'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Globe and Mail, November 24, 2001

Frick and Frack seek advice

LETTERS TO A YOUNG CONTRARIAN
Christopher Hitchens
Basic Books
141pp. $32.95

LETTERS TO A YOUNG LAWYER
Alan Dershowitz
Basic Books
206 pp. $32.95


ear Applicant,

So you want to be in publishing? What a pleasant laugh we had about that around the office, which is why I'm a bit late getting back to you. Apologies.

By way of answer, let me start with a story. A few months ago I was in a meeting with two of our top editors. Let's call them Frick and Frack. Each pushes a manuscript across the conference table. One is "Letters to a Young Lawyer" by Alan Dershowitz -- probably you've heard of him, the Harvard law professor who helped O.J. Simpson return safe and sound to his favorite golf course. The other is by a journalist named Christopher Hitchens (the Nation, Vanity Fair), called "Letters to a Young Contrarian." I scan the pages and see straightaway what they are -- up-market advice books. I tell Frick and Frack they have two winners on their hands, because self-help is the only safe bet in publishing.

Frick sneers slightly. "Obviously you've never heard of the German genius Rainer Maria Rilke, much less read his masterpiece, 'Letters to a Young Poet.' We've done a contemporary variation in our new series, The Art of Mentoring. These are the first volumes."

Frack is plainly in love with the Hitchens' book. It's witty, literate, a stirring call to the activist's life, he says. Frick is more cautious on the Dershowitz, "though of course I only have a draft so far. I've left a message with his secretary asking when we can expect the final text."

But already there's a problem. Both books are rather tough on their imaginary correspondents. Frick says, "Dershowitz practically assures a class of incoming law students that they're more likely to become criminals than defense attorneys!"

"Even Hitchens," Frack admits, "seems to assume that his young contrarian is a blank slate at best, who knows nothing, has read nothing."

A bit of tough love doesn't seem so awful to me, but again I get Frack's sneer. "What made 'Letters to a Young Poet' so vital to generations of poets and novelists and artists was Rilke's tone. Here he is, perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century, addressing an aspiring nobody on terms of complete equality. Good advice is hard enough to find, but true mentoring is an art practiced by a very few."

I suggest we can duck this bullet if we avoid any mention of the Rilke original. They go along with it.

A few weeks pass and I notice Frick looking glum and glummer. He hasn't heard from Dershowitz. I'm reluctant to show him the unflattering black and white photograph we've chosen for his cover, but he seems to like it. Apparently one of Dershowitz's key arguments is that there are few black and white issues in life. This is the bulk of his advice to the apprentice lawyer, that he or she must be prepared to distinguish between shades of gray.

Overhearing this, Frack whirls on Frick. "Didn't you read Hitchens?" he cries. "'Contrarian' argues precisely the opposite, that black and white interpretations are essential in life. 'One does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood,' Hitchens insists."

I cancel plans to send Hitchens and Dershowitz out on a book tour together.

The next day at lunch Frack says, "You know, my guess is that Hitchens couldn't have written a book this good if it hadn't been for Sidney Blumenthal."

Naturally I ask who Sidney Blumenthal is. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that Hitchens was involved in a great scandal a few years ago, and lost many of his friends and colleagues because of it. 'Young Contrarian' is filled with autobiographical details -- boarding school education, Bosnia war zone, friendship with Salmon Rushdie -- but not a peep about his bust-up with his close friend Sidney Blumenthal. But I've just realized the entire book is about Blumenthal. Hitchens didn't have to eat his words, but he did have to live on his principles -- and he's been on a winning streak, career-wise, ever since. This is why he advises young activists to do the same. His last book on Kissinger got a lot of press but what about 'Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere?' That was a gem too.'"

For the first time in weeks, Frick smiles, then whoops in joy. "Good god, you're right. This is why Dersh hasn't responded to my emails!"

"Which is why?" I ask.

"He was waiting for me to understand... his entire book is about his disastrously successful defense of O.J. Simpson. He's written nothing less than the confession of O.J. Simpson!"

I'm thinking Oprah, Jay Leno, a summer house on the Vineyard. I'm thinking early retirement.

Now it's Frack's turn to sneer. "What happened in the last five minutes that helped you solve the crime of the century?"

Frick ignores him. "I couldn't understand why Dersh repeats on nearly every page the fact that most criminals are guilty. He says it so often that even Lady Macbeth would wonder why. The reason is this: he demands that we acknowledge his Simpson argument. To protect the rights of a guilty defendant is the only way to protect everyone's rights. We are freer for O.J. Simpson's freedom, and Alan Dershowitz wants to be thanked. And of course he deserves to be."

Frack stomps out of the cafeteria, knowing full well that murder tops principle on the bestseller. But a few days later he's knocking on my door. "You have to dump the Dershowitz book. Confession or no confession, it reads like a bunch of emails strung end to end. What sort of mentoring is going on with such pontifications?"

I call a meeting.

"I was initially critical," Frick admits. "The style is certainly very far from Rilke. Also, I couldn't understand why Dersh had nothing hopeful to say to the budding lawyer. Quite the opposite, in fact. He tells them a six figure income will not make them happy, that they are likely to falsify evidence, inflate their fees, be a constant and justified object of moral ridicule to their friends and family. In short, he confirms everything they already fear... which is why his real argument is that they must become priests!"

Frack lunges for the manuscript. Frick jumps up on his seat, the precious pages held high over his head. "It's true! The book builds to a brilliant climax in the closing chapters when Dersh finally shows some of the brilliance and brio that has made him so celebrated on talk shows, only his argument is focused on the Bible, on the Talmud, on the higher powers that all men must submit to. This is his advice and it's flawless Rilke: humility in the face of divine law."

My heart drops to the floor, along with any chance of a summer house on the Vineyard.

"Religion!" Frack shrieks. "Hitchens climaxes his book by arguing that the contrarian's first duty is to extinguish all religious superstitions."

Frick is serene. "Alan Dershowitz is the new Martin Luther King." Then he jumps down and bolts from the room. Frack runs after him, yelling, "Christopher Hitchens is the real Indiana Jones!"

I predict that our advice series will be a success, not least with other celebrities eager to retell their lives as success stories.

As for you, dear applicant, we may have some employment possibilities -- provided you're still interested.

Yours sincerely,