Hoodwinking the Press; Brookhiser on Tanenhaus

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Sometime last summer I decided to write a "First Person" piece for New York Press. As I had had none of the sorts of experiences that normally fill that column, I invented the character of an aimless young twentysomething on the Upper West Side. I decided he would be a Brown University graduate, since Brown seems to churn out more than its share of politically liberal, disaffected types with an exaggerated capacity for seeing their lives as literature; that mushroom crowd that sprouts?thick-headed and fungus-like?amid the magazine racks in the cappuccino section of Barnes & Noble.

    Since these people write in a style that does not come naturally to me, I reread a few recent "First Person" pieces as well as some of Andrey Slivka's columns (he writes in this style, but at least does it well and intelligently). At this time the war in Kosovo was going on and every other columnist in New York Press seemed to be citing Bismarck's line about the Balkans not being worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier. I had my character at the end of the piece announce that the satisfaction of sitting in his apartment smoking some weed and listening to Ricky Martin was definitely worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier. It was done in 20 minutes and I laughed out loud when I reread it. I thought I had written quite a nice parody. Before sending it off to the newspaper, I e-mailed a copy to my friend Shannon, a professor of film in California who also has a canny sense of how things play with the public. He liked the piece. "They'll publish it," he said. "But they won't think it's a parody."

    "Sure they will," I told him. "This is New York."

    Days after putting the article in the mail I received a call from Andrey Slivka. He said they had liked the article and were going to publish it. He asked me to come down to their offices at 333 7th Ave. to meet them. We fixed an appointment for the next week. So through the weekend I fantasized?this was going to be my big break. They would maybe ask me to write a weekly column, I would go to swank Manhattan literary parties, I could use my column to launch my novel?Amy Sohn did it, after all. I told my wife, who is Mexican and slightly suspicious of my literary ambitions, that this was going to be the beginning of a glamorous life.

    On the day of my appointment I put on my best suit and a Burberry's tie. Arriving at the Press offices, I told the receptionist I had an appointment with Andrey Slivka. "Scott Smith?" she asked. "Yes," I said.

    She knew my name, I thought. This is better than I had expected. Perhaps the article had already become a cult classic in the office, with writers trying to find references to their own work and the rest of the staff laughing their heads off at it. Slivka showed up in jeans and an untucked t-shirt, his uncombed hair sticking up over a rather grave demeanor. He looked around the waiting area a bit until he realized that the only stranger there was me.

    "Are you Scott?" he asked dubiously.

    "Yes," I said.

    "Oh," he said. Clearly, I was not what he expected.

    He led me to MUGGER's office. I sat down, realizing that I had never been closer to my dream. "Just don't screw things up," I told myself. MUGGER said he'd liked the article and asked about my background. So I told him quickly and sketchily that after graduating from college I had worked at the World Bank in Washington, had done some relief work in Afghanistan for a couple of years, had some minor journalism experience and had just received my masters in international relations.

    "And you went to Brown?" he asked me.

    "Brown? No, I went to Georgetown."

    "Georgetown?" he asked. "Why did I get the feeling that you went to "Brown?" Shit, I thought.

    "You said in your piece that you went to Brown," Slivka said.

    My palms erupted in sweat. "Uh, the piece was sort of meant to be kind of a little bit parodic," I muttered.

    In the deadly stillness of the moment that followed I thought that I would rather relive a shelling in Kabul. I huddled in the basement of my misjudgment and waited for something to hit.

    "Well," MUGGER said, "you hoodwinked us."

    "I, uh, I didn't mean it like that," I said.

    "It's not often we get hoodwinked," he said. That word, that word! I felt like a rat.

    "The funny thing is," he said, "half of our writers went to Brown."

    "We were expecting a 23-year-old slacker," Slivka said.

    I looked down at my Burberry's tie and my tan Hugo Boss suit. Boy, had I screwed it up.

    But the conversation somehow righted itself and we talked for about half an hour about the paper and about politics. I liked the paper and my own political views overlap with MUGGER's on a good many things, so I figured I had regained some ground. At the end MUGGER asked me to write some more articles for them. He said that he didn't think that a good writer needed to be told what to write, and that I should write whatever I wanted, and they would consider it. Well, I thought, not a bad outcome given the beginning.

    I called Shannon that night and told him about the meeting. "You idiot!" he said. "Why did you tell them it was a parody?"

    "I had to," I said. "I can't string a lie out that far. What if they asked me about my supposed friend who was adapting 'Kublai Khan' to porn? Or about the Pakistani shopkeeper who had killed a man while fighting for Kashmir's independence? I couldn't spin those things out with a straight face. And anyway, they didn't take it too badly. After all that they still asked me to write for them."

    "Yeah. Well don't expect to ever hear from them again," Shannon said.

