Tanenhaus Won’t Have You at Hello

The underrated filmmaker Samuel Fuller said that a good story has to grab the audience by the balls from the get-go. Combing through the ledes in this Sunday’s NYTBR, it would appear that Sam Tanenhaus wouldn’t know crotch-grabbing even if Michael Jackson gave him personal lessons.

I’ve culled several ledes from this Sunday’s NYTBR because they all share something in common: the need to say something generalized and painfully generic in a seemingly sophisticated but ultimately hollow manner. It’s an approach that would probably piss off B.R. Myers, but I object more to the gormless grandeur and the sneering stance towards readers. A good editor would have recognized these topic sentences as conceptually sophomoric and condescending and demanded a peppy modifier at bare minimum. But the NYTBR‘s faux intellectualism and listless tone, resembling the staid syntax of an escrow agreement, appears to be house style. And these are the folks who call bloggers sub-literary!

Before I tsk-tsk Tanenhaus, to be equitable, there are a handful of good but not great offerings in this week’s issue, including this interesting David Orr essay, Geoffrey Wolff’s review of Kurt Andersen’s Heyday (peering through the language, it appears that Wolff may have been going for something quirky, but there do seem to be many telltale dashes here; did intervention come from humorless editors?), and decent coverage of a Winifred Wagner bio.

Of course, praising Tanenhaus for these minor morsels is a bit like ignoring the green chunks on a hunk of molded sourdough. It’s all moot when compared to the rest. So let’s go through the culprits one by one.

Ted Conover: “There’s a lot of stuff we consume while barely pausing to consider where it comes from; it is easy, these days, to be insulated from production.”

Translation: Yes, there is lots of stuff, good golly! Heya there, dumbass yokel! Yeah, you! Reading the NYTBR, trying to edumucate your mind. Do you want to read about oil? I reckon I might get through to you if I refer to your shopping items as stuff! But have no fear, pardner, because while Lisa Margonelli’s book deals with some COM-PLEXXX issues, everything’s going to be A-OK! The boys at Houston will make shure our li’l bitty spacecraft is INSULATED FROM PRODUCTION!

Pete Hamill: “Prohibition was one of the longest, dumbest chapters in the history of 20th-century American folly, and the impulses behind it are still alive today.”

Translation: You probably don’t remember your high school history class. You probably can’t be bothered to look things up, much less Google things. So let me tell you something. I’m guessing you remember this little period in 20th century American history called Prohibition. Yes? You don’t? Okay. Think carefully. Remember The Untouchables? Yeah. Bootleggers. Well, it had HUMONGOUS consequences for all of us.

Kim Severson: “Barry Glassner has made it his business to set credulous consumers of mass media straight.”

Translation: Even though Glassner’s previous book, The Culture of Fear sold through the roof, we’re assuming you’re an idiot who doesn’t even know who William Whyte is, much less Malcolm Gladwell. He’s made it his business, you see. The same way, you make it your business as a B&T day trader. Everything copacetic?

Steven Heighton: “Survival stories, in their elemental simplicity, can be deeply appealing to those seeking escape from complicated, densely scheduled lives.”

Translation: You haven’t set foot outside of your comfortable suburban neighborhood for years and the terrorists could bomb you at any second. We’re assuming that you pick up a sensationalistic book from time to time and, hey, here’s this one. Because we’re assuming you’re scared.

David Kirby: “Why devote oneself to that aggressively minor genre, poetry, when novels and screenplays and tell-all memoirs get more notice and make more money?”

Translation: Poetry is, of course, for all the pansy-ass intellectuals starving in garrets. But I’m one of you! I have an accountant on my payroll! And I’m going to dictate why you should read poetry in the most unsubtle tone imaginable!

Dave Itzkoff: “Is there anybody out there? Give the question some thought before you answer, because it’s more perilous than it seems.”

Translation: I haven’t a fucking clue about how to grab your attention. Hell, I’m not even sure why Master Sam picked me. I’m not really that familiar with speculative fiction anyway. So let’s see: this audience probably listens to classic rock on FM radio. That is, after all, what Master Sam says. Surely, they’ve heard of Pink Floyd!

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