentioned that Animal Farm was largely influenced by Kostomarov’s short story, “Animal Riot”?

Reed: I think that if it had come out, he would have owned up to it, but no one caught him. The way he resourced his books, he was a journalist, with a journalistic approach to research. He went after everything. He was not intimidated, he was not afraid of pillaging—the list of books he pillaged for 1984 is extraordinary. And he was fairly transparent about that, but he won’t come forth with something unless he’s pressed. The story, of course, of the genesis of Animal Farm is a rehash of Dostoevsky’s genesis for Crime and Punishment. Orwell wasn’t even trying. I think he expected someone to cite the Kostomarov thing eventually, and then he would say that he read it. I don’t know if there were rights issues, but it’s possible “Animal Riot” was still copyrighted at that time.

Rumpus: And on the issue of copyright, Snowballs Chance came fifty-eight years after Animal Farm, whereas Animal Farm came thirty-nine years after “Animal Riot,” so it’s interesting people accuse you, but not him, since Orwell was closer to copyright infringement.

Reed: That’s true. But in Russia, it’s copyrights by locale, so “Animal Riot” would have been subject to copyright laws that are incredibly confusing. I doubt that anybody would have been able to sort it out—law in Russia by locale is complete chaos. But it was very possible that “Animal Riot” was under copyright law when Orwell wrote Animal Farm. I don’t know—he might have come clean if someone had talked to him.

The other thing is that Orwell’s [Animal Farm] is better than Kostomarov’s [“Animal Riot”]. Orwell is a skilled novelist and he put a lot of time into making Animal Farm a good story. Kostamarov just dashed off this thing very quickly. He just came up with a good concept, and that was enough.

Rumpus: This whole writing of a war reminds me of D Is for Deception by Tina Rosenberg, which was about World War II, D-Day, and Dennis Wheatley, who wrote a fictitious plot for invading Normandy, which by and large hoodwinked Hitler, and was the only reason it worked. That blew my mind. He was brought in by the government, constructed this enormous plot, took elements from his own novels, and spread pieces of the plot like crumbs. He let the Nazis tell the story—he gave them all the little points, and they put the plot together. It took Hitler seven weeks to send his troops to Normandy because he still thought the real invasion was coming. It’s wild how successful, or strong, a fictional story, or the imagination of fear, can be. I wonder just how big, closed off, and secretive these networks and narratives are.

Reed: I think it’s still big. It was on the CIA website that the Cultural Cold War was the most successful CIA operation of all time. I can’t imagine that they just stepped away from that.

Soft war stuff is inexpensive and doesn’t kill anybody. In a way, it’s a shame we don’t employ it more. Instead of invading Iraq, with the amount of money we spent per person, we could have given everybody a PlayStation, a TV, and a computer—probably more than that. Really, it would just decimate the culture. [Soft war] would have been far more successful, far less expensive. We try to do that, but usually the approach is indirect. We have this missionary structure where we send in our artists and creatives to go in and convince whatever the target culture is that the western model isn’t so bad. After that, we send in economic people and they, of course, take away the agrarian economy and switch it to a monetary economy so that people are poor because when it’s an agrarian economy, nobody is poor—you have land, you have food, and you have trade. But when you switch it to a monetary economy, you’re poor.

We could have just done it with the culture stuff first in a big scale way. I mean, that’s why, to some degree, the paranoia of non-western culture about western culture is really not paranoia. Good thing for them we’re relatively inept.

Rumpus: Right, and people don’t like their stories to change.

Reed: They don’t like stories to change?

Rumpus: It seems we struggle significantly when our narratives change in a fundamental way.

Reed: Yeah, I think that’s what Hitchens was trying to look at in terms of Animal Farm. Animal Farm had suddenly become nonsensical. The Cold War was over and Animal Farm was not something we could apply to this new context of terrorism. It showed its seams. Hitchens’s goal was to re-contextualize Orwell and the Cold War—and Animal Farm was a part of that—to include a terrorist enemy. I don’t think it was a successful transition. Much of Orwell now feels anachronistic, in the context of a Cold War agenda.

