Listing Left, Listing Right
Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002 America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post- eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly, unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so, and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.
It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000 electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers). Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-99 (Barnes & Noble), suggests that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How to Win Friends and Influence People, not How to Win Friends, Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks. Books by political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the 1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life Begins at Forty and Walter Duranty's I Write as I Please--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered. Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered, Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover, "an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that "explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused, entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra rocket to the binding.
The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in American culture.
Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism, and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.
Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment. Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.
TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position" omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like artists, they're simply expected to arouse.
It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge. But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign rights? Don't even ask.