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?
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.