Rumpus: Isn’t what Hitchens attacking sort of what he was doing?

Reed: Yeah, he was doing the dirty work. And he understood what it was—he wanted that attention. There’s a kind of Jews-for-Jesus phenomenon when you go from left to right, you know, and they put you forth. He was very willing to be that. Hitchens liked to have dinner. He liked the big steak, a lot of scotch, and suddenly, he was in Scotch Central, and I think once he sat his fat ass into that situation, he was not going anywhere.

In fact, I debated him on the BBC at one point and it felt so unfair to me afterwards because my mic kept going off. I was really not the skilled debater, but the fucking mic kept going off. It was really confusing. I was in rural Virginia at the time on a phone from 1960—you know, it was a phone one model after the crank phone or something—and we’re on the phone, we’re talking, and I’m realizing my mic isn’t working, and so I’m trying to talk backwards to things. Afterwards, [Hitchens] said he owed me a bottle of scotch. He still owes me a bottle of scotch.

We had a very cordial relationship. Right after Snowballs Chance came out, I went to a reading of his and he denigrated it from the podium. This was at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. And in one of my most thrilling moments as a writer, I got to ask a question at the end and identify myself, and all the octogenarians in the audience kind of gasped and turned around.

Rumpus: What was your question?

Reed: [Hitchens] said that I was named after the Ten Days That Shook the World John Reed. And I said that was kind of a cheap shot, which it kind of was. I’m not related to that John Reed. He went to Russia for the revolution and was a US socialist. He died in Russia, not happy with himself. He was buried at the Kremlin Wall and was used as a Russian point of Propaganda, anti-western propaganda.

Rumpus: Did you ask a question or just tell him that’s not true?

Reed: I did ask a question. At that time, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the Orwell stuff. I had written Snowball’s Chance on instinct, but then came by the historical Orwell stuff later.

Rumpus: So that was another thing that fascinated me. We got the timeline from the Paris Review article. I was surprised to see that The Economist first broke the story of Animal Farm and its connection to “Animal Riot” in 1988.

Reed: I know. That was another thing that was interesting to me about the Kostomarov stuff. Everyone knew this was a possible antecedent.

I found out, shortly after Snowball’s Chance came out—the Internet was coming to life, it hadn’t completely come to life—that people knew about this story, “Animal Riot,” but it hadn’t been explored. People wrote it off for three reasons: one, people said Kosatomarov is unknown, which is just not true, just flat out wrong; two, they said that Orwell wouldn’t have known about “Animal Riot”; and three, that the story wasn’t translated. It probably was translated; we just don’t have any extant evidence. And Orwell read in French too, where it was probably translated first, and there’s a version I have never located that was written with Tolstoy. Anyway, a lot of the arguments against the correlation seemed like conveniences.

Rumpus: Was the Economist article trying to directly link Animal Farm to “Animal Riot,” or was it more suggestive and hint at influence or something softer?

Reed: The first place that broke the story was a newspaper. I don’t remember the exact name. But then The Economist reprinted it. The newspaper article was powerful because it took two quotes and compared them—they’re the same.

In my Harper’s article, the first version was 15,000 words. I think I compared 5,000 words from Animal Farm to 5,000 words from “Animal Riot.” It’s unbelievable. They are the same. Paragraph to paragraph, in order. There’s just no way that’s a coincidence—to have the same premise, the same order of paragraphs, the same actions. The Economist picked up on that because it’s a good story.

Rumpus: So people were seeing this back then, but was there still enough not to see that it didn’t really catch? I mean, how do you maintain that lid? Did the Orwell estate run a big game to discredit it once it came out?

Reed: I expected people to be really critical of the Harper’s piece. In the longer version, I covered every possible angle—I read for two years—so I expected people to be critical of the Harper’s piece because, in its final version, it didn’t have everything. It wasn’t even 5,000 words. But everybody just shrugged and said, “yeah.”

