The Globe and Mail, November 24, 2001
Frick and Frack seek advice
LETTERS TO A YOUNG CONTRARIAN
LETTERS TO A YOUNG LAWYER
206 pp. $32.95
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.