The Breakfast Table

Citywide Book Clubs, Chicken McNuggets, and the New “Multiethnic” Barbie

Dear Dwight,

I also loved David Kirkpatrick’s deadpan New York Times-style satire of the statewide book club. But I have to admit that I tend to agree with Harold Bloom’s Chicken McNugget comment. (No offense here to NativeSpeaker, which I haven’t read). But there is something so awful about the idea of the whole city reading en masse. And I can’t help it. The politically correct wrangling still horrifies me. (It reminds me of my days as a graduate student at Princeton, when there were posters up denouncing my writing all over campus signed by students and professors and a group of students who wouldn’t speak to me in class because of the dangers of my writing.) Of course the idea of the whole city reading, in tandem, a book that is not offensive to anyone does have something in common with the overprocessed, fried blandness of the Chicken McNugget.(You also have to appreciate, in the interest of the satire, that Bloom played the role of the elitist Ivy League professor so perfectly.). The committee of librarians, teachers, and politically correct harpies should take note of what happened to the people at Mattel when they attempted the same thing. Kayla, the “multiethnic” Barbie doll unveiled today, a doll of “all different backgrounds” who is meant to have features of all different races, resembles nothing more than a Midwestern cheerleader with brown hair.

As for your suggestion, I am afraid that even if I were able to discover the New York angle of my novel, set in 19th-century Oxford, I have never written anything, even a book review or a gardening tip, that hasn’t offended someone.

I sympathize with your first-novel fatigue, having to read eight to 10 a week, surrounded by all of the hopeful debris of publicity. Lately I’ve been reading dozens of novels in exactly the opposite way, as procrastination, which preserves the illicit thrill of reading, like sneaking off to smoke a cigarette in the bathroom. … (I am glad to hear, by the way, that the New York Times still has smoking lounges. It always feels to me like 1952 in the Times building, with all those men in trench coats and hats in the elevators. Now, if only you hadn’t given in to those lurid colored photographs. …)

I bet pretty soon you’re going to see all sorts of novelists writing poignantly and lyrically about terrorism. I wonder if any of them will come up with anything as perfect as the ski resort in Iran that Neil MacFarquhar wrote about yesterday in the Times. The women skiied down the slopes in long black nylon robes and head coverings, and along with a patrol for safety, there was a patrol for lapsed morals. It’s such a great image for the clash between modernity and ancient religion that it would almost be too much in a novel. …

I agree that there is something strange about allowing strangers to read a tossed-off e-mail about the newspapers. I understand what the appeal can be to the reader. It’s like eavesdropping on someone first thing in the morning at a coffee shop. (Though I myself am a terrible eavesdropper. I tend to stare right at the people I am eavesdropping on. …) I really wonder about Andrew Sullivan. (See He puts his musings about everything from the papers to British food to his feelings about being gay and Catholic online, and he does it constantly. I am a great admirer of his—he’s extremely charming, often brilliant, and always interesting—but I can’t help thinking that it’s a strange and exhibitionistic and intimate enterprise—like keeping a diary in public. Aren’t there days when he doesn’t feel like the companionship of thousands of readers?

Otherwise, I wonder what you thought of that article about the “Office of Strategic Influence” at the Pentagon placing real and fake articles in the foreign press?