We already watched the GameStop movie
The Industry lines up to take its cut of The Story. Their version will be worse.
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And now, GameStop and the reasons we tell stories.
This past week, things really started to level out for the whole GameStop deal.
Winners were revealed, as we knew they would be. The losers, too. And the stock lost more than 80% of its value in six days. We see some of the rich getting richer, poor get poorer, and the grifters move on to staging fake boxing matches.
The story of American business told in five days.
And so to the surprise of no one, with this saga quickly fading from the public’s consciousness, this week The Industry arrived to cover its bases on telling a story that is either nowhere close to done or probably not worth telling at all.
Last Monday, Variety reported that a GameStop film project attached to a writer, an actor, and a losing-the-thread marketing professor is in the works. This news came after reports a movie deal to adapt an as-yet-claimed book on the thing had been struck by MGM; the book later found a home at Grand Central Publishing. All of which was followed by news that over at HBO Max plans are underway to make another movie about the whole deal.
As Sid Verma noted this week, there are more stories about things that happen than actual things.
But that we so quickly moved to the “talk about” stage of an unfolding drama which perhaps, though not necessarily, reveals something meaningful about what it’s like to be a human should be of little surprise in a world where the derivative is more potent than the underlying.
In financial markets, for instance, there are more index funds than there are stocks. In other words, there are more ways to repackage shares of publicly-traded companies than there are public companies. And our technology-fueled business cycle rewards the same approach across industries.
As we wrote last week, the most quoted business lesson from the world’s richest man says the best opportunity exists in running interference between providers and customers. The “thing itself” of our current cultural moment isn’t creating but remixing — songs popular on TikTok (the derivative) become chart-toppers (the underlying), half-useful technology (the derivative) is overlaid on existing business models (the underlying), investment strategies are focused on repurposing (the derivative) what is already being bought and sold (the underlying). Maybe this is what Kanye West’s music was trying to tell us 15 years ago. Don’t make something new, just sample.
Of course, if we run the history of human storytelling through a certain lens you could argue markets are just barely catching up to where we’ve been, civilizationally, for millennia. Every epic, myth, or piece of scripture fits a handful of templates: one last job, voyage and return, and so on. There’s a continuum between nothing creative being original and everything creative being original that humans seem destined to spend fighting along until the species is extinct.
And we would never presume to offer something like resolution on these disagreements. After all, I’m sure many readers spent a seminar or two arguing about the monkeys on typewriters thing. Underneath any piece of pop analysis like the kind we write in this newsletter resides an academic discipline far richer than the Substack jockeys want to (or can) reckon with.
But buried in this complaint about the lack of originality in the world today exists a sort of ahistorical bitterness and self-righteousness that negates the entire project. In short: I am wrong about everything. I recall the work of writers like Joseph Campbell and David Shields, and in them find thinkers unafraid to quote and borrow at length from the ideas of others. Indeed, the kind of essay collection I so admired as a student is often not much more than an extended blogpost riffing on someone else’s work.The difference only that this writing is printed and bound, conferring a kind of authority we struggle to assign the digital word.
And so it’s not sufficient to see the rush of rights deals on events that are neither finished nor interesting as representing a grand downfall among our creative class. The adolescent impulse to reject what’s popular is grounded in the same kind of reactionary pose.
In our 2020 year in review letter, we tossed out an unpublished idea that the coolest thing you can do now is sellout. Athletes and celebrities want to be investors, investors want to be celebrities, journalists want to be thought leaders, thought leaders want to be executives, executives want to be anonymous shitposters, and so on. Earning a producer credit on a spec project while also holding down roles as a television anchor and a cushy editorial honorarium at the Times is indeed just this: selling out, but well. And when we disentangle the details from these various sellout arcs — such as sponsoring a SPAC while also working as an analyst for ESPN and as man candy for your more successful and talented partner — we see in the real world what the wallstreetbets community has been glomming onto with increasing enthusiasm in the financial world: call options.
The modern business leader seeks to surround themselves with a series of upside bets hedged out to infinity such that the most successful representation of “making it” in America is to be involved in so many disparate pursuits that what you really care about can never be surfaced because it does not exist. Start a company but also raise a rolling fund. Raise a venture fund but also write a paid newsletter. Serve as CEO but also sit on four other boards of directors.
