Brow Beat

What is a Parody Trump Memoir Doing on the NYT Nonfiction Best Seller List?  

You Can’t Spell America Without Me is only two spots behind What Happened on this week’s list. What Happened is not, to our knowledge, a work of satire.

This Sunday, Kurt Andersen and Alec Baldwin’s parody Trump memoir You Can’t Spell America Without Me made the New York Times’ best-seller list. The nonfiction best-seller list, that is.

While written from the “perspective” of a real person who is really president (really), You Can’t Spell America Without Me is obviously a complete fabrication. The cover, which features Baldwin’s Trump, declares the book a “so-called parody,” filled with fictional Trump anecdotes and opinions.

The book is listed at No. 14 on the Times list, among a top 15 that is almost exclusively books about political figures, some of which are memoirs and all of which are based in some version of fact: Pete Souza’s Obama, Chris Matthews’ Bobby Kennedy, Ron Chernow’s Grant, the Bush sisters’ Sisters First, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, as well as Donna Brazile’s and Hillary Clinton’s books about the 2016 presidential campaign. One year on from the election, the satirical memoir is the highest-ranked book that is directly about the president’s first year … and it’s made-up.

This is not to say that Times readers are likely to be confused by the memoir (though who really knows anymore). The book doesn’t conceal the fact that it is a parody, but there are fictional moments within it that could almost be true, knowing Trump. The book is even written to read like him, with ridiculous lines like “Mitt looks like he could be a winner, but he just doesn’t smell like one” actually being painfully plausible.

Andersen, who sees his book as a work of fiction, said he finds the whole situation “hilariously and delightfully meta.” (Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold.) When asked why the book was on the nonfiction list, staff members at the Times said that the book fell under parody or humor (though Jason Zinoman, who reviewed it for Slate, might disagree) and that humor falls under nonfiction. Other parodies to have been categorized as nonfiction include The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, Earth (The Book), America Again, and I Am America (and So Can You!), though “determinations are made on a case by case basis.”

“The subject matter being parodied involves real persons or events,” wrote Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, in an email, adding that fiction has to contain “imaginary persons or events.”* You Can’t Spell America Without Me may be about a real person, but it contains more than its fair share of imaginary events, including Trump’s inspiration to run for president: a 1986 conversation with Roy Cohn the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded.*

Does it actually matter whether the memoir posturing as the president sits on the fiction or nonfiction list? Not really. But seeing as how Trump would probably categorize both this book and the New York Times as “fake news,” this might just be adding fake fuel to his big fake fire.

*Correction, Nov. 27, 2017, at 12:05 p.m.: This article originally misstated that Roy Cohn died before the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. In actual fact, Cohn died later that year.

*Correction, Nov. 28, 2017, at 9:49 a.m.: The article originally misidentified Danielle Rhoades Ha as a member of the best-seller team. She is a spokeswoman for the New York Times.