The Dead Writers Society

William Powers and Martha Sherrill

The Dead Writers Society

William Powers and Martha Sherrill

The Dead Writers Society
An email conversation about the news of the day.
June 7 2000 4:30 PM

William Powers and Martha Sherrill




Actually, The End of Greatness has two co-authors, Tom Brokaw and Francis Fukuyama, and the ghostwriter is David Halberstam. Haven't you heard? Binky Urban sold it to HarperCollins for $17 million. It's not written yet, but it's a record-smashing best seller, sort of like that new Harry Potter book. Amazon customers give it five stars.

OK, my dear, you sank my battleship. But let me try to salvage something from the wreckage. Yes, "the end of greatness" has an orotund ring and would be laughable in most contexts. But as the name of a scientific concept about the size of "cosmic structures," I think it's a keeper. I especially like the way it means "greatness" in the sense of size, which used to be that word's primary meaning but isn't any more. When someone talks about a great car they don't mean a huge car. I feel "great" has been tragically diluted, reduced to a synonym for good or cool. Of course, in trying to give that last message a clever close, I flipped the meaning of "greatness" so it took on the very Brokavian quality you leapt on. Only myself to blame.

Did you know that men in our age group never, ever compare notes on the 70-and-older women they've been lusting after? I swear we don't. Not even in the locker room do we share our most lascivious thoughts about our favorite septuagenarian nymphs. All that passion stays locked inside us. Really deep inside. Maybe this will change when I hit 40.

I will say this about older women: I prefer the ones who let themselves get older. The surgical miracles you see on TV and in movies--Cher, to cite the most extreme case--I find scary. With long gray hair and a few wrinkles, Cher might be quite beautiful. Instead, she's cruising down the Mae West Highway, express lane.

Regarding Salter: Yes, a detail can absolutely turn you against a writer, as against a person you actually know. I think the smallest acts often tell us worlds about someone's character. And isn't it funny how we get into these stormy relationships with writers we've never met? I think one tends to be especially sensitive about living writers, for some reason. If Salter were dead, you would have felt less betrayed by his memoir's omission. (And does he owe you the whole truth about himself? Do you want to apply a journalist's narrow strictures to an artist? Did Nabokov tell the whole truth in Speak, Memory, which I think you admire? I doubt he did.)

In any case, I think maybe we cut dead people slack just because they're dead, poor things. And because they can't hurt us anymore.

Hope you're flying happy.


William Powers writes a weekly column on the media for National Journal magazine. Martha Sherrill is a former staff writer for the Washington Post, a contributing editor at Esquire, and the author of The Buddha from Brooklyn (click here to buy it).