And everyone else is supposed to want this arc, too.
Later today, Squarespace will run a commercial that celebrates the “5 to 9” side hustle culture we now market as the necessary stuff of keeping one’s head above economic water. As we wrote last week: “The American myth has had many lives and will have many more. But today’s foundation is The Economy, a sharpened faith that the pursuit of wealth is the main project of citizenship today, the means to an end that never arrives. The main event in modern life is the accumulation of financial matériel to solidify one’s place in a society that empowers and rewards consumption above all.”
The rich, of course, already mix in plenty of side hustle — board seats are the original side hustle — and the common man is being invited to the party just as things are winding down. Our capitalist energy has been food-processed into an indecipherable mess of interests but what the machine always needs is a supply of warm bodies to keep things moving. And only you, armed with a Squarespace-powered website working a second job, can meet this demand of the modern management class. Joke’s on me that this thing is free, I guess.
So but what stories about GameStop, or Reddit, or hedge funds getting rich these forthcoming projects will tell we can’t know. Though whatever these stories end up being doesn’t really matter.
The most incisive commentary on GameStop has been published, at length and for free, by Matt Levine. The running diary of what it really felt like in markets two weeks ago exists on Twitter. Markets junkies love to say things like: “I’ve never seen anything like [current event X],” but conveniently leave out past dramas as each new event is sprung from the market’s coiled energy. It was less than one year ago, for instance, that the price of oil went negative. Something way crazier than GameStop shares going up a lot will happen in markets and soon. Last time I checked there’s no book out there on volmageddon, just Kawa’s Bloomberg article. It’s unclear why this is so different.
There might be appeal among a business-curious Dad Book audience for an “inside story” on GameStop’s stock price in January and February 2021. Or rather, we know there will be. The publishing industry ensures that this interest can be manufactured: a large enough pre-order cements your place on future bestseller lists before a word has even been typed.
“Books are products,” the critic and novelist Lauren Oyler told The Cut this week. “Many of those we talk about aren’t doing anything except making money, and the thing that’s interesting about them is how they operate in the world, not what they’re commenting on.”
Books about Trump, for instance, exist only to be sold and then excerpted in Axios. There is no real purpose or impact from the work other than putting one word after another and selling the output for dollars. The details might change, but the arc of any story about the former President is already well known: the man is nothing if not entirely himself. We could say the challenge of these forthcoming GameStop books is to avoid this sort of rote structure but, really, there’s no need. A best-selling book need only be best-selling, nothing more.
Some years ago, as my time at Business Insider was winding down and I increasingly pushed the boundaries of what constituted publishable material for that website, I argued for spending a weekend reading a novel instead of the news.
Novels, unlike the news, are true.
Novels create their own internal logic rather than pay fealty to some assumed common idea of what is Right and what is Wrong. There is no PolitiFact pedantry for a novel.
You can love or hate a novel for any reason at all and be completely right in your conclusion.
Creating art with something to say requires an artist with indeed just that. So, better to Mad Lib your way to a GameStop script than try to find something real to say. Especially if you’ve got nothing.
In January 2020, we wrote in this space about the evergreening of the internet, about the speed with which traffic offers feedback on what people will click and what they won’t. There is more content than ever on the internet but the scope of what is viable has continued to narrow.
That human communication follows a few common patterns or fits a few familiar arcs is, as we’ve seen in today’s letter, nothing new. What is new, however, is the internet’s specificity, with the feedback on “what works” now coming from keywords and trending topics. The narrative structure of the internet is SEO-driven — “Noun, noun, verb, date.”
Melvin Capital, Reddit, short-sell, January 2021.
Steve Cohen, Dave Portnoy, tweets, January 2021.
And so on.
Each of these tells a story, sure, but one that meets the criteria of a Google search, not a lesson on what it means to be human. The internet incentivizes random collisions of words so that content can be surfaced over and over. It’s a language game, not a search for meaning.
And this structure bleeds out more each day into what we might’ve previously called the real world of people and objects, of our senses. But the stories worth telling and lessons worth learning aren’t the ones you call up from a digital memory bank; they’re the ones you feel.
The danger with this kind of approach is an over-informing of the reader such that the impression the author makes is one of them being Very Well Read so as to excuse away their argument’s flaws: how can you critique me if you haven’t also read all of Lacan? For instance and so on.