| This Weeks Column:
MEN OF (MONOGRAMMED) LETTERS
by Dennis Loy Johnson
April 28, 2002 When you think "writer," what image comes to mind?
Hemingway in his safari outfit, cradling a rifle over a dead gnu? A guy typing in a beatup fedora? Some unshaven Kerouac in threadbare chinos and a ratty sweater feverishly scribbling like mad in a garret?
How about a cleancut, professionallystyled guy sipping a nice little aperitif and wearing an impressive Prada suit that cost just shy of $1800?
That's the image given in a recent New York Times Magazine piece that's been the talk of the town, and the topic of a lot of my mail a fashion spread that masqueraded as an article called "Men of Letters."
Purportedly about the writers who hang out at one of New York's literary hotspots, the KGB Bar, it featured lush fullpage photographs of several notable "literary" writers in the bar, with each photo accompanied by a brief plug for the writer's newest book, maybe a brieferstill quote, and voluminous information about what they were wearing and where you can get it.
For example, one caption reads, in its entirety, "Imraan Coovadia, author of 'The Wedding,' in an Hermes jacket, $3,900, at Hermes stores."
Another says, "David Schickler, who wrote 'Kissing in Manhattan,' in a John Varvatos jacket, $2,555. At Barneys New York. Coast Shirt, $165. At Bergdoff Goodman Men."
Revealing, isn't it? And I'm not just talking about the fact that a bunch of highly paid editors apparently missed quite a few incomplete sentences. At the New York Times, $3.
No, I'm talking about how this shows you what the leading newspaper in the publishing capital of the world considers to be books coverage (while they concurrently cut back on the amount of space given to book reviews). And I'm talking about what this says about the writers involved, who apparently think this was an essentially honest thing to do.
I know, I know. Times have changed since Daphne Du Maurier said, "Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard." I know that nowadays the average new novel, as B.R. Myers has famously observed, is "just a threehundred page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket."
Still, even the youngsters Myers is referring to must realize that they're posing for the ultimate writerly fantasy, that the character in those photos is no more real than the movie stars they're starved down and dressed up to resemble.
I mean, everybody knows that the overwhelming majority of writers make nexttono money, right? That it's essentially a lonely act? That good writing is a process of delving deeper than shallow appearances?
So imagine my surprise to see that guy in the Prada suit Melvin Bukiet, a terrific novelist and editor, as well as an acquaintance of mine. Melvin is famous for being disheveled and unkempt he looks like what central casting would send over if you shouted, "Swifty! Get me a writer!" Known around the Apple as a writing teacher and the host of readings and literary panels, Bukiet looks like what he is: a guy with more important things on his mind than combing his hair or tucking in his shirt, such as, say, his next book. In fact, even as I type this, the galleys for that next book an anthology of essays on the Holocaust he edited sits on my desk. I'd wager he got maybe a $1,000 advance for that one.
And yet there he was in that suit in full, glorious color, and I couldn't have been more surprised than if he'd been pictured sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Also featured was an old classmate of mine, Steve Rinehart, the author of a wonderful short story collection. He wore worn workshirts when I knew him. I'd guess he didn't make a lot off his book of short stories, either. Yet he , too, had a great Prada suit.
Then there was Dale Peck ("DKNY leather jacket, $750"), Colum McCann ("Donna Karan cotton shirt, $150"), Victor D. Lavalle ("Ralph Lauren Purple Label leather blazer, $1,995"), even Pulitzerwinner Michael Cunningham ("in a John Varvatos jacket, $895") all fine writers, and all apparently happy to perpetuate this hoax.
Does this seem petty to you? It's not. This is what's wrong with our culture now: everything comes down to money, or appearance. Writing is supposed to examine that, and remind us to look deeper. If writers actually participate in the obfuscation, and further our disconnect from meaningfulness, then all is lost.
J'accuse, baby. For whatever it's worth, j'accuse.
Last Weeks Column: USED BOOKS OR USED CUSTOMERS? Amazon.com Jeff Bezos loves authors unless, of course, they question his sales practices. In which case he goes ballistic.
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.