The Breakfast Table

Bad News for Future Danny Pearls?

Dear Dwight,

Did you read the Times formal editor’s note today? Apparently, the magazine writer Michael Finkel used “improper narrative techniques” in a story about an adolescent West African boy in Mali who sold himself to a cocoa plantation. Finkel seems to have created a composite boy from various different boys and called him “Youssouf Malé.” (He also seems to have sprinkled in a few details that weren’t true.) A particularly daring move, given that they ran a photo of this boy along with the article. I would think that this would make the creator of the composite character just a little bit nervous. Why would he do it? Like the poor opera extra who leapt off the stage, he may not have been able to resist the drama. He may have sacrificed a career to the Better Story. Finkel also wrote the very striking article in the Times magazine on Sunday about an ancient village starving in Afghanistan. What is interesting to me, though, is the chilling tone of the editor’s note. It is a long, factual account written in a perfectly restrained Times style, where only the last line reveals the full weight of the institution’s disapproval: “the editors have informed him that he will not receive further assignments.” In not condemning or denouncing him or employing any stronger adjective than “improper,” the editors sound more like the voice of God. Poor Mr. Finkel.

Actually the papers are filled with interesting cases of blurred identity. Take the Algerian army officer who wrote well-thought-of novels under a woman’s name to avoid military censorship, and then decided to reveal his true identity. He never fit in as a soldier because of his hidden literary sensibility; he never fit in with his family because of his military life; and he never fit in when he moved to France because when they found out he was a soldier, he got embroiled in all of the controversies surrounding Algeria. There is such a sweet picture of him looking off into the Seine. He is a perfect V.S. Naipaul character—successful, reviled, embittered, soulful, and unable to fit into any of the worlds he attempts to inhabit.

As for what’s not in the papers—I was sorry not to see any news of Danny Pearl. There is an AP article that clarifies our new kidnapping policy. It turns out that the shift is this: The old policy said the United States could take absolutely no part in a ransom scheme, whereas the new policy has left the following loophole. If a company, like Dow Jones, for instance, wants to negotiate a ransom, the government can be involved in the effort. I hope this isn’t bad news for future Danny Pearls, inspiring kidnappers everywhere.

I read magazines for the back-of-the-book critics, too! I read the NewRepublic for James Wood. I used to read New York for Walter Kirn, and now I read it for Daniel Mendelsohn in the weeks they publish him.


P.S.: I am afraid I really don’t watch the Olympics.The reason is this: Sports make me nervous. They remind me of the days that I was always, always picked last for the team at my all-girls school—that excruciating moment of sitting alone on the bench thinking, “Doesn’t anyone want me?” They remind me of the days before dodge ball was taboo, when that hard red rubber ball was coming right at my head. …