    Over the next month I sent in three different pieces. I didn't hear anything for a while from either Slivka or MUGGER, even after I sent a couple of inquiring e-mails. Finally, after about three months, I received a form letter from the Press thanking me for my "submission" and informing me that the paper was unable to "publish "it." (I guess two out of the three pieces didn't even merit a form rejection letter.) Shannon was visiting us at the time and he laughed his head off when I showed him the letter. "Oh my God, this is a deliberate slap in the face," he said. "I bet that Slivka is behind it."

    "Pendéjos," my wife said. "It's their loss."

    I keep reading the Press, even though I have long ceased looking for my articles there. It is one of the few homes for cantankerists and vituperists of all kinds, an opposition hideout from the mainstream media's thought-cliches, which celebrate the empty triumphs of so-called progress with confounding illogic and self-satisfied sanctimony. The Press, unlike any other paper in town, reflects a community and not an ideology.

    Hence the point of MUGGER's family tales alongside his politics. In exposing himself even at his most maudlin, MUGGER shows that he is a real person with real reasons for believing what he believes, rather than an oracular voice that will not be questioned or reveal to us whether it lives up to the values it preaches. The rest of the media crows about the virtues of public debate in a democracy, but the Press is alone in practicing it?witness the constant and often long-lasting arguments in "The Mail." I have nothing to gain now by this praise as I am leaving town anyway. In this case I am content to be the cut worm that loves the plow.

    As for Strausbaugh, he is dead-on about fate of American fiction. And I'm sure he is grateful to write for a paper like the Press, which, if I may say so myself, from time to time publishes good fiction even when it doesn't realize it.

    Scott Smith, Manhattan

    The editors reply: All true?except that, as we remember it, Smith did get at least one personal response from us about those other pieces he e-mailed us. We published his "First Person" parody in our 7/28/99 issue, and were indeed fooled by it. We thoroughly expected Smith to be some slouching and weedy, if talented, Ivy League alterna-hipster reeking of clove cigarettes. Still, it was nice to meet Smith, and he shouldn't read too much significance into the fact that subsequent pieces didn't work out. A lot of pieces don't, even by writers who have been appearing in this paper for years. We wish him luck wherever he's heading and hope he stays in touch, whether to send us other story ideas or just to say hello.


    Well! Monsieur Matthew DeBord is...fab, gear, groovy. "Soho Girls" ("Food," 1/26)?as fine a food review as I've ever read. Soho Girls?the movie, the sitcom, the opera, the coffee-table book. Prune?the place. Prune?the idea. Vomitrixes... Gyno-troopers... Me so horny!

    I want DeBord to write and write and produce and direct and write and film and take over the world.

    Name Withheld, Manhattan


    See Above I read a letter from another reader several weeks ago, in which he went on (at length) about a restaurant review by Matthew DeBord and his lack of food in the article, and his insistence on bringing up everything else but the food?i.e., his girlfriends, etc. ("The Mail," 12/22). So I watched the next few issues, and the letter writer was correct. Mr. DeBord writes about everything but the food. Now I'm not trying to be mean or catty, but in the 1/26 issue Mr. DeBord spends almost one and a quarter columns before he even mentions the restaurant. And what does he fill that space up with? Hypothesizing about the life of a quintessential "Soho girl."

    Obviously, every writer looks for individuality?a voice that's unique to himself?but c'mon! This really has got nothing to do with food. Mr. DeBord needs to get a certain word-count total for his review, or maybe he really thinks that a restaurant review is secondary. Maybe he really thinks it's a good writing style. It isn't. Who am I to judge? Am I a writer? No, a reader.

    And if I turn the page because I find his meanderings annoying, then I can fairly say he's not a good food critic, because I as a reader want certain information, and I can't fairly assess his critique because of everything else he insists upon throwing into his column. If he's so frustrated and feels he'd be better doing fiction, then fine, let him do that. But get someone who wants to focus on the subject?restaurant reviews. If Mr. DeBord cut all the Soho girl stuff out, he could've fit in another review.

    Mr. DeBord, I don't know why you write all this unrelated material, but could you please try to focus on the food, and the restaurant, just once please?

    R. Parker, Manhattan


    Life in Review Reader who are unfamiliar with James Burnham should be aware that Sam Tanenhaus' sketch of him in the last issue ("Opinion," 1/26) of New York Press is a caricature. Burnham started as a typical New York intellectual: a Trotskyite, then ex-Trotskyite, professor who contributed to Partisan Review. He became a pariah in the group in the early 50s, however, for strident (we would now say prescient) anticommunism, and spent the last 24 years of his professional life writing for National Review.

    Burnham did not "fantasize" about a Third World War. He said we were in one. Most of us called it the Cold War. His worldview struck some conservatives as cold-blooded. He didn't care; he had a chilly view of things. His finest book, The Machiavellians, argued that all organized political ideologies are frauds, since the appetite for power is too strong. Human freedom could be augmented only as a by-product of the circulation of elites. Not much room for New Hampshire primary rhetoric there; still less for Vanity Fair social democracy.

