Biography as screenplay
BY CHARLES KAISER
Hmmm, a biography of Ronald Reagan that's filled with generous fabrication,
distressing inattention to detail, an emphasis on appearance at the expense
of substance and continuous confusion between movies and real life? Why, it
sounds to me like Edmund Morris has his subject nailed down cold.
-- David Seppa
I assume Morris had some other reason besides boring material for tarting up his book about Reagan. My bet is that he found lots of interesting material -- but none of it flattering. His subject is a man who supported illegally trained and funded genocidal armies in South America, ignored a disease that ravaged sections of the American population, gave corporations huge tax breaks while cutting milk programs for poor schoolchildren and turned the gap between rich and poor into a bottomless gulf. I wonder when somebody will get paid $3 million to write the true story.
-- Juliane Schneider
Charles Kaiser's imaginary conversation with Edmund Morris's editor, Bob
Loomis, concerning the biography "Dutch" is closer to reality than he might
think. The Random House spinmeisters had to make the book work as well as
possible in the marketplace to protect their $3 million investment, regardless
of how good it was or of Morris' fictional embellishments to history.
One only has to recall Random House's disastrous handling of the Joan
Collins case in 1995. The publisher also had a $3 million investment, but
when they panicked upon discovering that Collins' first manuscript on their
contract wasn't so good, they decided to pull the plug and sued her when she
wouldn't repay her advance. In the end, however, Random House lost the suit; they had to pay Joan
Collins another $1 million and lost at least another million in legal fees and court costs.
At the time, many publishing people wondered
why Random House just didn't make the most of it by helping Collins rewrite
the book, adding some heavy editing and marketing the book into a bestseller, much
as Simon & Schuster had done with Collins a few years earlier, before her
editor jumped to Random House.
Fast forward to 1999; armed with experience from the dumb decision-making surrounding the Collins brouhaha, it seems evident that Random House is trying to pull off
what they failed to do with the Collins book: turn a disaster into a victory
and recoup the huge advance they agreed to pay Edmund Morris. With the knowledge that
Morris would never return the advance if they rejected the manuscript and it
was hopeless to go to court to get their money, they did the
only thing they could do to make their $3 million back: They marketed and
published a book with all the publicity, advertising and promotion necessary
to turn it into a bestseller. In spite of all the criticism of Edmund Morris and Random House, they will no doubt have to cry all the way to the bank.
-- Dennis Dalrymple
Nothing Personal: We like Marky?
BY AMY REITER
I never found the Charlize Theron anti-rape advertisements
offensive -- just ill-conceived, misdirected and
irritatingly slick. The CK styling and Theron's dress, accent and glamorous
persona are ridiculously at odds with the harsh reality of the general South African experience of rape (or anything else for that matter). The makers of the adverts seem to have been very
short-sighted in ignoring Theron's alabaster whiteness and Hollywood image
when publicizing a crime whose victims are mostly black and poor and
have no idea who she is in the first place.
But South Africa's Advertising Standards Board found the advert
discriminatory on the basis of gender. In the ad, Theron addresses the
viewer, saying "Many people ask me what South African men are like," before
reciting several mind-numbing statistics -- including the now-famous estimate
that a woman is raped in South Africa every 26 seconds. Finally, and
controversially, she says: "So I can't really say what I think of South
African men -- because there are so few of them." The reactive male
interpretation of this line being that the vast majority of men in South
Africa are either rapists or don't care about the issue.
South Africans are understandably very sensitive to issues surrounding
discrimination and stereotyping. This campaign resulted in a counterproductive storm
of breast-beating and protest that finally saw the Theron advert being
banned. But the truth is that the ad wasn't very effective or useful -- and
its loss hopefully clears the way for a more down-to-earth and educative
advertising campaign highlighting the rights of women and the avenues
available to rape survivors. Empowering information is sorely needed in a
country with an almost 60 percent rate of illiteracy.
