Make [the reader] laugh, and he will think you a trivial fellow. But bore him the right way and your reputation is assured.
This irksome quote weighed on me as I cobbled together this collection. I’ll willingly cop to being a trivial fellow, but I can say with a straight face that my goal has never been to bore the reader. Still, Mr. Maugham does have a point, blast him. Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong. But I’m sixty-one now, so it’s a bit late in the game to be worrying about that.
Some years ago I found myself on a panel with Bruce McCall, Steve Martin, and Wendy Wasserstein, three nontrivial artists well known to Thalia, Muse of Comedy. I forget what exactly our topic was, but it must have had something to do with the business of trying to make people laugh. I do seem to recall that before long we were all whingeing about humor’s second-class status.
The nontrivial P. J. O’Rourke, one of the wittiest and smartest writers in the business, memorably remarked, “Humor sits at the Children’s Table of Literature.” Somewhere among P.J.’s abundant trove of bon mots is his observation that “Anyone can draw a crowd by standing up and shouting, ‘I have cancer!’ But try doing it with forty-five minutes of stand-up.” When P.J. got cancer some years later, I couldn’t resist calling him up to say, “Trying to draw a crowd, are we?” Happily, the cancer is now gone for good, and even without it P.J. continues to draw big crowds.
During the panel discussion, Wendy Wasserstein said that someone had once condescendingly told her that she really ought to try “serious” writing instead of comedy. “I said to him, ‘Think writing funny is easy, do you? Really? You try it.’ ”
Well, only five paragraphs in and already wallowing in self-pity. We just can’t get no respect. It’s an old lament, and sometimes itself comic.
Toward the end of his life, Robert Benchley, one of the twentieth century’s great practitioners of literary humor, became obsessed with the idea of writing something serious. Making people laugh—even to the point of reducing them to tears—was no longer enough for him. He had never wanted to be a mere “funnyman.” (His coinage, I believe, and no compliment.)
Benchley was a keen student of British history. He resolved to write a book on the Queen Anne era of early eighteenth-century Britain, when the Enlightenment was popping up everywhere like spring bluebells. According to his biographer, this would be nothing less than “a new, analytical history.”I Benchley amassed a library of one hundred books on the subject. Periodically, he would seal himself off in a hotel room with his secretary, a former hatcheck girl, to work on his elusive masterwork. (For the purpose of scholarship, not shenanigans, though to be sure Mr. Benchley was no stranger to those.)
His new analytical history did not eventuate. There’s an amusing and telling quote in the biography courtesy of his son Nathaniel Benchley, author of a little novel called The Off-Islanders that became the basis for the movie The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Nathaniel’s son Peter wrote a monster best seller about a vengeful shark, providing the Benchley dynasty with a trifecta.
Nathaniel notes that his dad was hampered in his quest to write history by a scholarly version of obsessive-compulsive behavior. If he came across some informational lead, he had to follow it, wherever it went. And then had to follow that, wherever it led. And so on. “At dawn he was still awake, the floor littered with books, determinedly reading some passage in a volume totally unrelated to the Queen Anne era.” Lucky for him he lived before the Age of Google.
As for the bottom line: his biographer posits that Benchley’s Scheherazade-style research kept him “from having to confront the fear that often gnaws at those who find themselves bearing the mantle of humorist—that, when the chips were down, he would find himself unable to write adequately on a serious topic.”
More on that “mantle of humorist” in a moment. Meanwhile, my own theory is that most humorists—to use that awful word—find their way to Thalia’s workshop after discovering themselves incompetent in other, more practical professions. (Cosmetic surgery, personal injury law, gun industry lobbying, etc.)
Benchley’s career as a student at Harvard inclines me to this insight. He had to sit for a final exam in which he was asked to “discuss the arbitration of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries, protocol, and dragnet and travel procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain.”
Benchley stared at the question, then took up his pencil and wrote, “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing about the point of view of the United States. Therefore, I shall discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”II I like to think he got an A, but those Harvard profs can be sticklers.
As to “mantle of humorist.” Mantle seems, gosh, an awfully grand term. In the pages of this book, I cite a New Yorker cartoon in which a Washington, D.C., politician scowls at his secretary as she approaches his desk, holding in outstretched arms a folded garment.
“No, no, Miss Clark! I asked you to bring in the Mantle of Greatness, not the Cloak of Secrecy.”
That’s more like it. I doubt Robert Benchley ever thought he was wearing a mantle over his shoulders. He’d have more likely called it a negligee.
