Dispatches | August 13, 2008

If you’re one of the millions who are suckers for brain candy and/or celebrity news, it’s an act of extreme willpower to ignore the daily onslaught of lists-of-things-not-worth-listing on MSN.


One such item recently caught my eye:  “Hot and Dirty: Stars We Like Better Grimy,” said the headline.  I could imagine who “we” liked better with some grime on:  Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford.  Really, there was no reason to click, and I didn’t. But for just a second I pondered whether there might be a cadre of literary grimeballs:  “Writers We Like Better Grimy.”  Cormack McCarthy came to mind, and Norman Mailer, but the latter has passed on, and it seemed disrespectful, so I let the thought go. 


It continued to pop up at random moments, though—often enough that I came up with a thesis:  American writers are good grimy, but British not.  Annie Proulx, yes.  Sherman Alexie, yes.  Julian Barnes, no.


Until I thought about Robert Olen Butler and Joyce Carol Oates.  They would not be so good dirty.  But Ian McEwan would.   And Zadie Smith.  William Boyd. Yes.


A theory based on stereotypes is bound to be predictable—wrong.  A piece of writing grounded in stereotype will be . . . bad.  We expect our better writers to be thinkers.  How else can they dodge predictability?  They’re fundamentally mental types, and isn’t the exercise of one’s intellect antithetical to getting dirty?  No, yes, maybe.  It just depends.


Mentally griming your favorite author is a really, really stupid thing to spend any time thinking about, but it’s strangely addictive.  Go to the article (I finally looked at it today).  Look at the photos of Uma or Harrison (yes, he’s on the list) and then try to imagine, say, John Updike with the same film of greasy, yucky dirt.  Look at Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, and try to picture J.K. Rowling, in a similarly dirty state.  She was the highest-paid celebrity last year,by the way—but that’s another list.