Chatterbox Answers His Critic

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation and MSNBC, took not one but two swipes at Chatterbox this week. Hey, Eric, lighten up! In his MSNBC column (and also in this “Fray” post), Alterman objected to Chatterbox’s suggestion that Bruce Springsteen wrote his Amadou Diallo song, “American Skin,” with the idea of helping elect Hillary Clinton to the Senate. (Chatterbox presumed the Boss wrote the song before Rudolph “Zero Tolerance” Giuliani pulled out of the race.) In his Nation column, Alterman objected to Chatterbox’s assertion that readers of midlist books (as opposed to authors of same) are well-served by the status quo in book publishing. Let’s take these one at a time.

Alterman’s Springsteen complaint echoes that of many Springsteen fans who wrote in. Alterman argues that Springsteen had too written about “real live political events” before “American Skin.” (Click here to listen to an excerpt from the song. Click here to read the lyrics. And click here to read Slate’s Jodi Kantor describe the scene at Madison Square Garden when Springsteen sang “American Skin” there earlier this week.) Chatterbox’s point, though, wasn’t that Springsteen had never before written about “real live political events.” It was that Springsteen had never before “made explicit points about specific news events.” Songs like “Roulette” and “Youngstown,” which do indeed focus on social issues, are nonetheless more evocative and less didactic than “American Skin.” (Chatterbox doubts very many people even know that “Roulette” is supposed to be about Three Mile Island.) Not that didacticism is necessarily wrong, incidentally; protest songs have a long and distinguished history. (The New York Times’s Jon Pareles makes an interesting but, Chatterbox thinks, ultimately unconvincing case in this concert review that “American Skin” is “determinedly evenhanded” about the Diallo shooting.)

Chatterbox’s guess that Springsteen wrote “American Skin” to help Hillary Clinton win a Senate seat is what seems to have caused the most offense, however. Chatterbox’s readers seem uniformly to have concluded that, if true, this would be unforgivable. Indeed, Chatterbox’s guess was all the New York Post’s Kenneth Lovett and Maria Alvarez needed to brand Chatterbox a “conservative commentator.” (In addition to getting Chatterbox’s political complexion wrong, the Post neglected to credit Chatterbox with breaking the story that Springsteen was being boycotted by the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. But we digress.) Alterman called Chatterbox a “high-minded liberal,” which will do in a pinch, but wanted his readers to know that “Springsteen has never cared a whit either for electoral politics or the Clintons.” Alterman’s boy Springsteen is too good for politics! Chatterbox finds this an odd argument to be waged by anyone who writes for a political journal like The Nation, much less one who’s spent the past decade telling anyone who’ll listen that George Stephanopoulos is his best friend. Just as Chatterbox has no beef against Springsteen for writing a protest song, he has no beef against Springsteen for trying to help Hillary Clinton get elected to the Senate. Hell, if Chatterbox lived in New York, he’d probably vote for Hillary himself! (As a factual matter, in any case, Alterman’s claim that Springsteen doesn’t care who succeeds Pat Moynihan in the Senate is contradicted by this “Fray” reader’s report that at the June 12 Madison Square Garden concert Springsteen took a playful swipe at Hillary’s opponent, Rick Lazio.)

On to Alterman’s Beef No. 2, concerning Chatterbox’s summary of the Authors Guild report on the “midlist crisis.” Chatterbox had merely observed that an oversupply of poorly marketed midlist books is good news for anybody who wants to read one (as opposed to anyone who wants to write one). Alterman, with no evidence, argues that a “virtual vow of poverty for serious writers” equals the “impoverishment of our culture. … Timothy Noah argues in Slate that this is good news for the consumer, but Tim has never written a book, much less tried to live on the income from one.” Alterman is correct: Chatterbox has never written a book. Chatterbox doesn’t write midlist books; he reads them. How exactly does this disqualify him from judging what’s good for readers of midlist books? (Incidentally, the Authors Guild report suggests that, if anything, today’s serious writers probably have a little more financial savvy than their predecessors.)

What is Alterman’s motive in attacking this venerable column on two separate fronts? Chatterbox guesses that Alterman is waging a war of attrition to get Chatterbox to link to It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive, Alterman’s quickie Springsteen bio (which Chatterbox hasn’t read). “How about a link to my book here?” Alterman wrote in the “Fray,” with characteristic modesty. “Slate would make a nickel or so.” Although it’s Chatterbox’s usual policy not to bargain with terrorists, in this instance the stakes seem sufficiently small that he has complied. He just hopes other authors don’t get ideas.