One of the most contemptible traits running through the Worst Nonfiction list this year, out of a very large number of such contemptible traits, was the reek of undisguised cash-grabbing cynicism that characterizes almost all of it. Cynicism itself is nothing new to these kinds of books, designed as they are for mass distribution to gullible hillbillies at Target and flattering show-spotlights from the TV hucksters who provide those gullible hillbillies with the only book recommendations they’re ever likely to get (such people really need Stevereads, but then, so many people do). But although even the most biddable American can gulp down buckets of raw sentimentality before breakfast, there was a time – roughly 200 years of time – when they’d spit back even the smallest kernel of naked opportunism. So it’s always behooved make-a-buck authors to cover their crap with at least a thin veneer of earnest belief. In other words, they had to at least try to act like they believed their own bunkum, and that therefore the piles of money raked in were a happy side-effect. But somewhere in the last few years, that baseline requirement seems to have disappeared. I myself blame the implacable rise of “reality” TV, where millions of impressionable viewers watched people acting crassly fake – and fakely crass – for fame and profit, with the viewer in on the act and encouraged to condone – and imitate – asshole behavior in the implicit understanding that it might one day be their own turn. The result has been an intensification of the already-unhealthy American willingness to do or say anything for money, and it’s certainly trickled into the publishing world. In 2013 more than in any previous year, authors felt comfortable showing a Krusty-the-clown-level of open cynicism about their own products. In addition to the more rank-and-file tediousness and ineptitude, that cynicism crops up often among these, the worst Nonfiction books of 2013:
10. David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell – Since he’s become virtually synonymous with ‘bamboozling the credulous,’ it was inevitable that Gladwell’s name would crop up somewhere in our year-end festivities, and this year he makes things extra easy by producing his worst book yet – no mean feat for a writer this horrible. And here the naked opportunism I mentioned is on open display: Gladwell’s baggy, asinine ‘thesis’ is that life’s underdogs, those can-do strugglers who were accepted to their second-choice Ivy League school but not their first-choice, can still manage great things if they try enough and complain enough. In interviews, Gladwell regularly prattles that “the data tell us some surprising things” – for all the world as if he’d only just a moment before shucked his white lab coat and was simply reporting what he and his fellow in-the-trenches social scientist number-crunchers have discovered, when in reality the only number-crunching going on here is the plotting out of speaking fees for the corporate junkets during which Gladwell, the pseudo-intellectual court jester lickspittle to the 1%, assures audiences full of executives that even though their sons and daughters are being out-worked and out-performed by real underdogs, it’s still possible, if they work hard and bribe hard, for those son and daughters to grow up and gut the nation’s economy just like their proud parents did.
9. Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer – The creationist hobbyhorse being whipped so incessantly in Meyer’s latest is the so-called Cambrian explosion some 542 million years ago, which was once viewed as a standing rebuke to the Darwinian idea of evolution by means of random mutation and natural selection, since it appeared to be from-scratch appearance of virtually all the basic life-forms we know today. The main problem here, of course, is that the ‘once’ in ‘was once viewed’ happened almost a century ago; ever since, science has been steadily clearing up the ‘mystery’ of the Cambrian explosion – and Meyer, a sharp young guy, knows that as well as any grade school science student. But he writes his book anyway, piling up one partially or deceitfully-parsed scientific study on top of another to imply that the Cambrian explosion is some sort of secret victory for the idea that an extra-dimensional intelligence busied itself in the propagation of life on this planet. There isn’t a single page of this book that doesn’t include some dodge, some lie, or some sleight-of-hand intelligently designed to misstate what science knows or mischaracterize what science doesn’t know. The Almighty shouldn’t need a defense this furtive.
8. The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen – The ostensible ‘project’ here, the translation and annotation of some essays by early 20th century Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus, is never anything more than an obvious ruse, conducted knowingly on Franzen’s part in order to give himself both Upper West Side cache (“Karl who? Man, is there anything Franzen doesn’t know?”) and a convenient little stage from which to hurl cranky-old-man rants at an audience who bought their tickets under false pretenses. You can read my full review here.
7. How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields – Readers seeing the title of Shields’ latest harebrained screed and thinking they’re going to get an account of how literature saved the author’s life have reckoned without the open, knowing cynicism I’ve been discussing. For years, Shields has been making a living as a writer by disparaging writing – the title of this book should be “How Literature Saved My Life and Got No Thanks From Me” – and this latest is no different. Once again, Shields dresses up his own boobish laziness as some kind of high-principle ongoing protest against the strictures of conventional narrative or some such crap. He doesn’t believe his own imposture … he knows perfectly well that his inability to stop binge-watching “House of Cards” reflects poorly on him, not on Anna Karenina, but he rolls out the fakery just the same, for obvious financial reasons. You can read my full review here.
