Posts from January 2012

January 29th, 2012

The faux-winter blahs in the Penny Press!

Whenever I’m in need of a little adrenaline burst of irritation to get me through another endless Boston mid-winter day of clear skies and 68 degrees, I turn to Slate. The yipping idiocy of their ‘arts’ coverage always does the trick.

This week was no exception. Our old nemesis Katie Roiphe fires off a piece wailing about the dimming of John Updike’s literary reputation in the three years since his death – at least, I think that’s what she’s wailing about (the essay is more eager to push all the buttons than a kid in a department store elevator). She begins:

Exactly three years after his death, it’s sad to see that John Updike has subtly fallen out of fashion, that he is left off best novels lists like the Modern Library’s, and that a faint sense of disapproval clings to his reputation, even as his immense talent is recognized.

It’s obviously not a promising beginning (‘subtly’? ‘faint’?), and things only get worse – Roiphe spends her next two paragraphs demonstrating how a faint sense of disapproval has always clung to Updike’s work, mainly “harbored” by carping critics who are unnerved by just how exquisite that work is:

Critics and writers hold the fact that he writes beautiful sentences against him, as if his writing is too well crafted, too flamboyantly, extravagantly good.

To put it mildly, extravagant goodness was never something I associated with Updike when he was alive and sludging his fictional mud all over the front tables of Boston’s bookstores, and if Roiphe read around a bit on the subject, she’d see that plenty of critics a) thought Updike’s prose stank and b) had lots of other things to hold against him. Nevertheless, it’s enough to let Roiphe work up some nonsensical dander:

The faux-democratic ideal of plain-spokenness, the sense that a novelist should not write too beautifully or he sacrifices some vaguely articulated, semi-mystical claim to honesty, is not a million miles away from the Sarah Palin-ish suspicion of east coast liberals, or a Harvard education, or people who know the dates of wars. This is not to say that writing beautifully or elaborately is necessary for good fiction, but that one can’t deny that there are writers (Henry James, Nabokov, Flaubert) who write beautiful or elaborate sentences without any sacrifice to some mysterious, indefinable fictional mission.

This is funny stuff (“This is not to say that writing beautifully or elaborately is necessary for good fiction…”), and Roiphe, bless her muckraking little heart, keeps at it, stem-winding about critics crying “Why can’t John Updike speak in plain English?”

Updike did, in fact, speak in plain English, but since here Roiphe means why can’t he write in plain English, the answer is: he preferred to write in torturously self-conscious, arch, and painfully pretentious prose, in story after boring story and novel after unbearable novel, until even the most sanguine of those critics thought it would just keep happening every year, like a seasonal flare-up of hemorrhoids. It was a machine, an industry, and the thing that kept its pistons moving was Updike himself, constantly promoting himself while acting like he wasn’t. The shock of grey hair seemed to lend him a certain dignitas, but some critics – myself most vociferously included – knew it for the marketing gimmick it was and confidently predicted that Updike’s literary reputation would begin to cool at about the same time his body did.

Pace Roiphe, this is exactly what’s happening. Oh, not the stupid Modern Library list she mentions (the only list she mentions, and considering the fact that it contains not only typos and mis-attributions but also L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, why would she want Updike to be on it?), but the far more practical manifestations that were never far from Updike’s crabbed Yankee soul: people don’t buy his books anymore, schools show no inclination to study them, and more and more of them are fading out of print where they all belong. They deserve this oblivion – they’ve always deserved it – not only because they’re all boring but because they were written to be boring, by an author who never took the trouble not to be bored himself. They’re patrician in the very worst sense of that much-abused word: they were just there, whether anybody liked it or not.

