‘Iterating Grace’: Ex post factoid, Part II

As I said in Part I of this post, hangers-on do one thing — they hang on. So in the aftermath of my late-June post, Is ‘Iterating Grace’ re-iterating ‘Milwaukee’?, I continued to check Twitter for mention of either “iterating grace” or #iteratinggrace. This was definitely FOMO-ish, but my co-hanger-on, Teddy Roland (@teddyroland), and I had invested more time than probably anyone (everyone?) else on the planet in trying to figure out who had created the phenomenon that was Iterating Grace (IG). So it was easy to rationalize just a bit more time every day or two or three.

Indeed, hanging on led to Part I. But no problem if you haven’t read it. It’s not about IG per se, but rather about an isolated, after-the-fact spike in Twitter traffic, prompted by a Spanish-language article on IG. The article didn’t reveal anything new at all to those who had been following the English-language covereage, but did offer what I labelled a “perfectly-controlled experiment.” The article (stimulus) led to a series of tweets and re-tweets (response) that defined a spectacularly-good exponential fall-off in the tweets over several days. This, in turn, allowed precise calculation of a half-life for those tweets of 4.83 hours, in excellent agreement with previous research studies based on aggregation of millions of tweets, spread across many different originating stimuli. As I said, no problem if you haven’t read it, unless you’re really into social-media analytics.

Beyond the end of July, my frequency of checking fell way off. All of August yielded only five additional tweets: two more prompted by the Spanish article, one from a German expat living in Russia, and two by Bay Area techies who used the idea of IG as an allusion or metaphor to make some other point entirely. The first third of September went entirely silent, and then on the 11th there was one lone tweet, which I didn’t see until the 18th. Here it is on the far right of the timeline (extended beyond the version shown in Part I):


And here is the tweet itself:

Iterati who have followed the story from the beginning, or even those who have casually read the online PDF of Iterating Grace, may recall Andrew Parker as one of the 14 tech investors whose tweets were quoted in the little book. The shocker in this tweet is not that one of the original-cast members has re-surfaced. Nor is it significant that his new tweet appeared exactly 100 days after the first one of June 3, unless you’re into numerology, which I’m not.

Rather, the surprise is that Macmillan Publishers is going to release IG as both a print volume and an ebook through its U.S. publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), nominally in November (on December 1 according to Amazon’s listing). If you doubt how big a deal this is, go to Macmillan’s About page and look at the stellar roster of authors for their various U.S. publishers and imprints. Koons Crooks, you’re not in Kansas anymore.


All of which raises several interesting questions:

• Firstly, how did a major publishing house decide to issue — technically re-issue — the first and apparently only work of an unknown, surely fictitious author? I don’t know much about big-time book publishing, but I’m pretty sure you don’t just show up on W. 18th Street in Manhattan and drop off your ms. Or in this case perhaps a remaindered copy of the original run of 140.

• Secondly, why Macmillan/FSG? In particular, why New York rather than a publisher in San Francisco, say, Chronicle Books, which (to an outsider) looks like an excellent fit? After all, the Bay Area was the locus of most of the mystery, such as copies dropped on doorsteps, and much of the resulting buzz.

• Thirdly, a literary agent could make the pitch on behalf of “Crooks,” but how was that agent engaged? An agent, by the way, who must have been amazingly persuasive, with only a few hundred tweets expressing interest in a fictitious client’s obscure work. A work that is already available in its entirety on a website, I should add.

• Fourthly, how did this all move so quickly, from first copies delivered in June in San Francisco, plus a few in New York, to announcement of a fait accompli no more than 100 days later? And to delivery less than three months after that?

• Fifthly, not to be crass about it, but book publishing is a business, so whose name will go on any royalty checks from Macmillan/FSG? At a guess, it won’t be Koons Crooks.

Since no one in the IG bund of tweeters and readers mentioned this development prior to Andrew Parker, I tweeted him as soon as I saw it, and asked “How did you find the Mac/FSG announcement?.” His immediate reply: “FSG contacted me for permission to quote my tweet in the book.” For me, that speaks to the fourth question and the likelihood that the wheels are well-greased indeed. As total speculation, perhaps they were set in motion even before the first copies appeared in private P.O. Boxes and on front porches in June.

