Maddox Interview: F*ck Whales, Video Games and Criticism

This article ties in to a podcast I recorded with Maddox, available here.

George Ouzounian, better known as Maddox, has built his brand on the internet for twenty years. Beginning with The Best Page in the Universe in 1997, the project has grown into a number of different mediums. Primarily, Maddox considers himself a writer and satirist. Yet, he’s always made an effort to craft content for various platforms. While maintaining a consistent and practised tone, Maddox now produces podcasts, animation, comics and YouTube videos. He’s even currently working on a video game. Though all of his output is faithful to the core of his character, his outspoken penmanship inspires it all.

Just last month, Maddox released his most ambitious tome to date, F*ck Whales. A lengthy read that marries parody with sincerity, it’s a book that reflects his developed persona. From detailed explorations of weighty topics to tongue-in-cheek criticism of smaller beans, every sentence is that of a Maddox matured. Its intelligent, well-researched essays offer wry contemplation. On the other hand, short and venomous diatribes pierce popular perspective on subjects as innocuous as tables. The whole becomes cohesive; both clever and playful in its disregard of everything.

In this interview, Maddox speaks to Secret Cave about F*ck Whales and some of the difficulties in its creation. In addition, he gives his thoughts on writing in general, musing on its potential degradation in the wake of social media. You can also hear some exclusive information about his upcoming video game, and animated series. As fans for several years, we’re extremely grateful to Maddox for sharing his insight with us. Click below to hear our conversation in full, or scroll down for selected transcripts and further commentary.

*

After The Alphabet of Manliness and I Am Better Than Your Kids, F*ck Whales is Maddox’s third book. However, it may be the first to uphold the very spirit of his intentions on every page. It reads like a natural evolution of his website and videos. At times, following extended familiarity with his YouTube and podcasts, you can even hear his distinctive voice in your head. It’s typical of Maddox in all the ways you’d hope, while surprising in the depth of its analysis. For many fans, and Maddox himself, it’s been a successful and satisfying venture.

All block quotes in this piece are transcripts of Maddox’s words from our SCP3 episode.

I am absolutely thrilled. People who have read the book love it; my long-time fans especially. This [is] the book I wanted to write as my first book. I wrote The Alphabet of Manliness because I knew it would be a commercial success. Not just that, y’know; it was still based on my previous work. But, this is a real Maddox book! This is my bread and butter. This is the book I wrote to fulfil the Maddox mission, which is rants, satire and essays. It’s a very authentic Maddox read.

fck-whales-9781476794976_hr

However, bringing F*ck Whales to print has been far from easy. In fact, across nearly three tumultuous years, it went through several changes. Maddox wanted to present something with a thread, that would go beyond a mere compilation of disparate material. Instead of lazily relying on past work, or treading old ground, he wasn’t content with aimless essays. This is what makes F*ck Whales so complete, and sets out Maddox’s store as a writer to take seriously.

This book in particular went through over thirty different covers, titles and iterations. I have covers, that I personally created for this book, that date back to two years ago. I made something like fifteen or sixteen drafts two years ago and then, finally, when I decided upon this title and cover, it was after nine different iterations of this very title itself. So, it’s been a long, long process. The title wasn’t even decided upon until about six to eight months before the book was released.

Originally, the first draft I wrote was about thirty to fifty percent of the book. When I finished writing the first draft, and that’s not even the finished book, I sent it to my editor for some notes and thoughts because I didn’t quite have a direction. I felt like [there] wasn’t a very strong direction in the book. It didn’t really have a theme, [and] it didn’t feel cohesive like it does now. He felt the same way. We don’t have any pretence about what the work is; if it’s not there, it’s not there.

For Maddox, it was important that he not rest on the laurels of established canon. For a while, this may have caused him to neglect some of the aspects of his character that help make him popular. It did give him some space to breathe though, allowing him to write some unpredictably powerful chapters aside from the trappings of any imposed humour. Eventually, as F*ck Whales took its shape, Maddox found an equilibrium that brought both styles into harmony.

