I’m no big Cormac McCarthy fan, but I was intrigued enough to record and watch his appearance on Oprah today, just to get a look at the famed recluse. I liked him much more than I expected to.
His recent book jacket photos show a skinny, grim old grouch, but he appeared younger, healthier and friendlier on Oprah’s show. He has a warm smile and a natural laugh (who knew?) and when he talked about the night in a hotel room when he looked at his eight-year-old son and got the idea for The Road, I almost wanted to give the book another chance.
I don’t dislike Cormac McCarthy. But I do deeply dislike the idea that his fatalistic, bitterly chiaroscuro vision of humanity should be considered a symbol for our times. Maybe I hate the book as a symbol more than I hate it as a book. Maybe I’m just sick of writers, thinkers and politicians who see the world through blinding visions of good against evil. Really sick of them, in fact.
Still, after seeing McCarthy smile, talk about how little money means to him, tell a neat story about toothpaste and glow with pride whenever Oprah mentions his son, I’ve got to like the human being who writes these books I can’t stand. I just wish Oprah had asked him, “What the hell do you have against quotation marks?”
Well, Cormac “Genius” McCarthy’s not the only one on TV this week! If you caught the coverage of the fiery Ethics In Book Reviewing panel discussion on Book TV this week, you caught me asking John Leonard, Francine Prose, Carlin Romano and David Ulin a question. Never one to fail to maximize an opportunity, I managed to insult both the New York Times Book Review and Henry Kissinger in a single question, which involved whether or not this kind of thing (please scroll halfway down the page) should be considered an offense against literary ethics. As I wrote:
Kissinger tells us that “Dean Acheson was perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history.” I think a more objective look places him at number two, with Kissinger in the top spot (and Acheson only gets the second slot because Condoleeza Rice has never been powerful enough to be worth vilifying). But there’s hope: “History has treated Acheson more kindly.” Later: “His values were absolute, but he knew also that statesmen are judged by history beyond contemporary debates, and this requires a willingness to achieve great goals in stages, each of which is probably imperfect by absolute standards.” I wonder why this is the only aspect of Acheson’s long and complex career that Kissinger finds interesting. Kissinger never breaks his straight face as he lavishes praise on Acheson, but I know I’m not the only reader who finds this review a transparent display of self-flattery.
I want to make it clear, though, that I judge a book review editor on aesthetics as well as ethics, and I don’t actually find it offensive on principle to allow a famous person to write a self-interested review of a book. In certain situations, as John Leonard says in his answer to my question during this panel, it can be okay. I would not object to, say, reading a Jimmy Carter review of a Martin Amis book — everybody would understand that this is a face-off, and it might produce some sparks.
But a controversial meeting of the minds is one thing, and an orgy of self-flattery is another. What did Sam Tanenhaus expect when he invited the famous egotist and apologist Henry Kissinger to write this review, and why did he want to inflict this garbage on trusting readers?
It’s an offense against taste, above all, and that’s what I had in mind when I asked the question in the Book TV show, which is also described in Ed Champion’s summaries above.