Even Roiphe seems to sense this deadly lack of center for any kind of Updike appreciation, so she goes out of her way (or maybe not? Again, thematic clarity isn’t exactly one of her strong points) to bring up something edgy, something that might qualify as interesting: Updike’s misogyny. She allows that he treated his female characters shabbily, as many a critic pointed out over the years, but even here, she’s unwilling to face the possibility that this could be a serious criticism. Instead, she sits a little higher on her high horse:

The writer’s obligation, surely, is to write a charismatic, interesting, illuminating novel about, really, anyone. But this idea that Updike has the responsibilities of a senator, or school principal, or pastor toward his fictional universe, an obligation for fairness and justice to all of his characters, for a clear-sighted, unwavering morality that extends over his New England and Pennsylvania towns, and even in a surprising number of critical briefs against him, for well rounded theological positions, perversely endures.

Again, funny stuff – this time because the person who wrote that train-wreck of a long sentence-fragment at the end is cheering the beauty of somebody else’s prose. I admit, even after a few readings I can’t quite make out what that hysterical quote is trying to say, but if my best guess is correct, Roiphe is trying to warn us that a novelist isn’t under any obligation to be equally fair to all his characters. If that’s what she’s trying to say, she’s of course right – but Updike’s critics on this point weren’t taking him to task for not being a village pastor (???) but for failing to see that he was being misogynistic – in other words (mine, from anonymous reviews in 1971, ’74, and ’82), for dim-wittedly mimeographing his own personal prejudices onto the page without examining them at all, which is indeed a fundamental abandonment of what a novelist is supposed to do. Updike did this because he was a lazy and careless novelist, suffused with entitlement and trivia, dopey with lechery, full to his eyeballs with contempt for his audience. It doesn’t matter if he’s been dead three years or thirty years (or three paragraphs, since that’s how long it takes Roiphe to forget this stuff about misogyny and flutter on to how brave and stoical Updike was facing death): the important thing is that those critics who publicly regretted his fame even while he was still alive were entirely right to do so. It’ll be a very good (clear, 68 degree) day for American letters when, despite the semi-literate gushings of his few holdout fans, John Updike’s fame-rabbit is entirely at rest.


January 24th, 2012

Flambard’s Confession!

Our book today is Marilyn Durham’s massive 1982 novel Flambard’s Confession, which takes the form of a one long deathbed confession by Ranulph Flambard, who’d been a nominal priest and legendarily rapacious revenue agent for the wave of invading Normans to take over England in the 11th Century, William the Conqueror and his sons. The central figure of this long confession is William II, the Conqueror’s third son and England’s second new ruler after his father died in 1087. William II was often called some variation of ‘William the Red’ or ‘William Rufus’ because (among other reasons) his fair skin flushed easily and vividly when in the grip of strong emotion – which, for this very choleric man, was often. Contemporary chroniclers to a man hated him, but there’s also ample evidence of the loyalty he engendered in those closest to him (his kennel-keeper and sometime chief mercenary, for instance, loved him in his youth with a love that surpasseth that of women), and in the present day Red William’s great biographer Frank Barlow established a far more sympathetic picture of a man who never expected to be king but who energetically seized every chance that fortune put in his reach.

He fought with his brothers; he fought with his administrators; he fought with rival armies on all sides of his new kingdom – but he had no guile in him and was just as quick to make amends. In the summer of 1100 he was infamously murdered while out hunting in the forest and left in the dirt as raven-food while all the rival claimants to his throne (several of whom had been out hunting with him that day) rushed away to start plan-making.

A contentious, fascinating figure, then – and a completely marginalized one. The Conqueror has had the predictable amount of attention through the centuries, as has Red William’s successors, Henry I, the Empress Maud, King Stephen, and of course Henry II and his brawling family and priestly friend Thomas Beckett. But William Rufus, like the Roman emperor Claudius before him, waited until the 20th Century to get the romantic epic he deserved.

Marilyn Durham’s novel is long and heavily detailed, and when it appeared in 1983 it – let’s be blunt here – sank like a stone. This was a novelist who’d burst upon the literary scene a decade earlier with the runaway best-seller The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, which was made into a popular movie. That book – following along the trail blazed by David Wagoner’s Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight? and Charles Portis’ True Grit – was simultaneously tough and tender, so redolent of saddle leather and frontier menace that it hardly seemed possible it could have been written by a housewife from Evansville, Indiana. Durham’s publisher offered her prompt studio money to write a follow-up western, and Dutch Uncle appeared in 1973.

