Thoughts on writing, relationships, and really bad books.
The Splat Method:
If I’m lucky, I already have a subject in mind when I sit down to compose the next installment of this column. Often, however, the deadline looms and I am as bereft of ideas as Boris Johnson after the success of Brexit. When that happens, I rely on the Splat Method: I splat my fingers on the keyboard and hope that a sentence or an idea will magically appear which will inspire another 700-plus words.
Due to summer travel, I must write two columns back-to-back. For this, the second one, instead of wracking my brain for another grand theme around which I can fashion my usual wordy confection of wit and brilliance, I am taking the liberty of scraping together random ruminations that were the fringe drippings of the last Splat Method session.
It’s camp season at the YMCA, which means I get to eavesdrop on hordes of young campers and their counselors in the locker room. Actually, “eavesdrop” is putting it too harshly. I cannot escape the cacophony of scores of screaming girls, their voices amplified to ear-bleeding volume by the tiled interior of the changing room.
Thus, I have become reluctant audience to the verbal tics of these seemingly innocent tweens and teens. I literally can’t leave the changing room without hearing “literally” uttered literally dozens of times.
“My mom is literally the meanest person in the world.”
“He’s so cute, I literally have a heart attack every time I see him.”
“I literally have that exact same bathing suit!”
According to my dictionary, the definition for “literal” is, “Avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment; factual.”
These girls are literally making a mockery of the word.
Many treasured relationships have foundered upon the rocky shoals of this long, brutal election season. A 15-year friendship ended when I was abruptly and unceremoniously unfriended on Facebook. I’m sad about it, but find solace in that fact that we now have a single word for the loss of a friendship.
Previously, one had to employ phrases such as “no longer friends” or “don’t keep in touch anymore.” Even “break up” was not sufficient with its implication of romantic attachment. So, thank you, Facebook, for giving the world both a bloodless way to end friendships and a single word to describe it.
You know those books that make you shake your head and say, “WTF, publishing industry?”: Novels penned by Hollywood celebrities, Madonna’s series — yes, series — of books for children, the first-draft-slash-sequel Go Set a Watchman, thrillers “co-written” by big-name authors who claim to supply the plot leaving it to lesser-knowns to provide the actual writing… The list goes on and on.
Add to it The Voyeur’s Motel, the latest vanity piece from Gay Talese, published by Grove Atlantic as narrative journalism. Turns out, it’s more like armchair journalism. Before publication, Talese knew the most sensational claim in his book — that the subject of his narrative had witnessed a murder — could not be confirmed through local police records. Yet he included that and other unverified events in the book with a tiny disclaimer embedded in the text (but absent from the promotional material) that maybe the subject is not the most reliable narrator. But what the heck! His stories sure are salacious, Talese didn’t make him up, and therefore let’s just present the book as nonfiction.
The New Yorker, a self-proclaimed standard-bearer of meticulous fact-checking, published a lengthy excerpt, which I read while wondering why the usually reliable magazine had given so much space to a mediocre piece of writing on an inconsequential subject. It all made sense when it was revealed that many of the dates cited in the subject’s diary excerpts, which made up a large chunk of the article, did not align with historical evidence. While the New Yorker’s nonfiction articles are dependably excellent, its fiction is much more hit-and-miss.
The Voyeur’s Motel is not just a symptom of the cronyism and extreme deference given to brand-name authors within the publishing industry, but also a damning example of the increasing disregard for the distinction between fiction and fact. What was once universally expected to stay within the long-established confines of nonfiction — journalism, memoirs, statements from presidential candidates — now nonchalantly strays into the realm of the make-believe, with little apparent consequence.