6. Here and Now by Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee – Probably it was only standard karma that Year’s End list containing so many first-rate letter collections they filled up their own category would also contain at least one such letter collection that was wretched instead of great, and here it is in this incredibly annoying, incredibly artificial correspondence between Auster and Coetzee, both of them writing for the collection rather than each other, both of them laboring over arch phrases designed to seem tossed-off, and both of them soiling the very concept of snail-mail correspondence. In fact they didn’t correspond at all, not in the real sense of the word – they just worked on this book together, and the result, a disgusting little exhibition in which two middle-aged men essentially confer about how cool it is that they’re both famous, looks all the more pathetic alongside the great correspondence volumes we saw in 2013.
5. The Murder of Cleopatra by Pat Brown – More arrant cynicism, this time of a singularly vintage variety. TV host Pat Brown makes a big to-do about ‘taking on the Cleopatra case,’ knowing full well the whole time that it’s all P. T. Barnum-style hoaxing. Brown was once a working criminal profiler; she knows at least the rudiments of what constitutes evidence and what doesn’t. She knows, in other words, that after 2000 years it’s just possible the Cleopatra crime scene has been compromised. But admitting that kind of thing doesn’t get you a TV special. You can read my full review here.
4. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – The hateful pattern showing up over and over again here – deceitful authors retro-fitting some self-serving bit of their own business into a manifesto or project meant to look like it’s actually about something – reaches its full nails-on-chalkboard pitch with this vile, hypocritical little tract by brittle, reptilian millionaire Facebook mucky-muck Sheryl Sandberg in which she presents some research about women in the workplace done by terrified underlings and then tops it all off with some career advice for those women: take more risks, assert yourself more, do more elbowing to get what’s rightfully yours – no matter how much overtime you need to give your driver, your personal secretaries, your nannies, your au pairs, your exercise coach, your yoga instructor, your home chef, your office chef, your travel coordinator, your security team, your accountants, your landscapers, your lawyers, your content-tweeters, your beauticians, and your feng shui team. Hang the expense – if you’re not doing everything you can to maximize your chances of being as big a vicious dickhead at work as you are in the rest of your life, you’re just not leaning in enough! Sandberg might be loathsome, but she’s not stupid: she knows perfectly well that virtually no corporate women are in a position as comfortable and privileged as her own and so would be insane to take her advice – but that doesn’t stop her from giving it (or the rubes from buying it, which is much to the point).
3. To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – Tech-commenator Morozov’s latest slapdash murky little rant centers on the straw man of ‘technological solutionism,’ which he describes as the delusion (promulgated by the wonks of Silicon Valley) that all problems are essentially technological, Internet problems with technological, Internet solutions. For the approximately 12 pages that his book actually stays on-target, he poses at railing against this kind of ‘solutionism’ and thereby joins our insidious little club this year, authors making little or no effort to disguise the essentially cynical attention-trolling they’re doing in pursuit of book-sales. Not only does Morozov know perfectly well that the kind of extreme ‘solutionism’ he’s attacking here is actually believed by about fifty people on Earth, he also knows he’s one of those fifty people. He just thought the gimmick of somebody under the age of 30 – i.e. somebody who’s never known a computerless world – railing against the Internet would make a good shtick. And no fellow commentator is calling him on it because they all likewise dream about one day lying their way to a book contract.
2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – The surest way to trap someone who’s telling the particular kind of lie we’re talking about here – lies against intellectual self interest, we can call it – is to expect them to practice what they preach. If you guaranteed Paul Auster that every snail-mail letter he ever writes would disintegrate immediately after it was read and enjoyed by its recipient, his immediate response would be “The recipients can go screw themselves” If you told Jonathan Franzen the translation project for this author he purports to love so much could only go forward if it had no personal notes from Franzen at all, his immediate response would be, “Karl Kraus can go screw himself.” If you demanded that Sheryl Sandberg treat her three superiors at Facebook the way she advocates all professional women treat their male bosses, if you tried to take Evgeny Morozov’s Internet connection away … you get the point. Nowhere on this list would such a trap be more effective than in the case of Jared Diamond and his moronic book The World Until Yesterday, in which he sententiously lectures his iPad readers on all the down-to-earth wisdoms pre-industrial societies could impart on matters like judicial reform or caring for the elderly. It’s Fenimore Cooper’s “noble savage” revived for the 21st Century without a hint of embarrassment, but if you suggested Diamond himself submit his latest lawsuit to a ‘council’ of gazelle-clubbers, his immediate response would be, “The village elders can go screw themselves.” Like so many other authors on this list, he doesn’t think what he says he thinks, doesn’t believe what he says he believes, and writes what he writes not to convince but to fleece. You can read my full review of his rotten book here.
1. Country Girl by Edna O’Brien – As the dear old Ma would have said, “Who the Divil does she think she is – the Queen of Sheba?”