    Burnham never fought in any jungles. Neither did most of our postwar leaders, from Dean Acheson to Ronald Reagan. Does that mean planning and punditry should be restricted to John McCain?

    Sam Tanenhaus wrote a decent book on Whittaker Chambers, one of Burnham's National Review colleagues, and admirers. He knows better.

    Richard Brookhiser, Manhattan


    The Late, Great Wylie Sypher Re: Sam Tanenhaus on Partisan Review and the New York Intellectuals: The Partisan Reader, 1934-1944 contained stories by James T. Farrell, Eleanor Clark, Elizabeth Bishop, James Agee, Charles Jackson, Delmore Schwartz, Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, Mary McCarthy, Lionel Trilling and Isaac Rosenfeld; poems by Kenneth Fearing, Richard Wright, Wallace Stevens, Bishop, Schwartz, e.e. cummings, Louise Bogan, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Louis MacNiece, Randall Jarrell, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Horace Gregory, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams, R.P. Blackmur and Stephen Spender; essays by Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, William Troy, Auden, Andre Gide, Clement Greenberg, Spender, Katherine Anne Porter, Sidney Hook, Eliot, Ignazio Silone, John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Dwight Macdonald, Wylie Sypher, Trilling, and Harold Rosenberg; and a symposium on American writing with Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Farrell, Bogan, Porter, Gregory, Stevens, Tate and Trilling.

    The New Partisan Reader, 1945-1953 contained stories by Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Stafford, Paul Bowles, Leslie Fiedler, Rosenfeld, Bellow, Jarrell, Berryman, Tate, Gregory, Fitzgerald, Conrad Aiken and Theodore Roethke; and essays by Spender, Rahv, William Barrett, Hannah Arendt, V.S. Pritchett, Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, Jose Ortega y Gasset, James Baldwin, Tate, Diana Trilling, Jarrell, Czeslaw Milosz, Andre Malraux, Greenberg, Jacques Barzun, Walter Kaufmann, Albert Camus, Hook, Chiaromonte, Schapiro, Ernst Junger, Cyril Connolly, Auden, John Crowe Ransom and Irving Howe.

    A Partisan Century (1996), a collection of political writings from the magazine, featured contributions from Gide, Trotsky, Spender, Farrell, Greenberg, Macdonald, Orwell, Rahv, Heinz Eulau, Chiaromonte, Howe, Hook, Norman Mailer, David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Raymond Aron, Baldwin, McCarthy, Hans Morgenthau, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Nat Hentoff, Michael Harrington, Christopher Lasch, Andre Sakharov, Ralf Dahrendorf, Steven Marcus and Conor Cruise O' Brien.

    Tanenhaus may not be impressed by all this, but it seems to me as much as any other little magazine accomplished in 20th-century America.

    "How many enduring books," Tanenhaus, asks, "emerged from this hothouse of self-regard and internecine squabbling?" At least a few: Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination and several others; Philip Rahv's Literature and the Sixth Sense; Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture; Harold Rosenberg's The Tradition of the New; Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities; several books by Meyer Shapiro; Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation; memoirs and stories by Mary McCarthy; Leslie Fiedler's End to Innocence; and Diana Trilling's The Beginning of the Journey. Sidney Hook, Saul Bellow, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe and Daniel Bell all wrote enduring books; and although they all separated (as Tanenhaus points out) from the Partisan milieu, they were all partly formed by it, stayed in touch with it and acknowledged its influence.

    I don't know what Tanenhaus ate for breakfast the day he wrote his curious piece, but I think he should avoid it in the future.

    George Scialabba, Cambridge, MA


    William Peckerwood Clinton MUGGER: You talk about the South Carolina flag (1/26). Ever stop to think about the Degenerate's middle name?

    Can you imagine a white boy born in Arkansas named after Thomas Jefferson? Nah. Had to be Jefferson Davis. But they don't talk about that.

    Doug Williams, Detroit


    Our Redneck Correspondent MUGGER: Always enjoy your columns. There is a reason, and not a racist one, that we fly the Confederate flag down here in South Carolina on our newly refurbished Capitol dome. It's to say: Fuck you, U.S. government!

    You would have to get a good history book to check this out, but it's true: the actual flag of the Confederacy resembled the Yankee flag so much that it caused confusion during battle, which isn't a good thing. So our enterprising general staff swiped the naval jack from the one or two ships in the Confederate navy and began to use it in infantry/cavalry actions.

    Of course, a naval jack is a war flag. This flag, which bore a variation of St. Andrew's cross, was chosen by our legislators on purpose. I know, because I have relatives who served.

    Get it?

    We still hate the fucking feds, and always will. We won't start another war, though, until we have shipyards and factories to make stuff like bullets, cannon, etc., instead of trying to rely on the Limeys for help.

    The plan our forefathers drew up is very simple: follow the Constitution. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, etc., can't be wrong. The federal government was to be limited, for the very reason that it expands by default.

    Keep up the great columns.

    Still ready to secede. Ah, if only it were possible.

    R.V. Butts, Timmonsville, SC