Listing Left, Listing Right
Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded" nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did, the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. In the April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced," "exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid the issue.
Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist "nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots. Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy research is often to blame."
David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing, on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn, offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general, "distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however, and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case, how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within eclectic media.
Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player. But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The National Review complimented the author for "collecting the dossier on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington Post's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research," rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.
So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers Weekly's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed "right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a Conservative) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told? Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion, whose system apparently involved repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better"?
Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?
Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books, newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?