Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


This time, guest writer Brian Sholis conducts our recurring Cartoon Caption Contest interview. He talked to winner #106, Robert Gray, whose caption for Gahan Wilson’s drawing — “Have you considered writing this story in the third monkey rather than the first monkey?” — is one of the funniest in the contest so far. Gray, a bookseller at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, has an MFA in writing from Bennington, writes a weekly column for the Shelf Awareness newsletter, and blogs about bookselling and literature at Fresh Eyes Now.

First things first: Looking at the image, did the caption come to you immediately?

It may not have been an “immediate” caption inspiration, but it was quick. I’ve been looking at the caption contest visuals since the competition began, and I have always thought, “I could do this!” Yet the lines didn’t come to me. I never entered before because I felt that the inspiration had to be immediate. I wasn’t inclined to tack the cartoon up over my desk for a few days and draft possible lines. But I knew when I saw the typing monkeys and the scientist/editor that the caption would be about the revision process, and it was only a matter of minutes before I showed the page to my wife and said a variation of the line out loud. She laughed. That was a good test. I entered.

Given that you’ve been through a creative writing program, is the typing monkey’s facial expression one you recognize?

Oh yes. Another key ingredient was that in almost every workshop I’ve ever attended, someone in the group, lacking anything more original to contribute, will inevitably suggest that a piece written in the third person might work better in the first person, or vice versa. It’s the fallback position for the uninspired.

Did you tweak—or, in consultation with family and friends, workshop—the sentence that first came to you?

I did tweak it in very small ways, but the essence of the line was there from the beginning. For example, I think I substituted “story” for “piece” because I thought it would make a little more sense to the non-workshopped reader.

Given the “infinite monkey theorem” (as Wikipedia terms it), do you have a favorite work by Shakespeare?

I love The Tempest, so I would toss that out as an instinctive response, though of course on any given day I might alter my choice. And, despite having seen various stage and screen versions, I will admit to a soft spot (guilty pleasure dept.) for Paul Mazursky’s 1982 film adaptation, Tempest, with John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Raul Julia, Susan Sarandon, and Molly Ringwald. No accounting for taste, I guess, though even a thousand typewriting monkeys couldn’t have come up with that variation on the theme.

You’ve been a bookseller in Vermont for more than two decades. Do you have a favorite Shakespeare edition?

I don’t—a simple answer with a complicated backstory. Shakespeare’s words seem to me to live in the air as well as on the page, and the bibliophile in me knows my place (my place on the stage?). Like anyone else, I feel there are times when I want to read Shakespeare and times when I want to hear him. If I encounter his words on the page, I’m not worried about where the page comes from (assuming the text is accurate, of course) or what the edition looks like. The book, if in readable font, is simply a vehicle for me to engage Shakespeare’s words. I’ll probably be drummed out of the bibliophile’s union for that one.

Given your longtime residence in Vermont and your connection to literature, do you have any personal reminiscences or comments on Grace Paley?

She read at the bookstore several times, and I was always impressed by her eyeball-to-eyeball directness, in person as well as on the page. It wasn’t merely confrontational; it was a true connection, and the challenge implied was that she was paying attention to you so you’d damn well better pay attention to her. I did, and as her reader, I always will.

Returning to the subject at hand, do you have particular writers, critics, or cartoonists whose New Yorker contributions you especially look forward to?

Anything Alice Munro writes is irresistible. I have great respect for George Packer as a journalist/essayist (and knew him slightly when he taught in the Bennington College MFA program). I’ve been an Anthony Lane fan since he began writing about films at The New Yorker; both the writer and the film buff in me loves the way he makes words dance.

Any pieces that have stuck out for you recently as commendable?

As recently as the August 27 issue, there were a pair of gems—John Lahr’s piece on Ian McKellen and Anthony Lane’s on Antonioni. Rarely does an issue pass through my hands that doesn’t contain a commendable piece of writing.

Last, the question every New Yorker reader is asked: Do you read the cartoons first and then the text, or enjoy them along the way?

I tend to read the cartoons first, then Talk of the Town, then the film reviews, and finally move on to articles of interest later in the week.


Other Emdashes caption-contest interviews:

  • David Kempler, winner #100 (“Don’t tell Noah about the vasectomy.”)
  • David Wilkner, winner #99 (“I’d like to get your arrow count down.”)
  • Richard Hine, winner #98 (“When you’re finished here, Spencer, we’ll need you on the bridge-to-nowhere project.”)
  • Carl Gable, winner #40 (“Hmm. What rhymes with layoffs?”)
  • T.C. Boyle, winner #29 (“And in this section it appears that you have not only alienated voters but actually infected them, too.”)
  • Adam Szymkowicz (“Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot’s a clip-on”), winner #27, and cartoonist Drew Dernavich interview each other in three parts: One, Clip-On Parrots and Doppelgangers; Two, Adam and Drew, Pt. Two; Three, Clip-On Parrots’ Revenge
  • Evan Butterfield, winner #15 (“Well, it’s a lovely gesture, but I still think we should start seeing other people.”)
  • Jan Richardson, winner #8 (“He’s the cutest little thing, and when you get tired of him you just flush him down the toilet.”)
  • Roy Futterman, winner #1 (“More important, however, is what I learned about myself.”)


There’s a movie based on the Tempest that has Molly Ringwald in it??? Who knew? I have to rent that IMMEDIATELY.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree