March 18, 2007

Matilda's Newsweek


Newsweek's Periscope section has a newish feature called "A Life in Books," where authors are asked to supply a list of five notable books and answer a couple of booky questions. Last week it was Harold Bloom; and, believe it or not, this week it's me.

It's just a breezy little feature, and due to the limited space, my responses had to be severely edited. I'm not sure my jokes really come off all that well in such shorthand fashion. For instance, my blurb for P.G. Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters was:

I don't care how many times he wrote this book, it's funny every time.
The condensed version ("funny every time") while true enough, fails to capture the full flavor of the original.

There was one response that didn't make it in at all. This was in answer to "the book you care most about sharing with your kids." I rather liked my answer to this one:

I have no children, but I do have a cat, and if Matilda could read I would urge her to peruse Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me because I believe she would identify with the protagonist.
I admit, I was so pleased with this approach to a seemingly inapplicable question that it soon became, in my mind, more or less the whole point of the exercise. I started thinking of this coming issue as "Matilda's Newsweek." And, to be honest, that's how I still think of it, even in its current Matilda-less state.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not in the least sore at Newsweek. They're just doing their job, and I'm lucky they asked me at all. The whole thing is kind of fun, Matilda or no. And even though Harold Bloom got more sentences to work with, I'm not sure his full-figured jokes come off much better than my truncated ones. For instance this Shakespeare gag:

I won't say he "invented" us, because journalists perpetually misunderstand me on that. I'll put it more simply: he contains us. Our ways of thinking and feeling—about ourselves, those we love, those we hate, those we realize are hopelessly "other" to us—are more shaped by Shakespeare than they are by the experience of our own lives.
Maybe this sort of highbrow academic Shakespeare humor is over my head, but I don't think I get it.

Or maybe the lesson is simpler: authors like me and Harold Bloom shouldn't be trying to do comedy. Leave the comedy to the comedians. We should just keep trying to "contain" people, or whatever, and to be misunderstood by journalists.

All I know is, whatever the google news robot had in mind when it elected to illustrate a link to the King Dork chapter on horniness with a head shot of Norman Mailer, it has a kind of off-the-wall brilliance.

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 18, 2007 04:02 AM | TrackBack

Your _Code of the Woosters_ joke was funny. Every Jeeves novel from _Code of the Woosters_ onward has the same plot. WARNING! Reading through these books sequentially may convince talentless hacks that if Plum could use the same plot for half a dozen novels, they, too, can write. May result in the Fall of Western Civilization.

I've never read _The Cry of the Owl_, but I know the phenomenon you mean. I've started calling that Oppression P0rn. It's usally done by female authors to female characters.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at March 18, 2007 03:11 PM

Dang, almost forgot. Congratulations!

Posted by: Angie Schultz at March 18, 2007 03:12 PM

Bloom doesn't seem to be trying to be funny. You have to wonder about a guy who blames jounalists for not understanding him; if you're always being misunderstood, maybe you're not good at communicating. And does he really thing that everyone views their relationships in Shakespearean terms, or is that the joke you're referring to? I don't think most people are drama queens.

Posted by: Bill Weitze at March 18, 2007 11:43 PM

Bill W,

Yes, Bloom really does believe that Shakespeare invented the modern, Western personality, our sense of ourselves as individuals, the concept of interiority, etc. He's not a drama queen -- I think he sees himself deep down as Literature's Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Frank, what I'm trying to do is to extrapolate the trajectory of Newsweek's selection of authors. 1) Harold Bloom 2) Frank Portman 3) __?? Maybe if Jim Thompson were still alive...

Posted by: Nick at March 19, 2007 01:18 AM

"Last week it was Harold Bloom; and, believe it or not, this week it's me." Frank, you were off a week. Bloom was in the March 12th issue. Last week's (March 19th) was Mira Nair. The closest juxtaposition of Bloom and Portman was a little bit too good to be true but the proximity is stilll marvelous. This especially so when you compare (and I hope you do) the generous excerpt Newsweek provided from him and the one they did from King Dork: Bloom's new coda to his American Religion contrasted with your sublime "chapter on horniness". The same world or a different one? Love, Paul

Posted by: Paul at March 19, 2007 02:09 PM

wow! Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson! preety much my two favorite 20th century writers.... you are a sick and twisted man! Congratulations..

Posted by: Joel at March 19, 2007 06:58 PM

Norman Mailer so horny!

Posted by: Wesley at March 21, 2007 01:18 AM

I *don't* like the photo of Mailer next to an excerpted expression of Tom's horniness. Mailer stabbed his wife with a "dirty three inch pen knife" - whereas all Tom wants to do is be allowed to admire a woman's beauty while actually in her presence, with her knowing about it. That's all.

Posted by: Tristin Aaron at March 21, 2007 06:12 PM