S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 October 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 


 
    Lewis Henry Lapham II


 

Investing the phrase "egg on your face" with rich, new significance, Suck is proud to announce the recipients of its first annual Evil Genius Grants. Over the next 10 days, the Suck EGG honorees, as selected by Suck's blue ribbon panel of experts, will be profiled on this page. Included are standouts in fields as diverse as pop music and pop-music criticism, film acting and film directing, magazine punditry and television punditry. But unlike those humdrum, dime-per-dozen MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants, each Suck EGG fellowship is offered not for such narrow purposes as "rewarding outstanding achievement" or celebrating the "power and possibilities of human creativity." Nor are they extended to those whose work represents the "greatest benefit to mankind," like the recently announced Nobel Prizes.

Instead, the Suck EGGs provide an infinitely more valuable service to humanity: Namely, each fellowship is granted only on the condition that for the next calendar year, in the interests of Human Civilization, its recipients stop doing the voodoo that they do so annoyingly well. (To prevent welshing, actual prizes are not conferred until the completion of each term.) Those who aspire to the heights of EGGdom in the future should realize that, by definition, it is impossible for us to accept applications - since this is an award not for who you are, but who you will cease to be.

- Sucksters


  While Lewis Lapham's work has been hailed as "a tonic in an age of superficial observation" and flogged as "simultaneously vague, commonplace, patronizing, and sentimental," the real question is fairly basic: Is Lapham naughty or nice?

He's both! In his on-again, off-again career as editor of Harper's magazine (he took the reins in 1976, resigned without honors in 1981, was rehired in 1984, and has been smokin' up the joint ever since), Lapham has never really been properly praised for devising one of the more influential rags of the past decade. The Forum and the irresistibly cost-effective Readings have spawned innumerable imitators, but the real brainstorms of the Lapham Harper's have been the droll Annotations and the inescapable Index. Given that the self-regarding feuilletoniste makes a side career out of decrying the culture's ever-burgeoning idiocy, his predilection for reading-lite catnips sets up an odd "destroying the global village in order to save it" paradox: the soi-disant defender of literary values boosting circulation with effects cribbed from Mad magazine. (Persistent rumors that Lapham himself is the now-aged Alfred E. Newman appear to be unsupported, however).

We also can't argue with Lapham's fiscal policies (though we're not above copying them). Having announced a strategy in 1989 of finding the odd "talented writer on a shoestring who is prepared to work for a little," the stingy talent scout shows that you can in fact get more than you paid for. Having bought the rights to Tom Frank's entire mental output for the literary equivalent of US$24 (he published a soporific Frank essay in Harper's and wrote a supercilious foreword to the Baffler book), Lapham now leverages the brand for maximum synergy, even lecturing hung-over Columbia students on "The Commodification of Dissent." The magic has worked on the other side of the Chinese wall as well. In addition to nearly doubling Harper's circulation, Lapham realized boss Richard "Li'l Ricky" MacArthur's fervent dream to "get booze and cars - that's where it's at." Oh sure, these days accepting cigarette advertising is pretty much grounds for a fatwa; we'd join in the chorus of jeers for Lapham's Absolut and Marlboro sponsorships if we had any follicles left on our own lungs. And besides, the one thing we know for sure about the chain-smoking éminence grise is that he's also a customer.

But it's in his Notebook essays - those herniated salvoes that simultaneously mourn the loss of American letters and remind us of how little we're missing - that Lapham really earns his daily EGG. It was he who first realized that combining, for example, the Bernard Goetz shooting, the box office success of Beverly Hills Cop, and a passage from Santayana would produce a trend piece that raises some disturbing questions about the state of the nation's soul. Despite his knack for Loeb Classical Library quotations and ex recto statistics (such as his recent announcement that about 200 million Americans are functionally illiterate), he must share the blame for midwifing the kind of cracker-barrel cultural vectoring that now passes for journalism in finer magazines everywhere.

Goring the sacred cows of high and low culture is a good way to keep those naughty-boy credentials updated, but Lapham's real skill lies in endlessly delivering the one message Americans never tire of hearing: that we're all a bunch of ignorant morons. Now we're all for this dumbing-down business, but to review Lapham's works from the late-'70s until today is to be perpetually primed for a cultural apocalypse that never seems to happen. His '80s pieces are rife with "the American people know more of Morton Downey Jr. than of Henry Adams"-type tweezering, while his '90s essays make bold with "students are more familiar with Jerry Springer than Juvenal"-style mummery. Sometimes, in fact, the same cultural icon can be spun two different ways. John Updike, reviled in a Lapham-edited essay in 1981 as a writer of "tales of cunnilingus," is the hero of a 1998 reminiscence in which Lapham and his Yale buddies used to "get up at 3 a.m. to meet the train carrying a new issue of The New Yorker, with, say, a new Updike story."

On the other hand, MTV - which debuted before most of today's teenagers were born - remains the immutable shorthand for all things new and cretinous. Indeed, Lapham's rolling time line for just when things started going all to hell is worthy of a Poisson distribution chart. His 1980 book Fortune's Child, bemoans the way American democracy has been giving way to moral nincompoopery "for the last thirty years." An audience enduring a Lapham lecture a few months ago was informed that "for the last 30 years, Americans haven't given a damn about literature or the arts." And so on and on and on. When American culture really does slam head-on into the collision Lapham has foretold these many years (we predict it will happen in 30 years), we have no doubt he'll tell us that he told us so. Then he'll tell us again. Meanwhile, we're hoping he'll use his EGG grant to buy a nice nicotine patch and put himself through an extended period of cultural withdrawal.

Residence: New York, New York (although, to paraphrase his recent comments in the Los Angeles Times, he left his heart in San Francisco)
Age: 63
Award: A carton of Parliaments plus five cents in punitive damages from everyone who's ever "plagiarized" the Harper's Index concept.




courtesy of the Sucksters