As for “humorist” . . . I know a few folks who earn their daily bread by making people laugh, either with word processor or paint brush or on stage, and I can’t remember a one of them ever referring to him or herself as a “humorist.” Why would you? It’s only asking for it. You’re a humorist? Yeah? Say something humorous. I’ve never called myself by the odious term, but I have heard these scrotum-tightening words, and shuddered. “Comic,” on the other hand, or “Comedian” are another matter. They’re straightforward job descriptions and in any case hardly apply to me, alas.
“Satirist”? Problematical. As the playwright George S. Kauffman permanently defined it: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Satirist is no insult, but it’s a ten-dollar word. Would you put it on your passport application under “Occupation”? On your business card? Tombstone? Perhaps. Here lies John Q. Jones. Husband. Father. Satirist. Maybe that’s it: a satirist is a dead humorist—who concentrated on pointing out everyone else’s failings rather than his own. The old saeva indignatio: Latin for fierce indignation. It’s on the gravestone of the greatest satirist of them all, Jonathan Swift. (It should be pointed out, I suppose, that he made his living as a preacher.)
One time before I gave a talk to a sizable audience in the Midwest, the gracious and well-meaning host introduced me as a “say-terist.” He repeated the word several times, which surely had some folks wondering why—on earth—the lecture committee had invited a sex fiend to address them at eleven o’clock in the morning in the civic center. An elderly lady came up to me afterward and sweetly asked how old I was when I first decided that I wanted to be a “say-terist.” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so I said, “It’s complicated.”
I’ve done a bit of public speaking, too much of it in the service of trying to get people to buy my books. Trust me when I say: You’re truly better off if they don’t introduce you as a “humorist” or “satirist” or any sort of amusing person. Chances are the audience already knows about you. They’re not a flash mob. They didn’t just spontaneously gather in response to some tweet. (I can proudly avouch that my audiences generally do not consist of looters.) So they already know that you’re not Stephen Hawking or Joyce Carol Oates or the author of the hot new analytical history on Queen Anne Style that everyone’s talking about.
I’ve gotten some laughs over the years, but when I lie there wide-awake in bed at three a.m., it’s not the laughs I remember, but the disasters. And there have been those, oh yes. Always—always—there’s that guy or woman sitting in the front row, arms tightly crossed over the chest. The others might be laughing. Not him. No, no. He’s staring, impassive as the Sphinx, unamused as Queen Victoria. He even looks a bit put out that everyone else seems to be finding it all so darned amusing. I can read this fellow’s thoughts as clearly as I can the giant electronic news crawl in Times Square: THAT’S NOT FUNNY . . . THAT’S NOT FUNNY, EITHER . . . I’M NOT GOING TO BUY YOUR BOOK . . . ANDY BOROWITZ IS COMING NEXT MONTH . . . I’LL BUY HIS BOOK . . . HE’S FUNNY . . .
You know those “About the Author” paragraphs on the back flap or cover of a book? The paragraphs authors pretend they didn’t write? Considered one of the funniest, most brilliant, most original—etc.—writers of his generation . . . Right—those. After a half-dozen books, I got bored saying the same thing (there wasn’t much to say to begin with), so for this one, I just made it all up. Among other noteworthy fictional accomplishments, I wrote that I’d been “an advisor to every U.S. president since William Howard Taft.” Why not?
By Day Ten of any book tour, you’re a bit punchy. I was shambling like a sedated mental patient into a studio to do an AM radio drive-time interview. With all due respect to the fine professionals who do these for a living, AM radio drive-time interviews are typically not occasions of Socratic dialogue.
The host was sitting at his console speed-reading the “About the Author” paragraph on the back flap of my book. I knew that this was all he would know about me.
He looked up at me dubiously. “You were an advisor to William Howard Taft?”
“Yes,” I said.
His brows beetled. “So . . . we could talk about that?”
“Sure,” I said.
And we did. I haven’t been asked back on his show, but I have no regrets. It was well worth it.
Book tours have a yin and yang to them. On the one hand, they’re a narcissist’s wet dream. You get to talk about yourself endlessly, again and again, until even you are heartily sick of yourself and your book. On the other hand, they tell you exactly where you fit on the food chain. On that same book tour, I happened to be following in the slipstream of another author—George Stephanopoulos. George was promoting his number one best seller memoir about his years working for President Clinton. I was promoting a comic novel about the UFO world, which was getting okay-but-mixed reviews.
At every airport along my Trail of Tears, my author escort would greet me, still flushed with excitement. “We just had George Stephanopoulos. You’ve never seen such crowds. We had to move his reading to the coliseum.”