There’d be nothing else for ten years, but it would be wrong to call Flambard’s Confession her third book. Writers reading this will be familiar with the phenomenon: there’s almost always that one work, the true receptacle of your heart’s deepest passion. You do all the other writing you need to do – the kinds that get your name out there or pay the bills, and if you’re worth your salt you do it conscientiously, but there’s almost always that one work lurking in the back of your imagination, stealing time and day-dreaming away from all the more pressing stuff. For most novelists, in my experience, that work is a historical novel of some kind – usually something huge and ungainly and, practically speaking, unsellable. These books maintain their claim on their author’s heart (Mark Twain went to his grave loving Saint Joan more than any of his other works), but they seldom strike either aesthetic or financial paydirt with their author’s audience (there are exceptions, of course – both M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth are not only their best-selling books but their best books). Usually, these white elephants see print through the literary version of a extortion: an author who’s made some money for his publisher then calls in some favors to get his real book into bookstores.

I have no idea if Marliyn Durham had to resort to such tactics (and I have no idea whether or not she’s still alive to ask – although Harcourt, Brace at that time was still a fairly classy establishment, so one hopes they at least drummed up the appearance of enthusiasm), but it didn’t matter: most critics couldn’t finish Flambard’s Confession, and most readers didn’t start it. And this is a shame, because the book is exactly what I’m sure Durham knew it was: her masterpiece.

It capitalizes on Flambard’s life-long relationship with William Rufus, which extends from when the Conqueror’s son was just a callow (but well-intentioned) boy:

Young Will had never known battle, though he’d been in his father’s army at the siege of Dol, as squire to Earl Montgomery. He hadn’t needed to win his equipage from a corpse, or had to marry for it. His family and sponsors had supplied all, quietly: the sword, from his father; the helm and shield, from his uncles, Robert of Mortain and Odo of Champagne; the horses, from Odo of Bayeux; and the shirts, tunics, baldric, and other accessories, rather like bride’s gifts, from his mother and sisters.

Flambard is at first conscripted by those uncles to spy on his royal charge, but even in the early stages of that frustrating endeavor, he’s beginning to feel the pull of Rufus’ open, oddly endearing character – it’s a conflict that leads him to start playing double games of his own:

I had more offices than I could fill. I was the chaplain of a young man who stinted his prayers and ignored me. I was a spy for Odo, with no intelligence to report. I was an advocate without influence for Cormac. I tried to make the best of things: Rufus folded his hands morning and night, while I said the prayers for him. I wrote a nonsensical letter for Carileph to send to Odo, outlining his nephew’s character as if his uncle had never before clapped eyes on him. I thought it would show I was observant if not particularly useful. Young William might know every impulse and plan that coursed through his great father’s brain, but if he did, he didn’t prattle about them to me, or to anyone else, so far as I could tell.

Once Red William came into his own, he felt more relaxed in making open displays of the warm and easy affection he tended to feel for most people – and the sexual passion he could so easily feel for handsome young men, including the young Irish bravo Cormac mentioned in that excerpt. But kings make enemies just by breathing, and the factions that quickly developed at Rufus’ court were happy to impute the king’s desires to everybody associated with him – including Flambard, who encounters the spectre of it many times throughout this book, as in conversation with powerful courtier Robert Bloet, in which Flambard protests that he can’t do anything to curb William’s Continental war-making with his brother Robert. Bloet isn’t satisfied with that answer:

“Have you tried? You’re closer to him than any of these -” He left that unfinished. “Closer than anyone except the Atheling since -”

“Since Cormac? I think I shall grow tired of that comparison one day, Robin. I am the king’s confessor. I am his tax collector. I humbly believe myself to be his friend, but I’m not his confidant in matters military. He told me so.”

