Worst Nonfiction, 2010!

If cynicism was the underpinning animus of the Worst Fiction of 2010, it was the emblazoned fife and snare drum coronation anthem of the Worst Nonfiction. I’ve been reading books a long time now, and I can’t remember a lineup of nonfiction this bad since the 1970s. Not bad in terms of literary quality, although ye gods, would it have killed these people to run their flyblown manuscripts past a copy editor, or even a desperate English major who’d perform rudimentary sentence touch-ups for tobacco-money? But no, the rot runs deeper than shoddy execution; each of these books is not only shoddy in its conception but outright mendacious. And lest you reply that all texts ar to some extent fabrications, let’s be clear: I’m talking about a much worse kind of mendacity than just hope-nobody-catches-me lying. These books are brazenly lying, telling their blasphemies in bloomers, just openly daring the gullible reading public to point out the emperor’s new soiled shorts. And these, also, were eye-opening for me: until this year’s blasphemies, I wasn’t fully aware of how merciful I’d been to all the previous years’ blasphemies, how trusting I’d been in the face of what now, in retrospect, were obvious, bold-faced lies. Shamefully late in life, I’ve learned the truth of the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

10. The War Lovers by Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise by James Bradley – We’ll start with simple mendacity, then, and work our way down to the cold bit of truly unholy cynicism. 2010 saw two more-or-less coordinated attacks on the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, part of a cynical publishing strategy to always be saying something controversial about some pillar of American history, or to appear to be (see the last four books by Gary Wills, or P. J. O’Rourke on Adam Smith). The gist of these two crappy books is the same: that TR was a racist, a fraud, and a war-monger. The more serious offender of the two is Bradley’s execrable hatchet-job, which lays the blame for pretty much every subsequent 20th century ill at Roosevelt’s feet, mostly on the basis of poorly-read sources and flimsy conjecture. Thomas’ book is scarcely better; both ultimately find TR, at most, of being a man of his time. his reputation is too great to worry about such flea-bites, but they still irritate me.

9. Washington by Ron Chernow – This big block of hagiography is more mystifying than something like Evans or Bradley, where the writers intentionally obscure the facts that deny their theories; Chernow actually supplies those facts, over and over, all throughout the course of his book – and simply doesn’t seem to care that he’s drawing all the wrong conclusions. He goes into his mammoth task determined to like – to venerate – his subject, and that’s exactly what he does, right in time for the holiday book-buying season. It’s the black reverse of what historians are supposed to do, which makes its inevitable National Book Award all the more depressing.

8. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier – Referring to the brief rash of ‘manifesto’s that broke out in 2010, a wise critic commented that the manifesto itself is good, that it naturally propagates thought and response. This is certainly true, but it only applies if the manifesto-writer actually believes what he’s professing. If their manifestos are put-up jobs designed to sell books, then the only thing propagated is self-aggrandizing deceit. Hence, another vile phenomenon of 2010: the shamifesto. Prime case in point: Lanier, a computer pioneer and one of the architects of virtual reality, in 2010 produced a shamifesto about how the pre-packaged categories of the Internet are cramping the inner lives of the people who habitually use them. Lanier knows this is a silly straw man – the people who use heavily-packaged templates like Facebook or Twitter also laugh over those limitations – he’s just barking about it in his book to get attention. The essence of the shamifesto isn’t simply that the author doesn’t believe his own screed, however – it’s that he believes exactly the opposite; Lanier has fourteen working computers in his home, plus a footlocker full of gadgets. Physician, shut thyself up.

7. Reality Hunger by David Shields – This book is yet another shamifesto, every bit as fraudulent as Lanier’s but far more craven. Shields’ book is a plagiarist’s commonplace arguing that the traditional structures of fiction – plot, dialogue, Aristotle’s unities, etc. – ar all utterly, pathetically useless and false, and like Lanier, he himself doesn’t believe a word of what he’s writing. But his motivation isn’t only to sell books – it’s also to justify his own abject laziness. The traditional novel is no more useless and false than the sonnet or the groined vault or the no-hitter – it just takes discipline, work, and talent to do it it well, and who wants to bother with that when moronic mud-slinging is so much easier?

6. George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox – With friends like these, feminism sure as hell doesn’t need enemies. Maddox takes readers on a shallow, Cliffs-notes tour of George Eliot’s life and works (the latter tour being particularly listless – I actually expected her to mention “man’s inhumanity to man”) and works in sixty different insinuating laments that her subject wasn’t prettier. Instead of completely ignoring the question of physical appearance like she should have done (and would have done, if her subject had been, say, Tolstoy), Maddox returns to it repeatedly, turning the life of the 19th century’s greatest novelist into a reality TV show in which the plain girl ends up being kinda interesting. Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.

5. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens/Life by Keith Richards – The dogmatic egotism with which Hitchens narrates this airbrushed version of his own life – a string of money-fishing deadlines and crapulous mornings-after paraded like the Labors of Hercules – is exceeded by the arrogance of Richards – the drug-addict #2 man of a rock band, for Pete’s sake – since at least Hitchens wrote his own book – and remembers his own life. Not so Richards, who’s surely put his name to the longest amnesiac’s reconstruction ever written. In both cases, smoking, drinking, and whoring is elevated to a life’s vocation and then larded with intimations of depth, and in both cases, the authors come off looking more than a little ridiculous. It was an exceptionally poor year for autobiographies, but these two would have stood out in any year for the stinkers they are.

4. Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy by Jane Leavy/“Henry” Aaron: The Last Hero by Howard Bryant – This gambit has by now become familiar as baby-boomers approach retirement, reflect on how embarrassing they were in the 1970s, how evil they were in the 1980s, and how into “Friends” they were in the 1990s. They crave legacies, even ones not their own, because they secretly suspect themselves of being a failed generation of whining underachievers. It’s this fauxstalgia that animates virtually all current histories or biographies that have the word ‘last’ in their title, and these two books are especially bad cases-in-point. Bryant’s phony elevation of his subject is obvious even in his sanctimonious book’s title, which solemnly rejects a nickname that’s known from here to the Carpathians – readers would be within their rights to ask ‘who the hell is Henry Aaron? Is he related to Hank Aaron, the baseball player?’ And the embarrassingly starstruck Leavy’s book is even worse, cranking the fauxstalgia engine to such a pitch that readers are encouraged to overlook how unpleasant Mantle could be and often was, especially after he stopped being a ‘boy.’ As with Thomas, Bradely, Chernow, and Maddox, so too here: this is not what historians are supposed to do. Those who forget the past are doomed to sugar-coat it in time for Father’s Day.

3. Between Two Worlds by Roxanna Saberi/Portrait of a Young Man as a Drug Addict by Bill Clegg – Here’s where that ‘too good to be true’ adage comes in, but I’ll make up for lost time by all the more adamantly adhering to the literary equivalent: from now on, if somebody’s memoir has all the drama, suspense, dialogue, and pat happy endings of fiction, that’s because it is fiction. In fact, the whole sub-genre deserves its own mocking distinction: the memnoir. And the guilty phenomenon that spawned it comes from outside the book-world entirely: ten years’ of ‘reality’ TV have created in countless thousands of people a ravenous hunger for quick-bought fame and fortune that renders them nothing less than functionally insane (before he wrote his own memnoir, publishing’s Saint Dave Eggers wrote an incredibly long and passionate plea to be a participant on “The Real World”). The problem is that James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle proved the dangers inherent in simply fabricating your own memnoir, but this hardly impeded the insane for a moment: if fabricating wild, exotic, dangerous acts was troublesome, these writers wouldn’t fabricate anything – they’d just do those wild, exotic, dangerous things. But since all these fame-whores are also cowards, they made certain their acts were ultimately either livable or entirely revocable. Even while they were writing about hitting ‘rock bottom,’ somewhere in their back-pack or sock-drawer was a phone number, a lifeline to a lawyer, a parent, a UN delegate. In every case, that back-door was triple-checked before the guilty parties took off, ready to risk their bodies and their time in order to emerge with a book deal, a string of speaking engagements, and a James Franco movie. And since those things – and the material comfort they provide – were always the point, the experiences themselves are rendered the most insulting dumb-show imaginable. Saberi got herself arrested and imprisoned in Iran (“I knew it was illegal to write a book about life under the dictatorship,” wide-eyed blink, wide-eyed blink, “but I never dreamed it was illegal to research such a book. In public. With a tape recorder.”), spent a couple of months in confinement while the US government, the UN, and the United Federation of Planets worked around the clock to free her, and then had the shameless gall to write a self-serving book about her ‘ordeal’ while all her fellow-prisoners continue to serve their life-sentences without benefit of Connecticut legal services. She provoked her own arrest – she went to Iran specifically, insanely, to roll the dice and hope they came up ‘book deal,’ and, noxiously, it worked. Same thing with Clegg, who ‘descended’ into crack addiction before opening that sock drawer and making his do-over phone call, and who did it all so he could have a book deal and watch Emil Hirsch play him in the movie. The memnoir’s chief sin is its degradation of the very concept of truth, its validation of insane self-centeredness, and these were by far the worst offenders in 2010. Both these attractive young authors deserve the same thing: for the ‘ordeals’ they so blithely wrote about to actually happen to them, without the magic back-door escape.

2. Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove/Crisis and Command by John Yoo – It’s almost the very depth of cynicism, you’re almost there, to parade your own evil under the banner of doing what you thought was right – to know you were doing evil and gamble that ‘I was doing what I thought was right’ will fool most of the people most of the time. It wouldn’t be cynicism if you really believed it, but neither Rove nor Yoo has had a real belief unconnected with personal avarice in many decades. Only a step less loathsome than tyranny are those careful intellectual men who seek to justify tyranny, to itself and the world, as these two filthy books so brashly attempt. Rove is the architect of all that is rotten in 21st century American politics – the proud re-creator of a type of Tammany political viciousness that annihilates all nuance and debate and wants to. And Yoo is the Grima Wormtongue who squirts delusions of godhood into authority’s ear merely so that he himself gets to be authority’s footstool. These books share the same black heartbeat: that doing anything at all to your enemies – even the things that made them your enemies, especially those things – is somehow now the cost of doing business, that lies are honorable and might makes right and that all of this is a sign of real-world adulthood, of seeing things like they are. The fact that both Rove and Yoo are writing these books as free men only shows that they are the beneficiaries of far more legal lenience than they ever recommended for others. Both books are nonetheless criminal testimonies.

1. Decision Points by George W. Bush – This is it, then, the cold bottom of cynicism, a presidential memnoir. This is a petty, stupid man who never wanted the presidency for anything more than bragging rights spinning the most cruel work of fauxstalgia imaginable. The alternate reality is a great American story: an ordinary man, a screw-up in life, hits rock bottom, turns his life around through the love of a good woman and the light of a renewed spiritual faith, and arrives at his Presidential destiny just at the dark moment when his country needs him most. There isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t wish they’d lived in that alternate reality for eight years, who doesn’t dream of how different the world would be if that alternate reality had somehow happened. And the thing that makes this book not only the worst work of nonfiction in 2010 but also hands-down the worst book of any kind so far written in the 21st century is heartbreakingly simple: it’s spoken in the voice of that alternate history and wants us to believe it really happened. This is a final insult of such an exquisite devastation that only an imbecile could wreak it.

6 Comments to Worst Nonfiction, 2010!

  1. JC's Gravatar JC
    December 21, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Nothing’s better than good invective. I’m just sitting here reading & re-reading both of these posts…

  2. Antonio's Gravatar Antonio
    December 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps from a nationalist and ultra conservative Tea Party style American point of view “The War Lovers” is a bad book cause it attacks the holy legacy and the myth of Theodore Roosevelt, but from a Spanish point it was an excellent account of the Spanish American War which depicted quite well war monger characters like Hearst and TR and shows that happily there is still a healthy sense of self criticism in American history writers.

  3. February 2, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Steve, about the Imperial Cruise. I’m a writer and editor, and was truly shocked at the tabloid approach to this important topic. I am not wedded to supporting Teddy, the US or anything except good writing and research and this book had none. It’s just a poorly done vendetta against the wealthy and the Roosevelts. The author seems to be riding his own coattails from prior success, but this doesn’t give him the right to jettison his own credibility as a writer. Very poorly done book; hyperemotional, sloppy, quotations pulled out of context blatantly. Where were the editors? Bradley has done a real disservice to what is a very important topic. There needs to be a good book written about this topic; this is not it.

  4. October 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    My first thought exactly! Now I want bacon…

  5. Chris S.'s Gravatar Chris S.
    August 7, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on The War Lovers. It’s ludicrously heavy on lay psychology by a person not remotely qualified in that field. Thomas’s mendacious treatment of Roosevelt is especially galling. The insistent Iraq War parallels are absurd, though they seem to be a hobby horse of the author judging from his History Channel appearances.

    On the other hand, I enjoyed Chernow’s Washington biography a great deal. Very dense, and yes the author has the idea to paint Washington as a hero. I don’t think its fair to label it straight hagiography though, insofar as he’s critical of Washington in a number of telling areas (eg. his obsessive pursuit of an escaped slave).

  6. April 23, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    There are some interesting cut-off dates in this article however I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. There may be some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as effectively

  1. By on December 30, 2010 at 7:16 pm

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