This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 18, 2002 — It's a rarefied atmosphere that historians live in — so rare, apparently, that they don't get enough oxygen to their brains, and thus when they come down off the mountaintop they appear to be significantly dimmer bulbs than one would have expected.

How else to explain the stunning string of lame–brained scandales involving our most preeminent, or at least bestselling, pop historians, and the bovine arrogance with which they attempt to extricate themselves? First Joseph Ellis makes up a war–hero past for himself, then David McCullough makes up a ballyhooed Thomas Jefferson quote, then Michael Bellesiles is charged with making up statistics, then Stephen Ambrose is revealed to have never made up anything, including his own prose.

As I've said before, there's been something very manly about the way these guys have handled themselves when caught, which is to say they issued the curt all–right–so–there–you–happy? apology of the never–wrong male. (Which was thrown into highlight with the immediate, detailed and nearly desperate 'fessing up of Doris Kearns Goodwin, another historian caught prose–lifting.)

But none of those macho brainiacs can hold a candle to the reaction of Caleb Carr when his writing was questioned last week. He wasn't accused of plagiarism, but when a couple of prominent critics said they didn't like his new book about the military uses of terrorism, "The Lessons of Terror," he donned his camo, smeared black grease on his face, unsheathed his knife and gripped it between bared teeth, then silently slipped into the water and swam away from the fort.

When daylight came we all learned that, in response to a negative review by book editor Laura Miller, and a really negative review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, young Caleb had done that thing that mature authors — mature anybody's — usually recognize as pointless save for publicity value: he'd called his critics a bunch of names.

In a letter–to–the–editor posted at Salon, he called Miller a "bitchy wise–ass" who was part of "the club that meets at Michiko's to watch 'Sex in the City' and spout a lot of nonsense about things they don't know." Veering down the line between literacy and frothing, he declared the two weren't qualified to critique a book on military history and should stick to reviewing "bad women's fiction" and, bursting into melodramatic capitals if not coherency, he went on to close by calling Miller "REASON NO. 8 MILLION WHY THE SOUL OF NEW YORK CITY IS DYING."

On, meanwhile, he posted a "customer review" of his own book, giving himself a five–star rating while telling readers "do not listen to the 'critics'" — critics whom, by the way, "will be dealt with soon."

Faced with a barrage of negative letters posted in response at each place, most of which pointed out that he'd evidenced a sexism worthy of Jonathan Franzen, Carr then issued forth his own version of one of those not–really–an–apologies I mentioned.

"I may have allowed the 'b––––' word to escape my fingers once or twice too often," he wrote, but "I do not apologize for . . . my assessments of Ms. Miller [or] Ms. Kakutani." He did, however, "offer the heartiest apologies" to readers who were "unhappily surprised."

Well, thus did ye wordsmithy–intellect engage his critics. Do you think he meant "heartfelt"?

But lost amidst the attitude of the enraged creepy–cool adolescent, and the truly unfortunate cloddishness of his prose, is the fact that this dolt had some legitimate issues, with Kakutani, at least. She closed her review by questioning his integrity — a mean and, as it turns out, foolish thing to do. Carr "has little credibility as military historian or political analyst," she wrote, and he should "go back to the writing of fictional thrillers."

Except that Carr actually is a military historian — by training and occupation (he's an editor at MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History). By saying he has no standing to comment on military history, Kakutani is simply wrong. What's more, by doing so, she also unconsciously makes Carr's point — what right does she, as a non–military historian, have to comment on him?

So under other circumstances I would be cheering young Caleb on to victory for his courage in taking on such an abuse of power. Why can't writers stand up to unfair criticism, not to mention incorrect criticism?

It's just that sexist name–calling in response is worse, not to mention dumber, and oy was it badly written. But, lest I get to the point where I will need to be "dealt with soon," let me hastily extend to the author my heartiest, and zaniest, apologies.

Last Week’s Column: WHEN WRITERS RUN FREE The new rage for "director's cut" versions of novels has recently given us unedited versions of books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, and others. This is a good thing, right?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.