Welcome to issue 1 of Vile Jelly, an email newsletter about disability (with a focus on blindness) and media (with a focus on literature and sound) by me, Andrew Leland.
If receiving this is an unwelcome experience, you can unsubscribe by clicking the link at the bottom of this email. I can’t imagine sending more than three of these a year, so please don’t worry about your inbox being clogged with my white-hot bi-weekly dispatches encrusted with links and “takes” about the latest accessibility overlay controversies, if that’s your concern. These are more like semi-annual letters you inexplicably receive from that guy you sort of knew in college who only talked about the radio station, who apparently did too many hallucinogens when he was in middle school.
I have a story in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the controversy surrounding a TV show (In the Dark, on the CW) that cast a sighted actress in a blind role, and how it led me to reconsider the ways in which people — blind, sighted, or, like me, somewhere in between — perform disability, and what blindness is supposed to look like. I hope you’ll give it a read. If you prefer to take your reported magazine essays aurally, there is a link to a very chill read of the text by Anthony Rey Perez, who narrates it for Audm, at the top of the page. To my ears, Perez makes the article sound way more like Roberto Bolaño’s Cowboy Graves (which he also narrated for Audible) than it deserves, and I love it.
A note about the caption to the story’s illustration: Most blind people use screen readers to surf the web, and whenever they get to an image, the screen reader will just say, “image” (or, worse, it’ll read out the filename of the image, e.g. “i_hatemy_job4345123451234123412341234.jpeg”), and they’ll know they’re missing something. I made it clear to the hardworking people at the magazine that it was extremely important that they put alt text for this image on my story (and all their stories forever starting now). They told me that the paper is in the middle of overhauling its entire website to improve its accessibility, and in the meantime their CMS is such that they couldn’t just pop an alt tag into the source code like you can on most sites. So the workaround they chose was to just stick the alt text right into the caption. As a result, sighted people ended up seeing the alt text, which is normally hidden in the page’s source code.
I feel very minorly conflicted about this. On the one hand, sighted people seeing alt text is like hearing people reading closed captions — it normalizes the practice, and publicizes it, and is an important step to making it universal. On the other hand, I saw people who seemed pretty mystified by an illustration whose caption was… just a description of that same illustration. This confusion felt bad to see, and made me feel like my piece had a very mild but still palpable disability pall cast over it.
One online commenter (appearing amid the many comments that were like, “First you start giving roles to blind actors, then you have to start casting crime shows with real cops and murderers” — which, as my wife pointed out, is also a great idea), said that he was pleased that this story had good alt text but then called out the Times for dropping the ball on most of its other stories. Alt text is an important practice, and I hope they follow through on their promise to improve their accessibility soon, following the lead of publications like Vox, Slate, and HuffPo, which all reliably offer good descriptive alt text for their photos and images.
Was that enough backstory to make this email feel like “content” and not just my nakedly desperate bid to have you click and share the article? According to @NYT_first_said, the story was the first appearance in the history of that newspaper of three words: nondegenerative, semibrutal, and supercrip. I think in a lab with just those three words and a petri dish I could, without visiting nytimes.com, grow a linguistic organism that is an almost exact replica of this magazine piece about performance and blindness. If you are a research scientist with access to a language lab I could use for this purpose, please let me know by replying to this email.
Speaking of alt text, and the creative potential of textual constraint: Shannon Finnegan’s Alt Text as Poetry is a beautiful project that is well worth exploring— the idea is basically that while alt text is supposed to be short and direct and descriptive, it’s also an emerging form rich with interpretive and expressive possibility. [Relatedly: I have an essay about accessibility and literature that draws on this and other projects by Finnegan, whose work I am apparently a huge fan of, for McSweeney’s 64, “the Audio Issue,” which I helped to produce. More information on that project, including pre-order info, is here.]
Blindness seems to be having a moment at the moment. Perhaps it’s part of a crest of interest in disability that’s washing through the culture more broadly. In the NYT story I quote Matthew Shifrin, a blind composer and podcaster who also auditioned for a role on In the Dark. Shifrin has a podcast that I’ve been loving, called Blind Guy Travels, that’s currently halfway through its six-episode run. It follows Shifrin as he explores the questions that are most pressing for him as a young congenitally blind guy finding his way in the world. The first episode, about his work with the coach he hired in advance of a TED talk he was giving, so he could learn the gestures and sighted mannerisms that were otherwise totally alien and inaccessible to him as someone who’d grown up without sight, is fascinating (and was instructive for me as I wrote about the challenges of blind people trying to break into the entertainment industry.)
More from the cultural blindness moment: last month, Pantheon published M. Leona Godin’s There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. It’s a lovely book, really well-researched, and beautifully elaborates on snippets of blind literary history—the Greeks, Milton, Keller, Borges — with surprising details, enlivened by Leona’s anecdotes from her own journey through various stages of blindness. When I interviewed her on Zoom about the book, I felt like I needed another three hours to ask her everything I wanted to know.
I also recommend to you this other book-promotional panel that Leona arranged, with three other excellent blind memoirists: Georgina Kleege, Jim Knipfel, and Stephen Kuusisto. As a friend pointed out, the best part of the panel may have been when Jim (drinking beer the whole time), asked the panel an “impertinent” question (one that, in impertinent moments, I may have also asked myself): “Raise your hand,” he said, “if you think that you’d have gotten a book deal if you weren’t blind.”
I haven’t yet read James Tate Hill’s Blind Man’s Bluff, and might force myself to wait until my book is turned in so that I’m not subliminally influenced (or non-subliminally paralyzed if it’s awesome), so for now I’ll just say that that’s a great title for a memoir about a man who hides his blindness from everyone. I also love that he apparently displayed paperback editions of all the audiobooks he read, as a ruse to convince people his eyes were still working. Out next month from Norton, pre-order here.
As for me: my book cannot be preordered yet. It will likely be called The Country of the Blind, after the H.G. Wells short story. I am handing in a first draft to my editor in September, at which point I should know more about when it will be out. I am very grateful to you for reading all the way to the end of this newsletter. I look forward to emailing you again in six to twelve months. Please do reply to this email if you’d like to recommend a cultural artifact, ask a question, or say hello.