-- Mark van Dalsen
Cape Town, South Africa
Great taste, less thrilling
BY HEATHER HAVRILESKY
Heather Havrilesky mistakes getting dressed with a creative act. If the
most original and daring thing you do all day is put clothes on your
back, you need a better job. Or a better life.
It's a myth perpetuated by the fashion industry that dressing is the
ultimate act of self-expression. If you design and make (or have made)
your own clothes, then yes, it's creative. If not, it's consuming.
Buying lots of stuff and re-arranging it on your own body is fun. Too
often, women are sold the line that getting dressed is an important act
of self-definition. But a self defined that way is hollow, devoid of
any real meaning or purpose. Didn't Flaubert write "Be violent and original in your art, live like a
-- Kate Coe
It's about time someone focused on the excessive money and attention spent
achieving some rigid ideal of tastefulness. I have long lamented being
part of the generation that has to elevate everything -- a cup of
coffee, a glass of water or a cigar -- to its most ridiculous possible
level. But this excessive attention to detail does not seem to extend to
creativity. Everything from clothing to furniture is boiled down and
predigested to its simplest common denominator.
Social occasions are now a sea of black and brown T-shirts and tank
tops. The simplicity does not, however, extend to the price tag. It may
look like the Gap, but this is big-ticket stuff, baby. We've achieved a
sort of high-cost fashion rigor mortis. It's enough to make me run for
my vintage orange cashmere sweater.
-- Megan O'Hara
Is technology unplugging our minds?
BY JANELLE BROWN
The complaint that life is just getting too complicated is as old as me or
you. Modern liberal society has always offered an overwhelming amount of
choices and the subsequent decisions that they require -- not only in the
arena of information and technology, but in our broader lives.
Our society asks each of us to make all the right decisions, but does
not often help us make those decisions.
We assume that more freedom in every aspect of our lives is better, but that assumption is based
on a more arrogant (and dangerous) assumption that we are capable of making
responsible decisions with our freedom. Technology and info-glut is only
one aspect of this growing phenomenon.
In my own life, I feel that managing the barrage of media bits that bounce
off of my brain every day is just one of the challenges that I face in
trying to live a responsible and fulfilling life. As the speed of the
barrage increases, it is my own responsibility to manage it.
I can blame MTV for giving me ADD and I can blame the Internet for letting me stay home
for days on end, avoiding face-to-face contact with other people.
But I know that I can also turn MTV down, switch off my computer,
unplug the phone, put my pager under a pillow and go the park and toss
around the Frisbee with my friends.
It's my choice -- and my responsibility.
-- Kayvaan Ghassemieh
Janelle Brown must have been multitasking when she wrote, "I grew up with mouse and remote in hand, so it's easy for me to understand what has changed." Just the contrary, I would think: If she had instead grown up with a book and pencil and paper in hand, she would better understand the shallow frenzy of today's info jargon and would mourn the loss of contemplation.
-- Mark Blackman
Can Robert Johnson bring more blacks online?
BY RAYMOND RAWLINSON
So BET's Bob Johnson wants to be the digital "Messiah" who brings the Web to African-Americans?
If Johnson shows the same commitment to quality on the Web that he has
shown with his BET cable channel, BET.com will be digital junk mail.
After all, this is the man who, when asked by reporters why he was
getting involved with the Web, said, "We've got the greed motivation."
He's so motivated that Dun and Bradstreet estimates BET's revenues for this
year to be $85 million.
He generates those dollars with a product that is on display 24 hours a
day, seven days a week. Johnson boasts that the BET name is recognized
by 90 percent of the African-American audience, but he fails to mention an
important point. The audience may recognize BET but they don't watch
it. The programming is cheap and for the most part mediocre. According to the latest
Nielsen data, BET is hardly a blip on black folks' TV
radar. Two decades after its debut, BET's prime time shows draw only
about 379,000 viewers or about 1 percent of the black population.