I went back to the drawing board and re-wrote big parts of it, and incorporated what I had already written, which was very poignant and thoughtful. There are two types of writing that you find in this book, generally. Well, three. You get some funny essays and satire, you have some absurd essays and satire and, then, you also have some very thoughtful and poignant ones. Like, for example, Fuck Abstractions; one of my favourite chapters in the book. It’s something where I talk about how people try to take specific problems and make them abstract, where that obfuscates the problem and makes it difficult to solve. It becomes a very poignant essay on something like that, and then I incorporated that with other chapters that are more absurd, like Fuck Horses, Fuck Ants [or] Fuck Tables. Fuck Trees, that sorta thing.

The first draft was mostly the poignant and thoughtful essays. That’s why I felt like it wasn’t really coming together. It wasn’t until I went back to the drawing board [that I] realised the missing ingredient was the humour. I didn’t really have that in there. That’s when the book started to take shape. In the acknowledgements section of the book, I thanked two of my friends early on because I was brainstorming with them, and telling them about the trouble I was having writing this book; it was a very difficult book to write. In brainstorming with my friends, they told me what they believed the Maddox brand to be about. It made me come to an epiphany, where I realised, “Okay, well, clearly there is a theme in this book, and the theme is fuck everything”.

From that point, Maddox had solved F*ck Whales‘ biggest problem. Rising from the ashes of a perplexing production, it suddenly found itself bound by logical ties. Now, it’s full of myriad flavours that all compliment the book’s overarching totality. Though much is satirical, and to be taken with a pinch of salt, an impressive amount confronts the genuine concerns and issues of 21st century life. Concentrating on any one corner of the Maddox universe would have likely been a careless mistake. By mixing his merits carefully, the book becomes simultaneously entertaining and challenging.

It became a nice balance of thoughtful and poignant essays plus funny and satirical ones. That’s exactly the Maddox brand. That is exactly on point with what I try to do. About two thirds of the stuff that I write has to have a message in it, and then a third of it has to have some humour. That combination, that formula, is what I generally try to have all throughout my writing. Sometimes, some of the essays and things that I write, even on my website, aren’t funny, because they’re not meant to be! They’re just supposed to be thoughtful essays and criticism which, I think, still stands the test of time; as long as it’s written well. I think that the comedy, and humour, is the sugar that I give people with the medicine. That’s what makes my writing palatable, and enjoyable, to a lot of people.

Even at F*ck Whales‘ conclusion, and after its long gestation period, Maddox has more on his mind to express. What this might mean for a potential fourth book remains unknown, but he seems some distance from the end of his literary quest. Presumably, with the journey and release of F*ck Whales still fresh, a follow-up is wishful thinking for the immediate future. That said, with this book still new to the shelves, there’s enough to digest in the meantime.

I wish I had more time to write a few more chapters in the book. There’s so much more I wanted to write, but it was a long time coming. [It] took about two and a half years to write this book, and it was a long and arduous process. I’m glad with how it turned out. The publisher originally just wanted to publish an anthology of all my previous writing. At first, we tried to compromise and I said, “Well, how about 50% new?” and they said, “No”. I said, “You know what, fuck it. Let’s just do all new material”. That’s why it took so long to write.

maxresdefault (7)

It’s clear that Maddox has an ingrained respect for the art of writing. This has never been more true of his approach than in F*ck Whales. He’s a fantastic communicator, who has honed his voice over years of hard work. In an era where our patience for media, in all its forms, has worn thin, Maddox steadfastly believes in experience and knowledge. It’s a truism that the internet allows anyone with a connection to make and distribute even the shoddiest of creations to a worldwide audience. On paper, that sounds like a communal artistic haven. In practice, it may actually strangle the purity of our more dedicated scribes and visionaries.

