Overwhelming Silence: A Review of 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef

Overwhelming Silence: A Review of 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef
Translated by A.R.
Reviewed by Alan Good

Every book review I’ve ever read starts with an anecdote. Why should this one be any different? The first self-published book I ever got my hands on was misplaced in the Morris Raphael Cohen Library at The City College of New York. Instead of re-shelving it immediately like a good work-study, I skimmed through it. I don’t remember the title or the author, only that it was printed by iUniverse and riddled with typos. How the fuck, I wondered, did this even get here? As the weeks went by I began to notice more self-published iUniverse books in the stacks. I could spot them by their laminated covers. They looked like those restaurant tables that have ads and business cards under glass. This would be a better anecdote if, nine years ago, I had investigated, tracked that self-published lump of shit back to its unable-to-self-edit source. Were intrepid indie authors sneaking into the libraries of New York City to give their books a boost? Was our library’s book-buyer a secret self-published author determined to level the playing field for un-agented writers? Was it aliens fucking with us? I’ll never know (I mean, we all know it was aliens). But it sure did sour me on self-published books. 

All of which, with the use of this smooth, clever transition sentence, leads me to my topic, 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef, a book that has sweetened me on self-published books (even if it’s not technically self-published). A few years ago, when I was ready to publish my first book, the award-non-winning novel Barn Again: A Memoir, I learned, after a year of researching and querying agents and publishers, that no one else was ready for it to be published. Skip to the part where I finally say fuck it, I’ll publish the motherfucker myself and unlike certain people I’ll actually proofread it. And to mask the shame of self-publishing I put it out under a phony publisher name, Malarkey Books. And because of that this website exists and other people are even writing for it, and dozen of people have read my books, and I’m writing this review of a book that was published by another small-time publisher. The thing is, you won’t hear about it on the news or any of the big magazines or literary websites, but some of the most interesting books being published today are being self-published or released by extremely small presses that use the exact same publication method as the self-publishers, which is print-on-demand. Usually with either CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. Obviously Malarkey uses Ingram Spark because CreateSpace is owned by Amazon and Amazon is an anagram for Satan. Cow Eye Press, the publisher of Boiled Beef, also uses Ingram Spark. I asked, but I didn’t need to. You can tell. CreateSpace books are easy to spot because they have this crease near the spine on the front and back covers. You’re right, they should change their name to CreaseSpace. Ingram, once you hold a few, you can tell by the feel of the cover, also the barcode at the back of the book. 

You’d have to be sort of nuts to buy this book. You’d have to be sort of nuts to publish it. I mean, it’s just a book of recipes, none of which is particularly detailed or—can’t even tell if this is the vegetarian in me or the old picky eater in me—appetizing, for cooking boiled beef. But it’s not just a book about boiled beef. It’s also a meditation on publishing and independent literature. What the good folks at Cow Eye Press have done is pluck an obscure manuscript from the public domain and turn it into a metaphor for the existence of the modern writer. The twenty-first-century update of Boiled Beef is prefaced by a note from a fictional intern, who thinks “no more than five people will read this new edition.” But it doesn’t matter how many people read it, the point of this book is that “Nobody’s gonna read a book of recipes for boiled beef” is not a critique but a formula. “Nobody’s gonna read a book of/about/for/by” + whatever category or genre doesn’t really sell. For writers and publishers outside the publishing establishment, we know this, and we do it anyway. Because we’re stubborn or vain or deluded—or because it’s worth doing, even if there ain’t a big fucking market for what we do.

You could really just read the publisher’s note and the intern’s preface and get what the book is about without really looking at the recipes, but while I'm not going to pretend like I read every single recipe, I can’t recommended that approach. The recipes themselves, while maybe not all that mouthwatering, are entertaining. They have their own sense of poetry. Alex the imaginary intern notes that as you browse the recipes “you will notice a surprising, and not unpleasant, lack of detail and specificity.” The intern returns to the realm of metaphor, where these not-that-specific recipes “suggest a simpler world unspoilt by the consequence of modern efficiency and specialization, where a reader might be expected to navigate a certain ambiguity as a fundamental requisite of the intellectual enterprise; to use her own judgment and facility for interpretive thought. Here we pine for an idealized realm where a writer did not always have to spell things out to the nth degree to appease certain overly prescriptive conventions for realistic storytelling.” Such words, spoken by a publisher or an independent writer, might be as unpalatable as boiled beef, but an intern can get away it. Especially when you learn that the intern will probably not get paid, or that the intern has, according to a press release from the publisher, vandalized the book in retaliation for not getting paid. That’s all a separate storyline, part of a performance on the theme of “literature as spectacle” that Cow Eye Press has engaged in on its website and on twitter. It’s not just merit, right? Or talent. A good book alone won’t get you attention. No one would have been talking about Bret Easton Ellis’s new memoir without the spectacle of his asinine comments on millennials and politics. By the way I did not mean to imply that Ellis’s new memoir is a good book. 

But back to the poetry of the recipes. Here’s the recipe for Beef au Gratin, 53 out of 99 recipes:

Rub the bottom of a pie dish with a little butter, or better yet with the fat from a fowl, and dust over with chippings of bread crusts. Cut the beef in thin slices, and arrange in circular fashion on the dish; put on the top a piece of butter or fat, parsley chopped very fine, salt, pepper, and a teasponfull of bouillon. Put it for a quarter of an hour in the stove and serve hot.

There’s no story behind the dish, no food writer trying to sell you on their brand. Just a simple recipe. Maybe it’s not a recipe I’d actually want to try, but you can read it and get the gist, and you can see yourself as someone who doesn’t have to x out ads on your iPad when you’re trying to look up a recipe.

Each recipe is juxtaposed with an image, usually bovine in theme. A cow being hoisted. A cow being beaten. A human plunging an arm into a cow’s ass. Jesus on the cross. But thankfully I’m not an art critic.

Is anyone going to buy this book? Not really. Is anyone going to read it? Probably not all the way through. Does any of that fucking matter? 

“As an independent publisher,” writes Natalie Zeldner in a note at the beginning of the book,

I sometimes wonder why we even bother. It is unlikely that anyone will take note of the books we publish. No reviewer will discuss them. Bookstores will not stock them. The common reader, already drowning in a sea of heavily marketed titles, will never suspect that ours also exist. Our books will be excluded from the prominent “Best Of….” lists and literary awards that have become the last refuge for gaining editorial credibility and an external audience — but that to this day remain the privileged birthright of the publishing establishment and its legacy of patronage and prestige, of old money, of esoteric tradition, of economic expediency, of timeliness, of genre.

She still went and published this book. That’s what we do. Agents tell us no, so politely. Book reviewers ignore our emails. Bookstores charge us consignment fees. We keep writing. We keep publishing. We keep reading. Boiled Beef is more than a book, it’s an homage to those of us who work in the dark, whose publications exist and matter and are met, as Cow Eye Press put it on twitter, with overwhelming silence. For those of us in the independent publishing world, we don’t have publicists or marketing teams. We don’t have agents, managers, or brand strategists. All we have is each other.

Anyway Zeldner definitely said it best: “Boiled beef, indeed.”

99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef
Translated by A.R.
Cow Eye Press
ISBN: 978-0-9909150-9-6

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