Sunday, February 27, 2005

In the wake of Hunter Thompson's suicide, I noted that a number of right-wingers were saying kind things about him. But that wasn't true across the board: Stephen Schwartz reviewed Thompson's career in a Weekly Standard article that was nasty -- and, in a couple of passages, idiotic.

Today The New York Times excerpts that piece, carefully selecting its most idiotic passage for preservation:

Thompson had much in common with [William] Burroughs and [Allan] Ginsberg. First, their products were mainly noise. Their books were reissued but now sit inertly on bookstore shelves, incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them....

Say what?

Granted, Schwartz may have a point about purchases of Burroughs and Ginsberg. That's because -- and this won't surprise anyone who (unlike Schwartz, apparently) was ever young -- their books are regularly stolen.

Martin Gilbert of the Times learned in 2002 that book theft in New York varies by neighborhood; "In downtown Manhattan, for instance, it's the Beat poets and writers: Kerouac (the John Grisham of the Beats, when it comes to theft popularity), Bukowski, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Hunke." In 1999, the community relations coordinator of a Barnes & Noble in Hoboken told Dennis Loy Johnson of the book blog Moby Lives, "Did you know authors like Bukowski, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Paul Auster are all kept behind the register because they get stolen a lot?" -- and three years later Johnson found Burroughs books removed from shelves at several B&Ns in Manhattan. The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum was told by a B&N clerk in 2001 that Burroughs was among the store's "most shoplifted" authors.

As for Thompson himself, his books are so "incapable of inspiring younger readers, or even nostalgic baby boomers, to purchase them" that, as I write this, three now sit in Amazon's Top 100 -- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at #29, Hell's Angels at #82, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 at #99, with the forthcoming Hey Rube just behind at #115.

Regarding Ginsberg, if you're of a mind to, do an Amazon search for "poetry" (Subject); in the "Sort results by" field, choose "Bestselling." Howl is the 50th-ranked book. But that's deceptive. Notice what beats it out: children's books, advice for poets, miscategorized essay collections, canonical authors (Homer, Dante, Poe, Emily Dickinson), and the likes of Tim Burton and Tupac. Apart from a couple of new collections and a Maya Angelou anthology, Howl is the bestselling poetry book at Amazon by any modern poet who could be called "serious."

None of this needs to be spelled out or quantified for anyone who's lived among young people trying to pry their minds open. It should be obvious to the editors who chose to excerpt Schwartz's essay in the Times.

I've thought for a while that the Times ought to consider giving up on "balance" of opinion -- the conservative press doesn't really bother reciprocating, and right-wing banshees will still howl "liberal bias" no matter how many Republicans grace the Times's pages. But at the very least the Times should resist the self-hate that leads to publication of right-wing opinion pieces premised on "facts" that are clearly pulled from the author's ass.

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