As for the other four questions, if you answer one of them, you pretty much have the answers to the others, directly or indirectly. Look back up at the image of the Macmillan page for IG, and in the second big paragraph you will see mention of “blog posts” that were part of “efforts to identify the author of Iterating Grace.” Those posts were my original opus, Is ‘Iterating Grace’ re-iterating ‘Milwaukee’?, and Attributing Authorship to “Iterating Grace,” or The Smell Test of Style from the aforementioned Teddy Roland.

In the third line of that paragraph is the name Susan Orlean. Here is how I first stated my hypothesis last June:

I am suggesting that Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, with a fair likelihood of authorial assistance from Susan Orlean, are the performers of the mischief that is known as “Iterating Grace.”

And then a bit farther down in that original blog post is this minimal backdrop:

First, for those not familiar with the players, here is the leanest possible back story, with apologies to Susan Orlean and her wonderful telling of Man and Machine: Playing games on the Internet: In 2008, Bakkila and Bender first gained a widespread online following with a faux tourist promotion video entitled This Is My Milwaukee. Then between 2008 and 2013, they were the human masterminds behind the Twitter account @horse_ebooks, generally believed to be a spambot, and the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book, respectively. It all came to an abrupt end on September 24, 2013, with final postings to both accounts and simultaneous release of a video-based alternate-reality game called Bear Stearns Bravo.

You will have to read the original post to follow the bread-crumb trail of the argument, which is circumstantial in some places and permissive in others. There are no direct fingerprints, but there are intriguing parallels between those older pieces of “performance mischief” (Jacob Bakkila’s wonderful phrase) and Iterating Grace. In fact, both Dan Raile in PandoDaily on June 11 and I in my original post on June 22, respectively, said that IG was “high art” and “performance art.” I extended that logic to suggest that the small print book was largely a prop for the performance, not the central feature that figured in so much of the chatter on Twitter. (As an aside to the Macmillan/FSG copywriter who wrote that “gradually it became clear that it was simply this: a small piece of literary art,” I would point out that Dan and I had that nailed pretty much immediately.)

Now add to that bit of art history the fact that Susan Orlean wrote a piece for The New Yorker back in 1990 entitled My Life: A Series of Performance Art Pieces. You can make up your own narrative for a hypothetical bond between her and Bakkila and Bender, in addition to the details about them in her 2014 article, or you can read my speculations. Then read Teddy Roland’s blog post, which amplifies considerably the summary of his stylometric analysis that is in my post.

Bottom line, with many, many qualifiers: Among the writers whose work Teddy compared to the text of Iterating Grace, Susan Orlean was the best match. But some of the comparisons suggested only adjacencies, not clear overlaps; the real author may not have actually been among those used for comparison; and on and on. So nothing is proven (and never can be, of course, since science doesn’t deal in proof).

But it is certainly true, given what we know right now, that Susan Orlean looks more like the author of that small “prop” than anyone else. So, hypothetically, if you were a book editor in New York and were approached by a famous, successful author or her agent, bearing an odd little book, you would probably listen closely. You might push it up the review chain. Someone might even make the argument that this could be a good way to tie social-media buzz to what Andrew Parker described as “dead-tree-and-squid-ink publishing.” Desperate measures for desperate times, or merely clever marketing.

That might answer the first three remaining questions above, if you tentatively accept an authorial role for Susan Orlean in support of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender: famous New York-based author, perhaps her agent, major East Coast publishing house, maybe crossed with an experiment to test a new frontier with online media.

There is also this statement on Jacob Bakkila’s eponymous website: “Currently: I am working on an untitled book project.” If I believed my own hypothesis, I would predict that that statement will change, or be deleted, after December 1. In my original post, I stated for myself and quoted Teddy that we both remain skeptical to various degrees. So no prediction per se, though I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by such a change.

And lastly, who gets the money (if there is any)? Nobility and creativity are wonderful, but the phrase “starving artist” exists for a reason. Both Bakkila and Bender appear to be gainfully employed outside the performance realm. But it’s worth noting that, on the climactic day (see blockquote above) when @horse_books and Pronunciation Book were shut down, Bear Stearns Bravo (BSB) was launched. The opening phase of BSB was and is available free. But there is also a second phase that requires registration… and payment. Clearly, they are willing to monetize their performance mischief. There is no reason to think that isn’t still true, precisely two years later, in case you’re into numerology. I’m not, but I just thought I would mention it.

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