The Russians of course had already put it all together. I would talk to Russian scholars, and they would say, of course it’s based on “Animal Riot.” But their attitude is that everything is ripped off Russian culture.

I’d bet that in the UK, they still wouldn’t talk about this. I bet nobody would publish it—Orwell’s a saint.

Rumpus: Slightly switching gears, what is your own relationship to Animal Farm? When you read it, were you taught the political context?

Reed: I got it in a totally straight Cold War context over and over again in public school. I was taught that this was about the Russians and how shitty they were. I was also shown that the other animals were dumb and the pigs were smart—and this is an underlying problem with Animal Farm: that it assumes class superiority.

I was given that book over and over again with exactly that formula. Part of the reason there are fewer Orwell or Animal Farm defenders is that it’s no longer an effective Cold War tool—it’s not effective propaganda. My kids don’t even understand what the Cold War idea is—you try to explain to them that there was a Cold War, and they just look at you and say, that’s silly. You can’t make them understand it. When they read Animal Farm, they’re just confused. They don’t have the grounding—the political context—to give weight to what’s going on.

As an allegory, it’s highly successful, but my kids are reading Animal Farm as a novella, and they have trouble following the story.

Rumpus: Snowball’s Chance was hysterically intelligent. It ate the bluntness of complexity and was such a digestible story, simply told. Every time a sheep fainted, I laughed in public. But truly, it felt so very fluid, which I imagine might have to do with the fact that you wrote it in three weeks.

Reed: I really like that idea, of course, that it’s readable. Maybe I just got lucky because I wrote it so quickly.

DebbyDavisPig

Rumpus: You said you were walking on September 9, 2001, and the title came to you—Snowball’s Chance—but that days later, you realized it would be about Animal Farm. How did these two things come together?

Reed: I had the idea walking down the street with my wife. We were on that long block where there are no street breaks, on Fourth Avenue right after it changes from Lafayette Street. And I said, “Oh that’s a great title,” to my wife, “Snowball’s Chance.” She said, “Meh, you can do better.” She was kind of right in a way, but I also knew that I had something.

Within a day or two, 9/11 happened, and then within a day or two after that, I realized, oh, Snowball comes back to the farm, and then I had the whole thing. I read Animal Farm so many times as a kid. I only had to work on a couple things. There were a few areas in the analogues that required real effort. I think they were all mistakes Orwell made, to be honest; they were problems he left me.

Rumpus: What kind of problems?

Reed: Well, the relationship with the humans. I think the most difficult analogue are the humans—who exactly are the humans? Because they’re not a part of the Animal Farm equation. So for me, extending the metaphor, I inherited that difficulty, but I had to maintain Orwell’s balance of who they were.

Also, he made the not-pig animals too dumb. And he didn’t have an intelligentsia class, which I thought was a real flaw. I think there’s an intelligentsia class that figures things out for the pigs, so I had to have some goats.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to see the reactions. For you, the reaction was obviously quite intense—being sued by the Orwell estate—but you were also targeted by Hitchens. Did you expect that?

Reed: Hitchens was weirdly fairer than other people who criticized me from the right. Oh, and the other people who didn’t like the book were hardcore Marxists. I don’t even understand why they didn’t like it. The people on the far, far left, maybe they adopt Orwell as their ancestor? There were only a few criticisms from the right that were offensive to me. One was this woman writing for the Boston Globe, Cathy Young, who said I was blaming the victims of terrorism, which was a big thing back then. But during the course of her criticism, she revealed that she hadn’t read the book. And I thought, you know, whoever published this should have cut it. It’s terribly irresponsible. Unfortunately, since then, it’s become more common—that people are willing to promulgate opinions that are utterly fantastical. Just completely pulled out of thin air.

Rumpus: I think this is what I meant earlier about departures from our narratives—in the face of an opposing thought, we declare it to be artifice.

Reed: But people are so egotistical. They want to maintain the idea that their own existence is bigger than it is, so anything that challenges that can bring out some unpleasant ire.

