Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Hebrew Leprechaun

Let me start with a simple truth - just about anything that needs to be said about Mitch Albom has already been said. Slate's Bryan Curtis absolutely eviscerated him in an article published this past Thursday. I had absolutely no desire to rehash the same ground that a real, actual writer had just tread, especially since it's likely that Curtis has actually read, or at knows someone who has read, Albom's books, whereas I have not and do not. I was going to write about any other topic in the world. But when I opened up the mailbox on Saturday and pulled out the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly to find Kate Winslet giving me what a team of scientists have decided is the sexiest come-hither look of all time, I was able to pry my eyes away for the 2 seconds that I needed to read the following words in the lower right-hand corner - "Mitch Albom vs. His Critics". Still, I wasn't going to write about Mitch Albom, because really who gives a fuck about Mitch Albom anyway? But then I read the article and I realized, as a service to humanity, certain things in said article needed to be shared with the rest of the world who may not read this pop culture rag.

The background - Mitch Albom is a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, who is best known to the general populace for sentimental treacle "Tuesdays with Morrie", "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" and his latest book, "For One More Day", the peddling of which explains his appearance in EW. Besides being a writer of cheap, sentimental crap that delivers easy answers (more on that in a minute), he is also a target because in April of 2005 he turned in a column about a couple of Michigan State alums in the NBA (specifically, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson) going to watch the Final Four in St. Louis, despite the fact that neither player was at the game - it turned out that they told him they were going to the game but decided not to, and Albom's column, having been written based on the assumption that they would go to the game, was, in essence, a fabrication. After the publication of the article, the Free Press launched a review of Albom's past columns, but was unable to find any evidence of other fabrications.

I couldn't find the entire column (the readily-available archives for the Free Press don't go back that far) but I found the first few paragraphs, which seem to be the source of the controversy:

"In the audience Saturday at the Final Four, among the 46,000 hoop junkies, sales executives, movie producers, parents, contest winners, beer guzzlers, hip-hop stars and lucky locals who knew somebody who knew somebody, there were two former stars for Michigan State, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson,"

"They sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater. They were teammates in the magical 2000 season, when the Spartans won it all. Both now play in the NBA, Richardson for Golden State, Cleaves for Seattle."

"And both made it a point to fly in from wherever they were in their professional schedule just to sit together Saturday. Richardson, who earns millions, flew by private plane. Cleaves, who's on his fourth team in five years, bought a ticket and flew commercial."

The portion of the interview about this scandal in EW went like this:

Q: What about the mini-scandal over your column?.....Were you surprised by how much attention it got?
A: Sure. And the people involved with it all apologized to me afterwards, from the publisher of the paper to the guy who ran Knight Ridder. They said, We never should have made such a big deal out of it, we should've trusted you and taken it for what it was, and not turned it into a big thing.
Q: Are you upset you made the mistake?
A: Well, sure. It was just careless. It was just rushed. But that's all it was. It was just a rush. These guys swore to me that they were gonna be there, and so I said, Well, they're gonna be there, so we'll just write that they were there. You shouldn't do that, you should just write [that] they planned to be there. That's all. It was just missing a word. That's it. Was it a mistake? Yeah. Should you do it? No. Do you apologize for it? Yes. Move on.

Comment: Obviously, EW isn't that interested in rehashing this controversy, but the interviewer feels obligated to at least bring it up. And even with the leading questions he's fed, Albom still manages to sound like an asshole. First, I'd love to see those so-called apologies he received from people who were simply doing due-diligence on a writer who got his hand caught in the cookie jar. Second, there's this statement: "It was just missing a word." Read the excerpt of the article and show me where a single word could be added to fix it. Is it the part where he describes what they're wearing at the game they didn't attend? The part where he tells us specifically how they fly to the game? Finally, and perhaps most douchebaggily, he uses the phrase, "Move on." As if we're all at fault for asking these questions, not him for making the shit up in the first place. Honestly, I think his indiscretion is low on the totem pole - he screwed up by publishing an article that ended up being wrong, got caught and had to apologize. This isn't Stephen Glass territory, and he doesn't deserve to be crucified for it. But when you do get caught doing this, you should be apologetic. You should be humble. You should never stop admitting that you fucked up, and you certainly shouldn't be confrontational to a public that wants to know you aren't going to do it again.

