The Breakfast Table

Easy Generalizations and Meta-Guilt


The only Salter novel I’ve read is Light Years, which I thought was just great. But I find any generalized public whining about the decline of the literary culture annoying, even when I essentially agree with the sentiment—in part, as you say, because of the helplessness it inspires. And the flip side of Salter’s argument in this morning’s essay—all pop culture is garbage—seems to me just so easy and specious.

Inspired to despair helplessly: That has been my ongoing reaction to the Peter Singer piece in the Times magazine the week before last, an article to which John Tierney refers in his column in today’s Times as well. Singer argued that we should regard every $200 we spend on anything inessential as the heartless crypto-murder of a Third World child, since the donation of that $200 to Oxfam or UNICEF would prevent an infant from dying. Do you think there’s any real counter-argument to the notion that none of us have any moral right to buy expensive clothes or eat at restaurants or go on fancy vacations? The fact that I was left feeling upset and more or less speechless by that piece, meta-guiltier than I’ve felt in years, made me wonder if this country isn’t about to experience a resurgence of old-fashioned circa-1965 liberalism.

A Moebius strip is a self-contained closed loop—the thing discovered (invented?) by Mr. Moebius in the 19th century that’s a two-dimensional surface with just one side. (You take a strip of paper, give it a half twist, and paste the ends together, enabling you to draw a continuous never-ending line on it.) It is the one thing from my junior-high-school topology studies that I remember. It’s been striking me lately as a useful metaphor.

I don’t believe Shakespeare invented a twelfth of the words he used, either. And I was also skeptical of another statistic in the paper (the Journal, I think) this morning: of the 30,000 CDs released each year, only 600—2 percent—make money. If it’s true, it would make the movie business look rational.

You are, as you mentioned, in the movie business, and you’re going to Los Angeles momentarily; OK, I have a question. Why don’t American screenwriters own the copyrights to their scripts, as playwrights do, and as (I’m told) screenwriters in Europe do? Why, in other words, doesn’t a screenplay that I co-wrote revert to me to sell elsewhere after the guys to whom I sold it decide they don’t want to make it into a movie? Couldn’t (and shouldn’t) the Writers Guild simply make this a non-negotiable issue and change the custom overnight?

Also, how did your toes turn out this morning?