Timothy Noah and Marjorie Williams

The Case FOR Nuance
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 21 1998 5:15 PM

Timothy Noah and Marjorie Williams

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Dear Tim,

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Well, why bother reading Ulysses? You could just develop some harsh judgments about that, too, while cutting down on all that tedious literary analysis I got in college. This is my way of telling you how little I liked your response to my message about the Bayley/Murdoch piece in the New Yorker. Okay, you don't have to read it if you don't want to, but maybe that should get in the way of your developing dramatic opinions about it. To call Murdoch "Alzheimer's-addled" seems just cruel in the context of your breezy brushing-off. (Please don't write me a three-point, multi-page e-mail about why this term is in the same class of acceptable discourse as the word "butt.") I was trying to write about something more subtle than your "carnival sideshow" formulation, but you march in to announce (once again) that nuance would slow you down too much. Hmph. Are we in Mars/Venus territory here? Perhaps this irritation of mine is the fruit of hanging around with my sister, listening to Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls.

And about your David Streitfeld gripe: I agree with you that he was too casual about the question of non-fiction writers improving on real life, thus implying that those of us who resist the temptation to make stuff up are simply stick-in-the-muds. But I don't buy the whole idea that the poor newcomers to the craft are now faced with such moral relativism in the trade that they are prey as never before to the siren songs of fantasy and plagiarism and other ills. It reminds me of all those analyses suggesting that Stephen Glass and his former colleague Ruth Shalit, who was caught in several instances of plagiarism, had their poor heads turned by succeeding too much, too soon, the poor dears. (And why is your "young man seeking to make his fortune in journalism" a young man, by the way? Double hmph.) The rules aren't all that tough to understand, even if book writers are subtly encouraged to bend them. This subject is where I come down against nuance.

Well. This has to be my last posting for the day, since I'm driving back to Washington this afternoon. So I'm definitely leaving you the final word. Be kind. (Or, as Alice sometimes says to me when I'm starting to frown and raise my voice at some Terrible-Two antic of hers, "I need you nice!") Sister Fan and I are going out to PDS (the school where our mother labored for years as a combination of Metternich and Miss Jean Brodie) to see the tree they planted in her memory. I expect I'll try to get home after the kids are asleep, so as to avoid revving them up at bedtime. Leave a light for me in the window....

Homeward Bound,

Marjorie

Timothy Noah writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column. Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.