There’s a lot of responsibility with editors. If that was an assignment, the editor knew it was not going to be received well. As an editor, you don’t want to run bad reviews because, in the case of a small press book, the cost of printing the review could be higher than the cost on printing a book. But on the flip side, when the editor wants a bad review, you aim it at someone who is in direct competition with that author, or someone who for some reason you know won’t like that book. You see it at every newspaper in this country. There’re bad pairings. It’s possible that they’re all accidental, but I doubt all of them are accidental. And there’s editorial culpability, whether it’s negligence or not.

Rumpus: One of your reviewers said you were trying to get rich with Snowball’s Chance by poaching off the Orwell name.

Reed: That was a surreal criticism. They also confused me with my father, which was yet more surreal—that you can be a painter who then decides to get rich by writing a small press novel. [Laughs] It’s so out there, you know.

Rumpus: At any point in the process, John, while you were working on this, did you ever want to say, “Oh well?”

Reed: I think it’s kind of gone away, but you know, I was in public school in New York City. Sixty percent of your education in public school is straight brainwashing. It’s acculturation, and that, by the way, is not accidental. That was always a part of the American model of education, which was established as a way to normalize—homogenize—populations of people from different places.

The idea was—and this was the philosophy of the American education system at its inception—you have to break the bond with the parents, the home culture, and create a common culture in school. And furthermore—I don’t know if this was by design, but I think it well could be—after high school, you’re taken out of your local environment and shipped away to a college. You’re removed from your local, political consciousness to break any of the ties. If we kept all the ties to our localities, we would be politically powerful and informed. So you have to shift to a nationalistic consciousness, rather than a local consciousness, which also gets right into what they were doing in New York City in 1979 when they were feeding Animal Farm to everyone. And in 2001, I just realized it—this stuff about how all revolutions are failed—that that was the ultimate lesson of Animal Farm: we’re too stupid to takeover.

Right? I mean, that really was not something I wanted to hear in 2001. I mean, when did the Cold War end? We like to say the Cold War ended with the end of the Berlin Wall, but the Cold War ended with 9/11, because the paradigm fell apart.

Rumpus: Hitting on something you mentioned about place. You have remained largely here. You’ve seen so much pass by.

Reed: When I was writing this book, my wife and I were in our apartment. The day it happened, people in white dust were walking by. She went out, heading to work, and saw a plane over Broadway, and came back to the apartment to tell me what she saw and I immediately knew it was some kind of attack. It’s not easy to override all the automatic functions of a big airplane. You have to have wanted to fly over Broadway. I said please let me go back to sleep. When I woke up, they were showing us the crashes over and over again.

I grew up down there. When I woke up, my brother was already trying to get down to his stepmother’s store to clean some stuff out, and his father was a couple blocks away. My father was a couple blocks away. It was a giant mess, all the fucked up dust. I ran out and got gas masks and air filters, and taped over the vents on the air conditioner. Every time we left the house, we used the gas masks. I remember talking to a cop. It was easiest to be north of Houston, and then there were barricades. I remember talking to this cop who was working downtown. He was not wearing a mask. My wife and I walked past him; we had these masks on. We were going down to my aunt’s place to have dinner. With this look on his face, he watched us go by. All these people—Giuliani—were lying, saying, “There’s nothing in the air.” And he looked at me with this spooked expression, and said, “Do you know something I don’t?”

But yeah when I wrote the novel, it was a dust storm outside. Everybody was depressed, but in some ways, it was the best I had ever seen New York City. There were no cars in the street. You just rode your bike down the middle of the street.

Rumpus: Right, the silence thereafter.

 

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Pig image by Debby Davis, “Open Pig,” 1983, oil on polyadam, fiberglass and hydrocal. Image courtesy of Bodi Lucas.


Brett Rawson is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. He is co-editor of The Seventh Wave and founder of Handwritten. His writing has appeared in Narratively, Nowhere Magazine, and drDOCTOR. More from this author →