There was a time when I spurned mass-market paperbacks. They’re small and flimsy, unbefitting real literature. They’re cheap, and their disposability invites a certain unseriousness in the reader. Whenever I had the chance (and the funds), I replaced the mass-markets in my collection with hardcovers, or at least larger-sized trade paperbacks.
It’s funny how the things that once seemed like bugs now seem like features. Especially that wonderful disposability! If I’m just not that into a book, I want to be able to ditch it. I don’t want to feel beholden to a bad novel just because I spent $35 on the gorgeous hardcover, or because it’s so large and heavy that I couldn’t bring a backup book with me. At 38, with two kids and limited brainpower and scores of shelf-feet of unread books in my house, I am looking for books that I can cast aside without a care if it things don’t work out. On the beach this afternoon, this happens twice. Luckily, I’ve got backups.
I start with Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life, a terrific-looking orange-red-and-yellow paperback collection of essays by the garrulous New York fixture, who’s famously been not-writing her novel for 30-plus years. Published in 1978, Metropolitan Life collects short essays from Lebowitz’s stints at Mademoiselle and Interview, capturing her particular, fussy, neurotic, funny voice on just about everything—the weather, TV news, Soho, agents, deadlines, landlords, editors, the difficulty of writing, the difficulty of coming up with ideas for columns, digital clocks. That is to say, Fran Lebowitz’s writing seems narrowly tailored to a specific aficionado of the New York literary lifestyle, or maybe even more specifically tailored to Fran Lebowitz.
I wanted to love this book. Fran Lebowitz was the first famous person I ever interviewed, and she stayed on the phone with me for 45 minutes, giving me fantastic quote after fantastic quote for a short piece about New York bookstores. I have never experienced a more delightful interview in my career. (One of the things that is so great about Fran Lebowitz is that she will give a quote to anyone, even a journalist who has no idea what he is doing.) So I liked her, and I like the New York literary lifestyle, and I love the very idea that this collection of essays about, basically, being a louche Upper East writer, was published in mass-market—because it sold! According to the gold embossed badge on its cover, this sucker spent “five months on the New York Times bestseller list”!
And there are one-liners in this book that I LLOL at. (On a phone call from a Hollywood agent: “He was audibly tan.”) But by the sixth or seventh essay I’ve already figured out the Lebowitz template: a couple of paragraphs of throat-clearing, establishing at length that she’s going to write about the thing that she’s writing about; a couple of paragraphs of jokes, ranging from solid to very funny; a couple more paragraphs of less-good jokes; a weak kicker. The openers drive me totally crazy. Here’s how she gets into an essay about children:
That is for serious 203 words! I don’t mean to play editor here, but that could easily have been cut to six: “Here are some jokes about children.” For that is what the piece is: a list of the pros and cons of children, in the voice of Fran Lebowitz. Some of the jokes are great! (“Con: Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky. One can only assume that this has something to do with not smoking enough.”) Some are lame. ("Pro: Not a single member of the under-age set has yet to propose the world chairchild.") And every essay starts with that long, long wind-up. I give up on page 108, when a piece about manicures begins: “During a recent luncheon with a practicing member of the leisure class the subject of fingernail care chanced (as it so often does) to come up.” Good grief. I put Fran back in my beach bag and go for a swim.
After a nap I pull out my backup book, a funny little collection of short stories by Steve Allen, the TV host and professional bon vivant. It’s called 14 for Tonight, and it contains, the back-cover copy informs me,
some frankly sexy,
some grim and macabre—but
all establishing Steve Allen,
in one giant step,
in the first
Now as you may be aware Steve Allen did not, in the end, make it into the first rank of American writers. Though apparently he wrote 54 books, he’s remembered as the father of the modern talk show, and as a great panelist on What’s My Line, but not so much as (despite what an unattributed blurb on the book’s front cover suggests) “a modern O. Henry.” That’s because the stories are really terrible. The worst is “The Interview,” in which a reporter interviewing a famous person is insufferable. No, wait, the worst is “’I Hope I’m Not Intruding,’” in which a famous person eating dinner is interrupted by an insufferable fan. No wait! The worst is “The Public Hating,” which is meant to be a horrifying tale of modern society’s dark, vindictive underbelly, but is just silly and obvious—a put-upon scold’s version of “The Lottery.” As it happens, I have a second backup book in my bag, and it’s by the actual Shirley Jackson, so I toss 14 for Tonight aside and pick up Hangsaman instead. So long, Steve Allen. Thanks for costing 35 cents.