Such a bouquet of delights was the NYT magazine yesterday. (I know the magazine publishes online a few days beforehand, but I’m ol’-skool, and wait for the pleasures of Sunday morning and its coffee and waffles.) I was looking forward to Christopher Buckley’s memoir excerpt, after noting Brother Rod and the Pontificatin’ Pedants wringing their damp hands over it earlier in the week. Is this Christopher Buckley’s “Mommie Dearest?” Rod wondered, describing the Buckley scion’s portrait of his mother as a “mean, lying bitch.”
After taking my own measure of the piece, I can say it must be difficult to go through life as a writer who is unable to actually, you know, read. It’s true that Buckley did acknowledge his parents’ many faults, which I guess in Outer Wingnuttia is a capital offense, but I don’t see how anyone could read the portions of “Losing Mum and Pup” that were published this weekend and come away with the idea that the surviving Buckley is getting even somehow. This is an enormously affectionate portrait of two complicated people who had a full complement of virtues and flaws. Normal adults know this is the way of the world, but in a culture that idolizes The Family, I guess it’s better to sweep these difficult truths under the rug and never speak of them again.
I don’t get it. But here’s what I know: Writers, particularly memoirists, are charged with one job over all others — telling the truth. If you can’t tell the truth — and that is perfectly fine, not every truth must be told — don’t even pick up your pen. Keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to wallow in the bad stuff; part of telling the truth is telling the whole truth, painting the lights and the darks, because only a portrait with a full range of tones can come anywhere close to a fair rendering.
Stipulated: The truth will vary from person to person. The truth is not the same as accuracy. The truth is never the whole truth, and rarely nothing but. But for Christopher Buckley to publish a book that does nothing but underline the fantasy others have about what his parents “must” have been like — that would be a lie. The world has enough lying writers. (All of these stipulations are themes in Laura Lippman’s excellent “Life Sentences,” now available at an Amazon kickback link near you.)
You know the first column that really landed Tim Goeglein on my radar? It was something he wrote about his parents after one of their anniversaries, about how their thousand-year marriage had been blessed personally every day by Jesus, who guided their lives down to the last detail, and as such kept them from ever making a serious mistake or speaking a cross word, and how he personally handed over every one of their children in a holy glow of pure white light, and every one of those children was brought up in the way of the cross, and blah blah blah.
I thought: The bullshit is strong in this one. He bears watching.
Goeglein was a guest at the Buckleys’ from time to time, not that he ever dropped their names, but I remember his making some reference to “my friend Pat” in a column that was obviously Mrs. B. It was right after William F.’s death that I went looking to see if he’d written anything about conservatism’s fallen lion, and, well, we know how that turned out.
Lesson: Tell the truth. (My truth: I have perhaps embroidered the details of that Tim column. But not by much! More truth: I met Christopher Buckley once, at a library event. He was charming at an Olympic level. Whatever flaws his parents had, they knew how to raise a son to hold up his end in social situations.)
Elsewhere in the magazine, Virginia Heffernan takes a look at reader comments, a feature-not-bug of legit publications that I suspect we’ll be wrestling with for quite some time:
Anne Applebaum is an American political journalist living in Poland whose columns appear weekly in The Washington Post and on Slate. Her views are pro-free-trade and generally hawkish. A Thatcherite in the 1980s, and a supporter of Obama for president in 2008, Applebaum is stoutly pro-immigration, pro-intellectual and anti-torture. Last year Foreign Policy magazine declared her one of “the world’s most sophisticated thinkers.” In awarding the 2004 prize for general nonfiction to her book “Gulag: A History,” the Pulitzer committee called it a “landmark work of historical scholarship and an indelible contribution to the complex, ongoing, necessary quest for truth.”
But what does the analog world know? Online, readers see Applebaum and her work quite differently. To read The Washington Post’s comments section is to discover an outraged throng that insists she knows absolutely nothing. Not long ago, a poster named jbburrows pronounced Applebaum a “liberal fool.” Respondus described her as “a lapsed neo-con addict.” Lloyd667 on Slate wrote, “Anne gets just about everything wrong.”
Just about everything.
This is something I’ve wondered about for a while: Why are the comments on my sole-proprietor, no-budget, stitched-together, lame-o blog so wonderful, and those on professionally done, big-budget, well-respected sites so terrible? I’ve referred in the past to the Free Press Klavern, the slavering, anonymous, brain-free troupe of readers who feel obligated to chime in on every Detroit story and turn it racial. Let’s just go over there and see…
OK. Here’s a feel-good story about one of the city’s most prominent businessmen, who’s married to a younger woman (not under nefarious circumstances; he was a widower). She’s expecting twins. Let’s just fish one out of the hat:
Are they really his? I guess we will have to see what they look like.
And so on. Big media companies go to great, painstaking lengths to make themselves “diverse” inside and out, and Gannett probably goes the furthest — they were the company that decreed from on high that reporters must seek out non-white sources on all stories. (Which spawned some of the great inside-baseball media stories, which we can all tell one of these days after it sinks beneath the waves.) I can’t imagine being a black reporter or editor, working hard on a story, and having this stuff attached to it like a hemorrhoid. (It’s not just race that excites the yahoos, but that’s topic No. 1.)
I’ve heard different things about Gannett comment threads, but all via grapevines, nothing official. The gist is that they purposely keep their hands off, for legal reasons — if you moderate, you’re responsible for what appears there, but if you don’t, you’re not, so the explanation goes. It makes no sense to me, but then, I’m not a lawyer.
It’s the anonymity that brings out the beast in people, of course. Take away the name, and people feel free to say any damn thing that bubbles out of their id. I don’t except myself, either — I’ve been an anonymous blog commenter in the past, and while I don’t do it anymore, I will say that it served its purpose. But most people who comment here are anonymous or at least somewhat shrouded — I know Coozledad’s real name, and it is neither Coozle, nor Dad — but we generally keep things decent and respectful.
Maybe it’s the anonymity, plus the size of the net cast. When you’re one of thousands reading a MSM website, it just seems easier to spew. I don’t know. I do know I’m grateful to you folks for being the fabulous community you are, from sea to shining sea and then to a few more seas (hello, Copenhagen!). Don’t ever change, or if you do, just get funnier and smarter.
Russian-study time. Have a great day.