“Yet you’re the only person who’s ever with him entirely alone, in bedchamber and chancel – no, don’t walk away from me like that!”

I stopped. “Your Grace?”

“I’m sorry, Raf. You know I didn’t mean that as – as it sounded. I’d never accuse you, God knows, of what there are plenty of others to do for him. But there are men in this court who think you have special consideration of him and hate you for it. You could win friends for yourself if you used your influence with him to better ends.”

“What, should I prove nasty suspicion by compromising myself for them? You make me laugh! Let these upright fellows make their own pleas. What I say to the king on the matter of war and taxes is, ‘Yes, Your Grace. I hear and obey, Your Grace.’ On matters of fact I may give him opinions, but on matters of his opinions I hold my tongue.”

I love the masterly ease of the writing there (it’s everywhere on display in this mighty novel), the way we see the actions of the men through their speech, done so confidently the author never needs to break the actual back-and-forth of the exchange, and I love the natural tenor of the dialogue, totally free of anachronistic ‘ye olden times’ phrasings, yet formal enough to feel invitingly non-contemporary. Every dramatic decision in this 760-page book is made perfectly – you’re hooked right away, and you read it hungrily to the end. It’s a great performance, intimidated critics notwithstanding – a feast of a historical novel, one that belongs on the same shelf with equally-neglected classics like Hilda Lewis’ I am Mary Tudor or James Goldman’s Myself as Witness.

January 22nd, 2012

Glad of the Lad Mags in the Penny Press!

My acquaintances frequently wonder about my long-standing affection for ‘lad mags’ – burly, testosterone-fuelled items like Outside or Men’s Journal or even the nearly-brainless Details (not to be confused with Maxim, which actually is brainless, one of the only magazines I know that’s actually content-free), and perhaps there’s some snickering about obvious answers. But no: the bedrock of my fascination with magazines entirely devoted to advocating products, libations, attitudes, and activities I loathe is that the best of these kinds of magazines are never lazy – they work on me, parts of them do, and even when that work is negative (in the form of irritation), it’s a kind of stimulation I want in what I read and too often don’t get.

Take the latest issue of Outside, for instance. Outside has been around for 35 years, and in that time it’s featured not only a whole slate of idiotic fist-pumping puff-pieces and profiles of the young male tobacco addicts of Hollywood past and present but also some damn fine writing from authors I love – people like Tim Cahill and David Quammen. The magazine is slick and filled with ads, so it’s got enough money to pay its contributors – and to pay them well enough to draw some of the best. In virtually every issue, alongside the annoying crap pandering to a perceived demographic, there’s something good enough to cut out and save.

The latest issue is no exception, and it starts off right away (well, almost right away – first up is the cover, featuring the photo of a young man I don’t recognize) with something I’ve recently come to hate so virulently I can hardly see straight when I encounter it. There it is in Christopher Keyes’ idiotic “Between the Lines” editorial note introducing one of the main features of this issue, a long list of “Things We Like”:

Of all the article formats concocted by the print and online media, perhaps none is more disrespected than the lowly list. Haters gonna hate, and when we run one we reliably receive letters and e-mails containing slurs like “listicle” and protestations that “Outside used to be about great storytelling,” but now it’s nothing but “fluff and lists.”

You can spot it right away, can’t you? Yes, it’s that moronic line I see everywhere these days: “Haters gonna hate,” and this isn’t even the only time it appears in this issue. It crops up again in Bill Gifford’s otherwise first-rate myth-busting look at Lance Armstrong. When Armstrong learns that Gifford is writing about him, he responds, “You need to come down here and see what we do. I know you’re a hater and you’re gonna write what you write, but I just want you to see it.”