Writing is a skill, and just because everybody can type doesn’t mean everybody can write. It’s a very important distinction. Everybody could take a pair of scissors and cut hair, but that doesn’t make everybody a barber. You have to have training, some skill, experience and know-how to be a good barber. You can’t just cut hair. Writing is the same way; just because you can type doesn’t mean you can write. That’s what we’re experiencing today. We are bereft of quality content [and] writers, and we’re deluged with garbage. That garbage is being elevated to the height of the New York Times; to the height of authentic journalism and real, quality writers.

It’s also the way that we consume media today, in very small snippets and chunks. Everybody has a very short attention span, and you’re seeing media change to reflect that. There’s one of my favourite YouTubers, he’s a brilliant content creator [called] Brandon Rogers, and his style of content is so frenetic, fast-paced and kind of, almost, frenzied. It’s because it is appealing to a generation of people, who came up watching Vine, Instagram stories, Snapchat stories, ten-second clips and scrolling through [their] news feed and seeing a few frames of a video that starts to play, that [they] don’t even pay attention to. That’s how we are being bred to consume content today.

These new barriers to quality content are just that; walls for the inventive among us to learn how to break down. It’s something we recognise at Secret Cave too, since we often write expansive articles in a climate of smash-cut editorial. Our solution is to bury our heads into the sand and soldier on regardless. But, there are many avenues to adapt in our new, fast-paced culture. There are unlimited things we could blame for our collective tastes changing that we may as well accept it, and find our own routes around.

If you have an entire generation of people who [are] ready to consume content that’s short-form, only lasts a few seconds at most and doesn’t really have a story arc, what we’re going to start seeing a shift in [with] media is that type of content. Even long-form content is going to seem like short-form content. So Brandon Rogers, he may make a six-minute video but, in that six-minute video, there is a joke every one to three seconds. If that seems like a frenetic pace, that’s because it is. I think it’s like that because we have come to expect that style of content.

It’s very difficult for people with a short attention span these days, and I may be guilty of this myself, [to sit] down and [consume] an entire movie, from start to finish, without checking their phone, getting interrupted or getting some notification from something. I mean, between the number of apps we have on our phones and the number of times our computers chime off, and we have now Google Home and Amazon Alexa, and all these things constantly chirping and bugging us, smart TVs and tablets, we are deluged with information and distractions. It’s really hard for people to concentrate.

For Maddox, the answer comes in compromise. While F*ck Whales includes many protracted pieces, they’re surrounded by smaller chapters; some requiring little more than two minutes of your time. This makes the book less imposing to our on-demand appetites. It can also accentuate the humour of brief observations. A compendium of short, silly scribblings is all well and good for a gimmick. But, when used delicately in tandem with astute examination, comedic brevity acts as a welcome release valve.

First of all, the chapters are a little bit shorter than a traditional book. Some of the chapters are about what you’d expect, but a few are only a page or two long. That wasn’t intentional necessarily, but the difficulty of writing a book in this day and age… I mean, so much has changed since my first book came out. My first book came out eleven years ago! That’s an entire generation, y’know? Think of the difference between the 70’s and the 80’s. Think of the difference between the 50’s and the 60’s! The book industry has changed even since my second book came out, in 2011.

Today, the difficulty of writing a book is that people generally don’t buy books as much as they used to. When’s the last time you stepped inside a bookstore? It’s becoming more and more rare, unfortunately. People don’t have the attention span for books. People don’t go to bookstores. Barnes & Noble is the biggest bookseller in the United States, and when my first book came out there were many, many bookstores. Borders was the other big one, and everybody would go to Borders and consume content; buy DVDs, CDs and physical books. That’s how people spent their time. Well, today, there’s so many distractions, like I said, between apps, games, videos and everything on demand, that it’s becoming more and more difficult to sell books. And, I think, that’s to the detriment of society.

