- The Accidental Ann Landers
berkeley, ca: ten speed press, 2015. 208pages, hardcover, $14.99.
Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,
If I seem too forward, writing to you like this, please forgive me. I have just finished reading your most recent book and find myself inspired to touch base with you. The book was sent to me by Ned Stuckey-French—book review editor for Fourth Genre and notorious essay gadabout—who suggested that I might review your book for that esteemed magazine, explaining that “the book is funny” and adding drily, it seemed to me, that he thinks I’m “funny” too. I don’t know that he truly sees me as funny—you and I both know how inscrutable Stuckey-French can be—but I’m pretty sure that he does think your book is funny. I certainly do.
But I also find reviewing your book to be a little tricky, and I suppose that’s why I find myself writing to you for advice. I confess I don’t have much experience writing to advice columnists. I did write once to Slate’s “Dear Prudie,” who responded to my question about wedding reception place settings when the bride’s parents are divorced by insisting that I am, in all likelihood, an alcoholic, and then again to Dan Savage who called me a deviant and personally phoned my wife to tell her to hide all of the ice cube trays, offset spatulas, and SkyMall catalogs. What I’m saying is I’m used to figuring things out for myself and only accepting advice from [End Page 183] the Man in the Mirror (the one from the Michael Jackson song, not my own reflection).
But look, Mister Essay Writer Guy, this new book... well, again, Stuckey-French is right. It’s funny, certainly. Conversational, too—like we’re sitting in a bar, maybe at the AWP conference, and the pitchers of beer and margaritas are coming at us, and everyone feels like laughing and celebrating how awesome it is to be writers among writers. And then, cutting through the haze and the chatter, you ask, “What is the essay? And why? And how ought we to feel about it, given that there is nothing on television this evening?” This sounds like the kind of juxtaposition of the sublime and the trivial one might expect to find in some of Woody Allen’s early prose, the stuff found in Side Effects or Without Feathers, perhaps, like when he says, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I’m bringing a change of underwear.” Or maybe it’s Chris Elliottesque in its absurdity, the brand of wild absurdity demonstrated by Elliott in his faux memoir, coauthored with his father, Bob (of Bob and Ray) Elliott, Daddy’s Boy.
(And really, creative nonfiction community—when are we finally going to talk about Daddy’s Boy? Chris Elliott was doing James Frey back when James Frey still had all his teeth, but doing it even better. I mean, he included chapters written by his father in which his father called him a liar right there in his own book! It was as if James Frey and the editors of the Smoking Gun had collaborated.)
I fear I am easily distracted, Mister Essay Writer Guy. These margaritas are strong. Although, to be fair, the fraudulent memoir is a concern of yours, too—I remember one of the first times I heard you speak publicly (this after I had already been reading for a number of years both your essays and the essays you edited in the magazine Brevity) and you referred to Frey as a “lying sack of”... well, something or other. And you talk about him in this book as well, calling him a “worthless sap” this time around. I kind of like the way you cleaned that up, to be honest. It makes him sound a little less nefarious, and you somewhat charitable. There aren’t too many people one can call a “worthless sap” but in so doing actually come across...