In the most inebriating humor book of the year, the author of Steaming to Bamboola and The White House Mess goes straight for the funny bone with essays and mischief that includes such gems of gullibility as the pope's appearance on Oprah, O.J. Simpson's search for a new apartment, the true story behind Whitewater, and so much more.
“Funny and devastating.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Clever, erudite, sophisticated, funny and flip. Buckley shows that his antennae are ever alert to the absurdities in our world.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My Title Problem
This is my sixth book, and I’ve had a hard time coming up with titles for all of them. I thought it would get easier, but it hasn’t. I should be better at it, since I’m also a magazine editor and coming up with titles is a big part of that job. When I was a junior editor at Esquire in the ’70s, I would break out in a sweat trying to come up with clever titles. Esquire was famous for them: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” “Las Vegas (What?). Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy!). Las Vegas!!!!” “Hell Sucks.”
One time I spent three days on one headline. I’m not going to tell you what I came up with, because you’d only say, You spent three days on—that?
This is mostly a collection of my magazine stuff. Random House doesn’t want you to know that. Publishers flaunt the word “collection” on a book cover the way canned soup makers do the words “Tastes best if eaten before the year A.D. 2010.”
I wanted to call it Oeuvre to You. Oeuvre is a classy French word. No one knows how to pronounce it, but if you make a sound similar to the one you’d make right before throwing up a plateful of choucroute garni, you’ve pretty much got it. I faxed the title to my father, to whom this book is dedicated, along with my mother. He faxed back “NO!!!” which I took to mean NO!!!
Then I came up with Ruined Weekends, which sounded stately and grand. For some reason, most of the pieces in here were due on Monday. I tried it out on my editor, Jonathan Karp. With the sensitivity that is his trademark, Jon agreed that it was stately, even grand, but said it was “a kind of a downer.” Some people, he said, might have a hard time getting past the word “Ruined.”
No comparisons intended, but you wonder if Gibbon today would be able to sell a publisher on Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They would probably call it How Kinky Sex, Greed and Lead Goblets Caused the Collapse of the Roman Empire—And How It Can Rise Again!? Or Barbarians at the Gate.
I came back at Karp with Want to Buy a Dead Dictator? It’s a reference to a hoax we undertook in the pages of the magazine I edit, Forbes FYI. We announced with a straight face that the Russians were so strapped for hard currency that they were preparing to auction off the corpse of Lenin. Peter Jennings of ABC’s World News Tonight went with the story and the Russians went intercontinentally ballistic. It became a big international story. Karp’s reaction to my brainstorm was, “We can’t have the words ‘dead’ and ‘dictator’ in the title. No one will buy it.”
The book biz is littered with might-have-been titles. Andre Bernard wrote a fun book a few years ago called Now All We Need Is a Title, recounting some of the more resplendent clunkers. The Great Gatsby came close to being called Trimalchio in East Egg (Trimalchio being the rich patron in Petronius’s Satyricon). Waugh wanted to call Brideshead Revisited, The House of the Faith. On the other hand we might now be saying with equal incredulity, “Can you believe Woodward and Bernstein almost called At This Point in Time, All the President’s Men?”
I noodled around and suggested Homage to Tom Clancy. I liked it. It had a certain je ne sais quoi, and there was the chance that five billion Clancy fans might mistake it for the real thing and make me accidentally rich. The background is that I got into a little pissing match with Mr. Clancy after I reviewed one of his books for The New York Times. I called him a racist and the most successful bad writer in American since James Fenimore Cooper. The comment was itself an homage to Mark Twain, whose essay “The Literary Crimes of Fenimore Cooper” is still the most hilarious literary evisceration in American letters. Oddly, Mr. Clancy didn’t like being called a racist and a bad writer, and my fax machine began humming with incoming missives from him. These were leaked to the press (not—promise—by me). Our pissy fit became gossip page grist for a few days. But in the end Karp and I decided it was a bit of an inside joke and, anyway, did it make economic sense to annoy five billion Tom Clancy readers?
I suggested Dual Airbags. At first Karp did not click, being a New Yorker whose only experience with automobiles is riding in the backseat of taxis driven by people with names like Ibrahim Abouhalima (which in Arabic means “America will pay dearly for its support of Israel!”). So I explained that since these days, dual airbags are such a big selling point for car buyers, why shouldn’t the concept appeal to book buyers as well? There was, too, the rather nifty, self-deprecating double entendre implying that the author is not just a gasbag, but a real gasbag. He liked that, and we would have used it, except everyone else hated it.
Then I came back with a title that I quite liked: Should I Have Heard of You? It’s taken from a typical airplane conversation:
PERSON NEXT TO ME: And what do you do?
ME: I’m a writer.
PERSON (Perking up): Oh? What’s your name?
ME: Chris Buckley.
PERSON (Frowning): Should I have heard of you?
ME (Bravely): Not really.
PERSON: If you’re a writer, then you must know John Grisham.
“ME (Seizing the moment): Who?
PERSON (After fifteen minutes spent recapitulating the plot to each entry in the Grisham oeuvre): I have all his books. Hardcover and paperback. I also have them all in audiocassette. I buy his books before they come out.
ME (Pretending to be absorbed in an article called “What’s New in Newark?” in the in-flight magazine): Well, if you like that sort of thing.
PERSON: Do you know, he’s got fifty million books in print.
ME: Of course, the real test is, Will you still be in print a hundred years from now? That’s more what I’m aiming for. But I’ll certainly give this fellow Grashman a try, on your recommendation.
Fans of One-upmanship will recognize that exchange for what it is: Homage to Stephen Potter (1900—1965). It is, of course, completely disingenuous on my part. I know all about John Grisham and his fifty million books in print, and I hate him. He probably also has a wonderful sex life, too, damn him. At any rate, Should I Have Heard of You? was rejected as too precious.
By now I was getting sullen and resentful, which, being an only child, I frequently tend to get. “Give me my own way exactly in everything,” said Thomas Carlyle, “and a sunnier, more pleasant creature does not exist.” When I read that quote to my wife, she laughed, bitterly.
Karp manfully suggested that he give the title a go on his own. A few days went by and my fax machine disgorged his suggestion: The Ten Commandments. Catchy as it was, I demurred. Let me say for the record: Jon Karp is an excellent editor, smart, funny, eager, hardworking, generous, returns-your-phone-calls, serious. (The man spends his summer vacations in the library at Brown University, rereading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I am not kidding.) And now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me say that The Ten Commandments is, arguably, THE WORST BOOK TITLE SINCE Trimalchio in East Egg.
It crossed my mind that it might part of a sinister promotional plan by Random House to turn me into an American version of Salman Rushdie. Publishers strive to get their books turned into news stories.