On my first book tour, I arrived one night for my reading at a venerable independent bookstore in Berkeley. It was all new to me and I was pumped and nervous. I needn’t have been, for there was not one single person present. The embarrassed manager excused herself. A few minutes later, four of the fifty seats were suddenly occupied—I couldn’t help but notice—by Hispanic persons. She’d gone into the stockroom and told the staff to go pretend to be my audience. It was very thoughtful of her. One of them even came up afterward and had me sign the book and then pretended to buy it at the cash register.
That was fifteen books ago. There are fewer empty seats now at the readings—but not to worry: there are still seats available for you. Book tours have their strange moments, but it’s at the bookstores that you meet your readers, and I could hug every one of them. I don’t know if George Stephanopoulos feels the same way about his readers, but then it would take him all day to hug everyone in that coliseum. Mine I can get hugged in no time.
But enough about you. Are writers more vain and sensitive—that is, insufferable—than people in other professions? Say, actors or musicians? Doctors, lawyers, architects, imams, hedge fund managers, elected officials, fashion designers, opera singers, models, university professors, submariners, dictators, fighter pilots, terrorists, funeral directors, comedians, spies, baseball players, football players, publicists, policemen, presidents, air traffic controllers, ship captains, plumbers? Buddhist monks?
Over the course of my life I suppose I’ve met or known most of the above types of people. (Actually, meeting a dictator is still on my bucket list.) So I can say with absolute authority: I have no idea. But it’s probably safe to assert, if not asseverate (see “insufferable,” above), that as a rule, writers tend to come labeled FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE. This can variously be cause for amusement, nonamusement, or reaching for the nearest blunt instrument.
As W. H. Auden put it, “No poet or novelist wishes he was the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.” Auden himself was perhaps a unique case—of justifiable narcissism, if we take his fellow poet Stephen Spender’s word for it. Justifiable, that is, by virtue of utter self-confidence untainted by jealousy.
Spender said of his great friend, “He just thought he was cleverer than anyone else, but without arrogance really . . . He knew exactly what he was doing, and he was totally indifferent to what anyone said about it . . . For instance, when he was so attacked by Randall Jarrell in 1947 he said, ‘He must be in love with me; I can’t think of any other explanation.’ ”III
In the pages of this attractively packaged and very reasonably priced book, you’ll come across some writers I’ve personally known or encountered or studied. Joseph Heller and I became pals somewhat improbably after I wrote a respectful but far from glowing review of one of his novels. Joe had a healthy ego, no question. A writer once lamented to him that he would never write a book as good as Heller’s Catch-22. Joe replied, “Who has?” Not bad. If Joe had been a narcissist qua narcissist, he would never have written me the thank-you note for the unglowing review that inaugurated our friendship.
You’ll also find Ray Bradbury in here. I didn’t know Ray well, but I admired him greatly, not only for his genius as a storyteller, but also for the abundant joy that he brought to the business of writing. His electric zest seemed to act as an ego-jamming device. He so loved writing that it was infectious. And he was generous. He took pleasure in the success of fellow writers, especially younger ones.
Contrast Joe Heller and Ray Bradbury, then, with another writer who makes a brief appearance in here, Gore Vidal. If Joe Heller was a yellow jacket and Ray Bradbury a bumblebee, Vidal was a black widow spider, dripping venom. Yet you can still purr with guilty delight over his imperishable mal mot: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And was he not also author of the schadenfreude-perfect remark: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail”? Chuckle, as I do, but rest assured: these were sincere sentiments. He meant it.
I didn’t know him personally, but P. G. Wodehouse appears in these pages. Wodehouse was an anomaly as authors go, on two counts: first, he cheerfully admitted to reading reviews of his books. (Joseph Conrad: “I don’t read my reviews. I measure them.” Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”) Second, Wodehouse was incapable of holding a grudge. Extremely rare in writers.
After Wodehouse made his innocent but ill-advised wartime broadcasts from Berlin while he was an internee, he was mercilessly savaged back home in England. Among the voices howling for his head on a pike was A. A. Milne. And yet after the war Wodehouse made friends with almost all those critics, some of whom had publicly called for him to be tried and hanged for treason. Of Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, Wodehouse would later write privately, “We were supposed to be quite good friends, but, you know, in a sort of way I think he was a pretty jealous chap. I think he was probably jealous of all other writers. But I loved his stuff. That’s one thing I’m very grateful for: I don’t have to like an awful person to like his stuff.”IV
Sean O’Casey famously bestowed on Wodehouse the title of “Literature’s performing flea.” P.G. had the wit, to say nothing of grace, to remark, “I believe he meant to be complimentary, for all the performing fleas I have met have impressed me with their sterling artistry and their indefinable something which makes the good trouper.”V
You’ll come across Herman Melville in here. (I didn’t know him either, personally.) His ego, and lack thereof, presents us with a tricky dialectic, as evidenced by his alternately chest-thumping and demure correspondence with his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.