As the internet affects content, it also warps the face of criticism. So much on social media is dubious, or questionable. Trolling is sometimes louder than honest dialogue. Thanks to some highly mystifying online backlash, Maddox has come into contact with such anarchic nonsense on a handful of occasions. In deference to the very real positivity toward F*ck Whales, an amplified few have taken it upon themselves to smear its image. Unjustly, it doesn’t matter to the casual customer if some anonymous comment is born from belligerent bullshit, which it almost exclusively is.

There’s a problem right now with the ratings and reviews for the book. It’s being spammed, unfortunately, by a lot of trolls. Now, here’s the thing. I want there to be authentic reviews of my book, and that’s even if the reviews are bad, or harsh. I don’t care. All I care about is that they are authentic. If somebody read my book and didn’t like it, god bless. Good for you, but I still wanna hear your criticism of the book; as long as it’s genuine, authentic criticism. What I don’t care for is people who are just trying to diminish and tarnish a book’s brand, or a book’s reputation, based on something external. That’s unfair, not right and not helpful to anyone. You’re not making the world a better place by writing a shitty review for a product you haven’t read or experienced.

There’s an undoubtedly fickle edge to Maddox’s fan base, often holding him accountable for non-existent mistakes. It’s tough to be a fan of his and not trip up on the desperate claws of his detractors. Refreshingly, he doesn’t shy away from his critics. Maddox weaves them into his materials, such as featuring angry voicemails in a regular feature of his podcast. So many personalities and outlets will drop any ideal or standpoint to please the consensus of their fans. Although welcoming and receptive to constructive advice, Maddox has no tolerance for the spoiled bawls of a vocal minority.

It’s absolutely a vocal minority, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve, classically, been saying things like, “My fans are idiots”! Because, they’re fickle. They’re fickle as fuck, and that’s the thing that drives me nuts about my fan base. You can produce consistent, quality content, for twenty years, without so much as putting a single fucking advertisement on your website, not making a single dollar, and they will consume your content for free. The second that you produce anything they don’t like, or anything that falls below their very high expectations for the free content they’re consuming, they will turn on you; immediately. And that’s why I don’t have that much loyalty to my fans; they are fickle.

The ones who stick with me, by my side, who see through it [and] don’t feel entitled [to] entertainment… Those are the ones I respect and appreciate. But, [to] the ones who turn on you and then become vindictive, manipulative and abusive, because you have fallen short of their expectations (which, by the way, should be zero): nobody owes you shit! Nobody owes you entertainment [or] an afternoon of laughs, for free. What you are owed is nothing. So, if somebody provides something to you, anything to you, and you’ve gained any amount of value from it, the only thing that you should deliver in return is thanks. That’s why if I get trolls, [or] people who are upset at me for not delivering something that they wanted, I couldn’t give less of a shit and I’m absolutely thrilled to have those people out of my fan base.

Predictably, anonymity has a lot to do with the roars of his trolls. They also come from peer pressure, as it doesn’t take much chipping away to discover that their teeth are just ill-fitting dentures. That’s the very mask that so many keyboard warriors pray won’t slip, since their bleating doesn’t hold up to any level of scrutiny. The same can’t be said of Maddox, or F*ck Whales individually. This is what gives him the confidence to fight back, or at least shrug it off his shoulders, and keep writing at the same time.

Sometimes, there will be different pockets on the internet like, for example, Reddit. I don’t know why, but Reddit has almost always hated me. If somebody posts a link to an article of mine, I’ll look at the comments and there are a lot of people who are shitting on me, right? But, if I ever deign to comment in a thread where other people are talking about me, and they realise it’s me and I’m there, suddenly the tide shifts; very quickly. It changes from one of criticism to one of ass-kissery. So, all these people who are critics of mine, people who hated me and my detractors suddenly come around and become my biggest fans, and they’re ardent supporters.

maddofff

Matching Maddox’s forthright nature, his followers can be unscrupulous in their interpretations. All too often, they try to cast Maddox in unyielding stone and use his humanity against him. Over a twenty year career, someone can be expected to hold differing positions as time marches on. Likewise, many mistake jocular comments as hardened conviction. With people magnifying his every word for their own ends, Maddox has done well to remain sane. Thankfully, he can use it as a fuel. The phenomenon itself has given him much food for thought on its own.