The reason I hate this stupid little meme is equally obvious: it’s a pre-set way for obnoxious people to avoid legitimate criticism – in fact, it’s meant to undermine the very concept of criticism. You decide to hold a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for famine relief and spend $4500 on catered food, most of which is simply thrown away, but if somebody points out the odious contradictions, they’re a hater, and you don’t have to listen to them or, Heaven forfend, amend your future behavior because, you know, haters gonna hate. Criticism becomes a tic, a pathological, uncontrollable defect of the critic – and as such, it can’t be warranted, it can’t possibly apply to you. “I know you’re a hater” means “I’ve given myself a rationalization that allows me to pre-emptively ignore anything you say.” It paves the way for absolutely air-tight arrogance. As a linguistic fad, it can’t disappear soon enough for me, but then, its parent-sentiment, “He who is not with me is against me,” has managed to stick around quite some time…

But even in the midst of such irritation, there is jubilation as well – as in finding a new article by the great Matthew Power, this one on travelling to the one place on Earth I’ve never been: Australia. It’s a classic Outside article, an immersion in a faraway place, and as usual, Power floods it with fantastic prose:

Flocks of rainbow lorikeets hurtle past. A comb-crested jacana stilts its way across a skein of lily pads. Two big eyes rise to the murky surface, the pupils narrowing in the morning light. With a sweep of its crenellated tail, a 12-foot saltwater crocodile strokes alongside our boat, close enough to touch if you’re tired of your arm. Darrington informs us that these animals can jump six feet out of the water. Soon they’re everywhere, slipping down the banks and submerging like reptilian U-boats. The crocs were hunted to near extinction in the 1960s, but the population exploded after they were declared a protected species in 1971. Now they have the run of the place. A recent survey found 280 “salties,” which are larger and more dangerous than their freshwater cousins, in this billabong.

Soon, two adults begin thrashing on the far bank. One breaks free and glides slowly across our bow. There’s a ragged stub where its right front leg was moments ago but no blood – a crocodile’s circulatory system can divert blood flow away from missing limbs. I ask Darrington how long a person could make it in the water here. “About 25 seconds,” he replies.

This issue also has a gripping article in which Patrick Symmes tries to determine exactly who stole his bike one day and what happened to it. This, too, is classic Outside: pulling you in to pieces about subjects you’d have sworn you didn’t care about. The fact that there were two such fantastic articles in this issue (and the listicle wasn’t bad either) more than justifies my attention.

It’s a bit tougher to make the same case for something like Details, which can very often be a vapid vehicle for fashion ads and cologne samples. Here, I’ll admit, a whole issue can go by without anything an intelligent reader can sink his teeth into. This current issue is saved by two fairly reliable elements: fantastic freelancer (and unapologetic cutie-patootie) Howie Kahn and not-so-bad-himself Hollywood slab o’ beef Channing Tatum. Kahn, like Power, is one of those freelancers whose work it would be almost criminal to miss – it’s strong, often funny, sometimes even elegant stuff no matter what the subject matter is. In this case, the subject matter helps out: Tatum seems to provide lots of picaresque stuff in his interviews for the glossies. I’m not always sure what I make of this current Hollywood tobacco addict – that he has no actual acting ability almost goes without saying (that modern path was broken by, among others, Mark Wahlberg, and I always get a kick out of watching his movie reviewers come up with new and more inventive euphemisms for what one of them called his “post-modern acting limitations”)(Marky-Mark gained what acting credibility he has by doing a stripper movie – and I’ll give you one guess what Tatum’s next project is) and is almost unimportant: even if somebody were dumb enough to offer this kid Hamlet, we’d be even dumber to go and see it. But “star power” hasn’t always been about acting, and I sometimes think Tatum is the natural successor of a perfect example of that: I think he’d be irresistibly compelling as Sam Spade.

In any case, he has a delightful tendency to get himself and his interviewer good and properly stewed, and the article, in addition to being simple good fun to read, is accompanied by some shots of Tatum’s adorable dog Lulu, whose adoration of her master both can’t be faked and speaks well of him as a person, regardless of his thespian chops. I’d have read this piece for Kahn’s writing even if it had been about a, shudder, starlet – but Lulu made everything even better.


