This is me shooting myself.
This is me shooting myself, plagiarizing Dorothy Parker. Rich Smith

It's the season of regret around The Stranger's offices, and there's something I've been regretting for years that I need to get off my chest. It's about something I wrote at the Seattle Weekly back in 2002. I was 21 years old, I was brand new to being a critic, and I was desperate to get attention, to have "interesting" and "provocative" opinions. I didn't even know how to write a book review, much less write one that was "interesting" or "provocative."

Back then, the way I got myself psyched up to write reviews was by reading Dorothy Parker's snarling, sarcastic reviews of books and theater in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s and then copying her—I'd copy the attitude, the style, the spitefulness, all of it. I wanted to be Dorothy Parker. And by far the most entertaining review Dorothy Parker ever wrote was her review of A. A. Milne's play Give Me Yesterday, published in March of 1931. That's the review where she hates the play so much she shoots herself during it.

Here's how her self-shooting goes down: One of the characters in the Milne play is a cabinet minister who talks "softly and embarrassingly" and lives on one side of a wall. The character he is in love with, a beautiful woman, lives on the other side of the wall. He decides to tap out a message to her—one tap is for A, two taps is for B, and so on. Parker, highly irritated, writes:

He must tap out to her, on the garden wall, his message, though she is right beside him. First he taps, and at the length it would take, the letter “I.” Then he goes into “l,” and, though surely everyone in the audience has caught the idea, he carries through to “o.” “Oh, he’s not going on into ‘v,’ I told myself. “Even Milne wouldn’t do that to you.” But he did. He tapped on through “v,” and then he did an “e.” “If he does ‘y,’” I thought, “I’m through.” And he did. So I shot myself.

I loved that this could be criticism—the critic self-dramatized to the point of being a character, the play itself almost beside the point.

The piece appears in The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I kept a copy of at my desk at Seattle Weekly, because I was a very serious reviewer who studied only the greats.

Except I didn't. I hadn't "studied" the greats. I had only "attended college until sophomore year," when I got offered a job at Seattle Weekly, following an internship. I wasn't a "very serious reviewer"—in fact, as I may have mentioned, I had never written a book review before in my life. David Shields's book Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography, unluckily enough, was the first book to come into my field of vision when I set out to write "interesting" and "provocative" book reviews.

I had never read David Shields before, not that you would know that from my knowing review. I had heard that his novel Dead Languages was really good, but I hadn't read it; not having read it didn't prevent me from describing Dead Languages as "well done" (what is it, a steak?) in my snarling, sarcastic takedown of his book Enough About You. In addition to not having read a book I implied I'd read, I also accused Shields of "splitting infinitives," as if that's a crime; I accused the book of being "unconscionably pretentious," even though it was, in fact, overly conscious of its pretensions, self-mocking at every turn; I wrote about what "we expect" and what "we" don't expect from certain kinds of writers.

Again: First book review ever published.

I added to my mix of attention-seeking vitriol that "David Shields is not Nabokov, and he's certainly not Virginia Woolf" (as if that needed to be said? Can there be more than one of each?). And I wrote that by quoting Renata Adler and Sylvia Plath he was "insisting, by positioning his work within proximity to theirs, that his own writing belongs on the same level." Actually, that's not how quotation works; quotation actually insists the opposite. Is there any dumb argument I didn't make? I don't think so. Having read a tiny bit of Proust in college, I made a few proud and indefensible assertions about Proust, just to burnish my own supposed credentials.

But the worst thing I did? I found a sentence in the book I didn't like—"It feels as if it hasn't stopped raining since shortly after Kurt Cobain's suicide"—and quoted it, just to show that I was capable of finding the worst sentence in the book, I guess. And then I stole Dorothy Parker's joke and used it to make fun of the sentence. I just, like, copied and pasted a Dorothy Parker gag into my review. I quoted the Kurt Cobain sentence, and then I wrote:

I read that, and then I shot myself.

Reading that years later, I want to sue myself for plagiarism on Dorothy Parker's behalf. I also want to kick my own ass for making a shooting joke in close proximity to Kurt Cobain. And I want to take back whatever strong opinions I may have spouted about David Shields in the years after writing that Enough About You review, opinions based solely on Enough About You and other people's assumption that I'd also read Dead Languages (which I hadn't!). I finally did read Dead Languages a few weeks ago, for the first time, and guess what? It's marvelous. All about the difference between language on the page and language as it is coming out of your body. I recently got my hands on an advanced copy of a Shields book that doesn't come out until next year, and it's even better.

If I could press a button and delete this stupid article from Seattle Weekly's archives I would do it in a second. But that's not my call. And I've had no luck getting this piece to disappear on its own. I had hope, at one point, when Seattle Weekly was sold to a new company years ago and the website was wiped clean of its archives, that it was gone. But, alas, some very able person went back and restored Seattle Weekly's archives (no!!!), and when they did so, the time stamp on that piece became "Oct 9 2006 at 12:00AM." So then it looked like the one piece I most regret writing had been published again.

For the record, October 9, 2006 is four years after Enough About You came out and four years after I wrote that review and three years after I went to work for The Stranger. When The Stranger published a Shields essay in 2008, I thought of my review in Seattle Weekly and felt bad (but Shields didn't say anything, probably because he doesn't read reviews). When we published this excerpt from a new Shields book a few weeks ago, I felt bad all over again—bad enough to go and read Dead Languages finally. Which, again, is great. Have I mentioned it's well done? It's well done.

Hey, Seattle Weekly, if you're reading this? Just delete it. You have my okay.