My fans try to extrapolate a little bit too much from what I do and say. For example, if I’m pedantic occasionally, which I am sometimes, it’s for a purpose. Usually, that purpose is: somebody has called me out [or] somebody has said that I am dumb or stupid, and they’ve insulted my intelligence. If you’re going to insult somebody’s intelligence, you have to take extra care to make sure that you yourself have not made any stupid, and simple, mistakes. So, that’s the occasion that I try to be pedantic, because it’s funny that way. But, my fans interpret it as me trying to be pedantic all the time. That’s why, if I make even a minor mistake without being in the process of insulting somebody, they will go out of their way to point that out to me.

Sometimes, people call me out for hypocrisy, which is true. Sometimes I am a hypocrite. But, hypocrisy isn’t an end in and of itself. If you want to make an argument that somebody is a hypocrite, great! All you’ve proven is that their values are not consistent sometimes or that they’ve changed their minds. That’s totally okay, and that’s totally natural. People are allowed to change their minds! In fact, I would encourage people to change their points of view, and then change their minds based on new knowledge and information. If you have a set of beliefs, and you come across some facts that disprove your beliefs, you absolutely should change your mind.

It might be true that a sycophantic crowd of well-wishing obsessives would be anathema to Maddox. It’s always been amusing to see him react to any negativity he attracts. In one chapter of F*ck Whales, titled Fuck People Who Agree With You, he makes this case for himself. Where he could broadcast a shameless circle jerk in his name, he’d much rather spotlight the darker side of his fan base. It’s so prevalent in his catalogue as to be synonymous with his brand. What is it that attracts Maddox to his critics? Why does he provide them space to air their grievances on his own show?

It’s not interesting to hear a bunch of people call in and agree with me, and just tell me they’re big fans. I have a lot of fans. I have a lot of people who love what I do [and] have to say; they agree with me. But, what would you rather listen to? Two people having a polite agreement, or two people having an angry disagreement? When somebody disagrees with me, especially if they’re wrong (which they are if they’re disagreeing with me), then it gives me an opportunity to shut them down.

The above video will start at the beginning of a section where Maddox responds to critical voicemails.

In the grand scheme, his work outshines his critics. Though his site has been quiet recently, that’s only because so much happens behind-the-scenes. We can expect a figurative avalanche of new material over the next two years, and that’s not even counting F*ck Whales and regular episodes of The Best Debate in the Universe. Fans eagerly await his upcoming animated series, which may be his most ambitious enterprise yet.

I announced it on my podcast a while back, that I was working on an animated show. It’s my very own show, [and] it’s the first one I’ve done that’s completely based on me and my properties. It’s gonna be a lot of fun; I’m really proud of this one. It’s going to be nine episodes, and each episode is twenty-two minutes long. So, it’s a full season-worth of content.

If Maddox’s animated series isn’t the magnum opus of this point in his career, the video game he’s been designing could take that mantel leisurely. When he first revealed its existence on his podcast, it came as a pleasant surprise to many; myself included. Nonetheless, video games have been a pillar for him since his earliest days. They’ve served as his founding inspirations, and frequently come up in his writing, videos and debates. Under that light, it soon makes sense for Maddox to try his hand at his own digital landscape.

I’ve had ideas for video games for a long, long time. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for, actually, my whole life; since I first started playing video games. In fact, that’s the whole reason I touched computers to begin with, is to learn how to develop video games. Now, it’s finally come full circle, where I went into writing and then did some TV stuff, YouTube, animation, and I’ve finally come to my first passion, which is video games.