January 16th, 2012

Uppity primates in the Penny Press!

Jumping (somewhat belatedly) into the fray of 2012’s Penny Press, we find the party in full swing, which is always inviting. In the 6 January TLS, for instance, Mary Kenny writes a letter whose simple honesty about the late Christopher Hitchens will be cried down instantly by the millions of arrested adolescents who jumped on the bandwagon of his tardily-adopted religion-bashing:

Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in the 1970s (and who was much encouraged by my husband, Richard West, as well as by Anthony Howard), was often brilliant and beguiling, and he was also brave. But he would not have become a world-famous celebrity if God Is Not Great had been a more conscientious book; and that’s the pity of it. It was because his message could be reduced to a simple, tabloid black-and-white picture that Hitchens became more famous than Vaclav Havel.

Of course, during the week-long obsequies in the wake of Hitchens’ death, no such clarifications were possible, but it’s nevertheless true: if Hitchens had written a book praising disco (Recatching the Fever, or some such), passionately calling for its return, and that book had somehow struck up an international response, it would have been in the cause of disco that Hitchens would have hit the lecture circuit, and he’d have been every bit as eloquent and biting and funny and crowd-pleasing on that subject as he was on how shitty your parents were for making you go to church when you were a kid. And more importantly (and this is also more than Mary Kenny is willing to say, bless her), before, during, and after those disco-lectures, there would have been not one word about the tyranny of organized religion – because there would have been no money in such words. When fans would approach the touring Hitchens and tell him he was their intellectual hero, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t make me a hero – just buy my book.” When serious young idealists approached him on tour and told him how much his ideas meant to them, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t tell me your beliefs – just buy my book.” I give the man all the credit in the world for a freelancer’s naked opportunism, but I got a little weary, at the end of 2011, hearing how the world had lost a great philosopher (or worse, in the case of Salman Rushdie, a great philosophe).

That same issue of the TLS had a wonderfully controlled review by Andrew Scull of Raymond Tallis’ latest screed, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, which Scull summarizes quite succinctly:

As an atheist and a materialist, Tallis cannot appeal to a soul, a ghost in the machine that can operate and somehow direct the actions of the body. But he is fiercely dismissive of those who contend that we are nothing more than complicated organic machines, fated to live fully determined lives along lines programmed into our bodies and brains. Humankind’s place in nature is, he insists, unique. We are nothing but our bodies and our brains, and yet we are somehow able to move beyond our biology. Our self-conscious, self-reflective capacities allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, to create an ever-richer and more complex mental life and culture, and to make choices, to act freely on the world.

Scull maintains more control in the face of this nonsense than I would have, certainly, but then, Tallis and his like have always irritating, since this outlook justifies every kind of cruelty mankind has ever perpetrated on the rest of the animal world. It takes a signature ability of the human brain – self-reflection – and elevates it to the sine qua non of the Chosen, and the people who do that elevating never seem to stop and reflect on the rigged game they’re playing.

There is a symphony in the way scents layer down on top of each other out in the natural world, for instance – the older ones yielding their strongest flavors over time, merging those flavors with both the surface (plant, wood, rock) and the surface-trails insect and bird-life has tracked through them, the less-old ones merging with the older ones and creating (both immediately and over time) new dimensions, and of course the newest coats charging the whole lattice with new meaning, filling it with both data-heavy short-term information (“This is me,” “this is what I ate an hour ago,” “this is my sexual receptivity, and for whom,” etc) and data-heavy longer-term information (“this is where I live, and I generally like/don’t like visitors,” for instance, and all the scent-graffiti that accumulates from others, both short and long-term). All of that – the whole totality of it – blends together into an incredibly detailed, incredibly vital tapestry – something that can be either intensely interactive or solitarily absorbing. Simply reading it can induce a zen-state of pure reception that’s often more compelling than hunger, thirst, or need for shelter.