For 20 years Johnson has filled BET's program schedule with music
videos that include violent images, sexually explicit lyrics and dozens
of scantily clad women. Add in a few recycled sitcoms and
infomercials, and you have the BET program schedule. And he has made it
abundantly clear he feels no responsibility to use his business as a
vehicle for delivering positive messages or providing socially
responsible programming to black America. BET is one of the few
television entities that accepts hard liquor ads, something particularly
troublesome to a community that has more than its share of problems with
Bob Johnson wants to be black folks' digital messiah.
But his track record would indicate he's more likely to be our digital
-- Tom Jacobs
What would Nancy do?
BY AMY BENFER
Who was Carolyn Keene?
BY AMY BENFER
Perky fellows in a gay-looking speedwagon: The Hardy Boys return
BY STEVE BURGESS
As I made my way through my mother's 1950s-era Nancy Drew collection, I was
influenced by the titian-haired sleuth in contradictory ways. I admired
Nancy because she was smart, resourceful and courageous -- though it didn't
hurt that she was pretty, drove a convertible and had a steady, college-age
beau. Imagine my mother's chagrin when I announced, at age 12, that I had
decided not to go to college, because Nancy had never attended college and
she had done just fine!
Once the shock had worn off, my parents informed me in no uncertain terms
that I was going to college. The week I left for Yale, I sent my set of
Nancy Drew books to Goodwill. Too bad -- I could have made a nice profit if
I'd just held onto them for another 15 years.
-- Lisa Hoffman
I thought I was the only grown man who had
lamented the cultural updating of these testosterone-filled heroes of my
youth. And one does wonder, as Steve Burgess suggests: Are we the sales
target of these reissues? Could be.
Let me suggest that McFarlane's magic formula was a little more complex
than Burgess makes out. I suspect that the enthralled boys devouring
book after book (many times over; I must have reread the early entries
in the series at least six times) were not adolescents but preteens 10
to 13, in that plateau period when boys are more masculine than they ever
will be again (puberty does tenderize a bit). Frank and Joe were older
brothers just within reach: brave, ingenious,
quick-witted, and with girlfriends who -- mercifully to a 10-year-old in 1940 -- were
pretty much offstage and didn't count for much in the male scheme of
things. The presence of girls, and their marginalization, were part of
McFarlane's astute reading of his audience. His observation that
"wholesome American boys never got a hard-on" suggests that he wrote
better than he knew.
Let me also suggest that the Hardy Boys were, in one crucial
way, "unlocking the mysteries of life." That combination of "Walton's
Mountain wholesome" with "Capone's crime-ridden Chicago" was dynamite:
It suggested in terms young boys could understand and in ways they could
empathize with that the world may not be what it seems or what they are
taught. The xenophobia of "The Sinister Signpost" was certainly lost on
me, but, along with "The Missing Chums," it did, vividly, suggest that
the grown-up world can be a pretty dangerous place. At their
most sinister, as in "Signpost," these dark adventures are like the
movie "Blue Velvet," but without the X-rated elements.
Liberal critics of children's literature (and all our teachers, of
course) sniffed at the Hardy Boys: "mass-produced," not "literature";
"juvenile," not "real." And certainly not book-report material. Thank
God. They corrupted me completely: I went on to a Ph.D. in English
-- Gerald Trett
I felt an almost Proustian rush reading the article by Steve Burgess:
Oh, the cool sheets of my parents' bed where I got to recover from
measles, and read for hours at a time! After finishing the Nancy Drew
stories (the originals, thankfully, from my mother's library) I started
on the Hardy Boys series (from my father's side of the bookshelves), and
had a thrilling 8-year-old crush on Frank, so earnest, so darkly
handsome, so unattainable!
That was fun. Glad the fellows are back in their original great form.
-- Colleen Craig
Valley Glen, Calif.
Mildred Wirt Benson may deny that Nancy Drew was a feminist, but as "a
person who believed in her own freedom," that was exactly what she was.
-- Aaron Propes