Okay, about that sentimental tripe. Here are a couple of interesting responses from Mr. Albom:

Q: What do you make of critics who call your books too sentimental or sappy?
A: Well, I've always been mystified. Since when did sentimental become a bad thing? Everybody's favorite movie is a sentimental movie - It's a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz. Nobody's favorite movie is some dark, dysfunctional slasher story. Everybody's favorite song is a sentimental song. So why all of a sudden is it bad to be sentimental in books? Critics have a problem with sentimentality. Readers do not. I write for readers.

Comment: This really needs no commentary, it is so far beyond stupid. It is clear that Mitch Albom has been spending too much of his time with the sort of people who choose to read Mitch Albom books. If someone told Mitch that their favorite movie was Dr. Strangelove and their favorite song was "Love Will Tear Us Apart" would his little tiny head explode?

Q: You don't like critics?
A: I think that sometimes critics feel that if a lot of people like it, it has to be too sentimental: "If the masses can get it, it's not special enough." I don't agree. I like a Beatles song. So do millions of others. So what?

Comment: This is a common Albom defensive posture, that he writes "for the people" instead of for critics.
Dear Mitch,
You are not the Beatles. They had a worldview that allowed for subtlety and nuance. You have a worldview that believes old people are full of trite platitudes, but only after they get cancer. And I doubt you own anything but The Beatles 1 anyway, because you are a middle-aged poseur. But at least you have big forearms, which take attention away from your gigantic ears.

Q: Given what you write about, it's kind of interesting to meet you on the anniversary of 9/11.
A: You know, what I found most resonant about Sept. 11 was the transcripts of phone calls from people who called from the planes or in the buildings, and how many of them were almost identical in their messages. I noticed those people all said, "I called to tell you I love you." That's it! Is there somebody going, "Why are you using such basic words? Can't you find some other way to say it?" No, not at the most real moment of your life! Those are the words you're gonna use. In some ways, maybe I'm more real than my critics are.

Comment: What kind of person over 6 years old believes this? Here's a 911 call from September 11 that is a whole hell of a lot more real than Mitch Albom's fantasyland vision (don't listen to this if you're put off by such things - it doesn't end well): scared to the point of panic, standoffish to the operator taking the call. Not because this man is a dick, but because that's how people act under unimaginable stress. This cuts to the quick of the Mitch Albom universe - he truly believes that people's lives end with a few words of wisdom, a single tear and a fade into black. Death is fucking terrifying. Most people go into it kicking and screaming. But in Mitch Albom's universe, it is simply "the most real moment of your life.", whatever the hell that means.

I was going to wrap this up with a recent Albom column, where he told the heartwarming story of a man confined to a wheelchair who was on his way to some sort of paralympic sporting event when the bus he was in crashed. It was, unsurprisingly, less about this man, and more about how lucky you should feel to not be him (yes Mitch, I can read between the lines). It is, I believe, fairly typical Albom. But the Free Press archive seems to have already taken it down. And besides, this has gone on long enough as it is: in the end, Albom is a lot like American Idol - lots of people love him, but I don't know a single one of them, and I'm not sure I care to. Cheap sentiment may make you a rich man, but it can't buy you respect, and it certainly isn't going to give your books any staying power. So you sleep on your pile of money, because there's one thing it can't buy you - a decent hair cut, apparently.


Blogger Craig said...

Update: "For One More Day" managed to score itself a big fat D in the latest issue of EW, and Mitch Albom was described as "the most shamelessly pandering novelist in America". Eat it, leprechaun.

Mon Oct 09, 10:17:00 PM EDT  

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