There was nothing demure about Melville’s near-contemporary author Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt and I were great friends, but he never quite forgave me when I began advising William Howard Taft.) In the first volume of his magisterial—a word you don’t get to use very often—biographical trilogy, Edmund Morris provides us with a Zen-perfect instance of egotism reduced to the irreducible “I.” When TR was writing his book The Rough Riders in 1898, he splattered the text with so many first-person pronouns that the typesetters at Scribners had to send to the foundry for an extra supply of capital I’s.VI
Perhaps the best way to get to the bottom of why writers have such bottomless egos is to back up and pose the predicate question: Why do they write in the first place?
There’s a lovely story—in this telling, courtesy of the poet Billy Collins. A friend of his was walking down Madison Avenue with the New Yorker icon Roger Angell. A passerby spotted Angell and stopped to tell him how much he admired him and what a terrific writer he was. After moving along, Angell said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what writing is all about,” Angell said.
“The love of strangers.”VII
Bingo? But I know a few cranky writers and I believe the last thing they crave is the love of strangers. If you stopped any of them on the street to gush, they’d tell you to f— off.
The notoriously irascible Evelyn Waugh is the standard-setter of this type. His insults of people who were just trying to pay him a compliment are eye-poppers. When a woman at a dinner party gushed to him about how she loved Brideshead Revisited, he returned her serve by telling her, “I thought it was good myself, but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I’m not so sure.”VIII But then Waugh detested Americans, so we have to cut him some slack. Elsewhere, he put forth his view of the author-reader relationship less caustically: “I do not believe that the expenditure of $2.50 for a book entitles the purchaser to the personal friendship of the author.”IX Put Mr. Waugh down as non-craving of stranger-love.
Occasionally—rarely—we come across a writer who comes bracingly clean about motivation. Balzac once gleefully copped to what he hoped fame would bring: “I should like one of these days to be so well known, so popular, so celebrated, so famous, that it would permit me . . . to break wind in society, and society would think it a most natural thing.”X How refreshing it would be to hear a writer of our own age put it just this way. Henry Kissinger, very much a writer as well as a statesman, was surely expressing a cognate sentiment when he said, “The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people they think it’s their fault.”
This book is dedicated to the memory of my late friend Christopher Hitchens, so it’s apt to look for our answer to the pages of one of his great literary heroes, George Orwell. In Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write,” he adduces “four great motives for writing”:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. . . .
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. . . .
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction . . .XI
Orwell goes on to tells us that he is by nature a “person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth.” He then adds that the twentieth century, in particular the Spanish Civil War, forced him into “becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”
We use the word Orwellian to signify something futuristic, surreal, contradictory, and totalitarian. But Orwellian ought also to denote its eponym’s unflinching and unsettling—even ruthless—insistence on the truth. This was a quality that Christopher himself evinced, despite occasionally shattering consequences. So in his memory, then, let Orwell have the last word; or as Christopher would say, dernier mot:
Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
Flattering, isn’t it? But on the plus side, how many people in other professions get to break wind in society with impunity?
But enough about me. Over to you. This is a book of essays and other pieces, some of them memoirish, written over the last quarter century. That went by quickly, I must say. Kierkegaard is a philosopher whom I rarely quote and the spelling of whose name I always have to look up. He said that life is best understood backward but must be lived forward. I was originally going to title the book What Was That About? I’m still not sure. But with luck, the reader may find it boring in just the right way.
—April 29, 2013
I. Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley, by Billy Altman. 1997.
II. American Literary Anecdotes, edited by Robert Hendrickson. 1990.
III. The Writer’s Chapbook, edited by George Plimpton. 1989.
IV. Fighting Words: Writers Lambast Other Writers, edited by James Charleton. 1994.
VI. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. 1979.
VIII. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, by Christopher Sykes. 1975.
IX. The Writer’s Quotation Book, A Literary Companion, edited by James Charleton. 1980.
X. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, edited by Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard. 2000.
XI. A Collection of Essays by George Orwell. 1946.
But Enough About You
In his first book of essays since his 1997 bestseller, Wry Martinis, Buckley delivers a rare combination of big ideas and truly fun writing. Tackling subjects ranging from “How to Teach Your Four-Year-Old to Ski” to “A Short History of the Bug Zapper,” and “The Art of Sacking” to literary friendships with Joseph Heller and Christopher Hitchens, he is at once a humorous storyteller, astute cultural critic, adventurous traveler, and irreverent historian.
Reading these essays is the equivalent of being in the company of a tremendously witty and enlightening companion. Praised as “both deeply informed and deeply funny” by The Wall Street Journal, Buckley will have you laughing and reflecting in equal measure.