I didn’t want to half-ass it. A video game is a huge undertaking, because there’s so many components, so many moving parts, [that] you really have to have focus and dedication to see the project through. You can’t have the initial enthusiasm of starting a project, and then hope that that sustains throughout the entire endeavour, because it just won’t. The initial enthusiasm is not enough. You have to have people who know how to see a vision through, and know how to manage assets, time, resources and those sort of things.

maddox3

It’s comforting to know that Maddox has no interest in a pointless video game, skinned in his image. He’d prefer to play with some original mechanics, and apply them to traditional tropes with reverence for the form. For now, this is almost all we know about it. It’s anybody’s guess how the finished product will feel and look, but it’s a safe assumption that it will carry the hallmarks of passion and care. Just hearing Maddox speak about video games should be enough to put people at ease. After all, with his years of compressed fury at lacklustre titles, why would he commit to garbage? Whatever genre it turns out to be, it will be something he’s studied.

I can say it’s not going to be an RPG. But, it’s a type of game that I’ve wanted to play for a long time. In fact, it’s a type of game that I like playing – I’ll give that much of a hint – and it is something I haven’t really seen in this genre of game before. It should be really interesting to see how this innovation plays out in the genre.

We already have a playable demo of the game. [It’s] very early in this stage, but the basic gameplay mechanics are there. Even without many enemies, or much AI, it is still a lot of fun to play, and that’s a really good sign. I’m having fun just exploring the level that we’ve created, early on at this stage of development. So that bodes well for the game itself, because if you’re having fun just fucking around in a demo stage then you’re going to really enjoy the game, I think.

I’m looking to make it so that it’s playable [for] multiple playthroughs. Each time you play through, you’ll be able to discover new things and continue to make progress in your character. As a long-time gamer, my entire life, I have a lot of experience playing games [and] analysing game design. This is actually not the first game I’ve worked on. I also wrote for a game, called Starblood Arena, that came out on PlayStation 4. It’s a virtual reality game, and that recently came out. So, that’s the first time I’ve actually had any experience writing for a video game.

How much can we expect this game to live in the Maddox universe we already know? He surely has plenty of ideas that don’t relate whatsoever to his satirical alter-ego. If he does, they may indeed come to fruition. But, it would be gratifying for fans if his full-scale video game debut dipped its toe into his properties. We only have his own excitement to grip to, which is a reasonable indication of its ongoing progress. In what might be the finest response to his trolls and critics, Maddox has a creative wealth waiting in the wings.

[The video game] pays homage to the Maddox universe, but it’s going to be its own distinct thing. Everything I do has some element of something else from the Maddox universe. This video game is also going to be inspired, actually, just by Maddox, the persona himself. So that, and then some of the lore I’ve created for Maddox himself. I can’t wait to show you it. It’s gonna melt faces [because] it’s gonna be so fucking awesome.

Click here to visit Maddox’s Best Page in the Universe. You can also stay up to date with his YouTube, or dedicated podcast channel. If you have Twitter, you can follow Maddox here. Secret Cave can be found on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The full audio of this interview is available as episode six of SCP3.

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.
  • Lee Tyrrell

    Thanks for the comment. It was an area I wanted to explore and discuss. I do, in fact, bring it up in the recording itself, however, as the interviewer, it was clearly a difficult and sensitive subject so I backed off. I also didn’t consider myself educated enough on the Dick Masterson controversy, as the entire story is marred by confusion, claims I can’t authenticate and trolling. Instead, I chose to write about his book – which I genuinely enjoy (shoot me) – and upcoming developments.

  • Lee Tyrrell

    Please see my response to Mike Menzel. If you are the real Dick Masterson, all I can say is that the entire story is less interesting to me than either of your work. I have no interest in hearing a podcast episode with accusatory claims. In my research on this topic, I’ve found little to no hard evidence. I have, however, found plenty of trolling. So I disregarded it and wrote about a book I like. I work incredibly hard on my interviews, off my own back and for no money. I feel no shame for what I’ve written.