Humans are physically incapable of experiencing that symphony. They lack the physical senses even to know it’s there, much less to read it. If an alien species came to Earth with force-fields and laser-guns to compel mankind’s submission and, far more importantly, a centuries-old philosophical framework built on asserting the moral, intellectual, and ethical superiority of beings who could experience that scent-symphony, mankind would find itself in cages, or in funny costumes, or experimented upon – at the very least, mankind would find itself relegated to a secondary caste of beings. And mankind’s protest would be: “But this is inherently unfair! You’ve arbitrarily set the criteria for superiority based on a physical capability you just happened to evolve, and that we just happened not to evolve – you’ve taken the random chance that you have such an ability and made it the basis for everything!” And then mankind would be prodded back into its lab cages, or its circus shows, or its meat-processing plants – not by argument, but by those force-fields and laser guns.

Tallis makes much of his atheism, but he’s unwilling to face some of its most embarrassing consequences. I suspect that in this he’s no different from the late Hitchens, who makes yet another hagiographic appearance, this time in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter” at the front of the February Vanity Fair. Carter is wonderfully opinionated on just about everything, so of course he wasn’t going to let the death of his long-time correspondent Hitchens pass in seemly silence. Instead, he’s got a classic anecdote to tell, about a typically epic lunch he attended with Hitchens – a lunch at which enormous amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all, despite looming deadlines. The sequel will be familiar to Hitchens fans: “After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.”

Saint’s lives must have their miracle-stories, I know, but Carter is old enough to realize this was no unique talent in Hitchens. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s – hell, in any decade he cares to name – there have been word-hacks over-fond of wine would could bang out 1000 words of clean copy on an Olivetti even three sheets to the wind. Some of those hacks could even do 2000 words, or 3000. I suspect that Carter himself has known more than just one such seedy paragon.

Fortunately, as always, he introduces an absolutely great periodical. There’s a stand-out, horrifying profile of Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, retailing all the usual ghastly stories about how brusque and inhuman the presumptive Republican front-runner is. The piece (cunningly called “The Meaning of Mitt”) also relates sobering anecdotes from people who encountered Romney in his capacity as poo-bah of the Mormon faith. These new anecdotes are uniformly damning, and one of them, told by Suffolk University’s Judy Dushku, is all the more so because she’s a kind and very mentally flexible person – if she came away from Romney with a bad impression, you can take that bad impression to the bank.

But the issue’s highlight was so sparkling as to wipe away all such tawdry worries. The always-reliable Bob Colacello turned in a piece called “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” – a wonderful, fittingly gossipy, absolutely glowing portrait of an effervescent phenomenon that’s now almost vanished: the so-called ‘ladies how lunch,’ the battalion of wealthy society matrons (and the men they sometimes brought along) who made a long, leisurely ritual out of highly visible lunches at some of New York’s most glamorous venues, places like the Colony Club, Le Pavillion,Orsini’s and of course Le Cirque. These women – everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie Onassis to society bluebloods like Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner – ruled New York’s glittering apartments for decades (from the real kick-off during the Kennedy years to the Reagan ’80s), and Colacello’s piece captures that lost world perfectly – it’s one of those VF articles I read and then instantly hope to see as a full-length book sometime soon.

“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” was so enchanting it distracted me from the annoying fact that neither Daniel Craig nor Matt Damon mentions smoking during their Proust Questionnaires, even though they’re being asked about the things that matter most to them in the world – and it distracted me from the Burberry ad at the front of the magazine, in which talented stage and screen actor (and ten-pack-a-day tobacco addict) Eddie Redmayne is so dedicated to his addiction that he has to hide his cigarette behind his leg even during the one photo of him that made it into the shoot. Hell, the piece even distracted me from the fact that Mitt Romney might by some fluke end up as President of the United States. That’s some writing! (And of course I liked the fact that the greatest beauty among the “ladies who lunched” actually made it into one of the photos, there on the left-hand side)