Offers I Could Refuse
Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
A pessimist is a man who doesn't check his mail. I, an optimist, approach my mailbox each morning light of heart and with hope in my step. I also click on my email twelve or fifteen times a day. What, exactly, am I looking for? In a word: offers. I check mail and email in anticipation of offers that will bring me unexpected gold, opportunities to increase my small fame, and exaggerated praise.
Since I do not get all that many offers, those that I do get have the added element of sweet surprise. I think of people for whom offers must flood in with such regularity that an offerless day might result in depression. I imagine Toni Morrison's secretary having to inform her, with real trepidation, that the current day's mail brought offers of only two honorary degrees and not a single speaking engagement above $20,000.
The past few weeks have brought me a small number of offers, all of which I found I could refuse. The first was to speak to someone on the BBC about the American reaction to the visit of Queen Elizabeth. I rather like the Queen, despite her simple résumé. In the movie The Queen, I pulled for her and against the multitudes supposedly so deeply touched by the death of the sad, air-headed Princess Diana. But the fact was that I hadn't a single thing to say about her visit to the United States. Watching her on television at Jamestown and at the White House and being put through the paces and pains of tourism and empty goodwill diplomacy, my only thought was: "It is good not to be Queen." I turned down the BBC, neglecting to inquire if any fee was involved.
"I'm a longtime fan of yours," writes the editor of a new business magazine, "and wonder whether I could overpay you to contribute something to us." That word overpay jumped out at me. I replied instanter. Overpay by how much? I wanted to know. Alas, the editor didn't reveal exactly what grand sum he had in mind, leaving me to fantasize high numbers. (Four dollars a word, perhaps five?) I was to get back to him with an idea for an article. I soon did: the utter uselessness of the MBA degree, except as part of the general networking racket. The idea was found unacceptable. I was to return with another. I probably won't, and if I did, my guess is that it, too, wouldn't be what is wanted.
Years ago I had a similar offer from the now defunct Talk magazine, one of whose young editors asked me to write a piece on a vastly overrated figure in American life. I suggested Arthur Miller. "Terrific," said the editor, who soon returned to report that his betters rejected the idea. I next suggested that great false wise man, Walter Cronkite. "Perfect," said the editor, who returned to report that this, too, didn't go down well with the higher-ups. We finally settled on Harold Bloom. I wrote the piece, was paid for it, but the magazine went out of business before it ran, leaving me to wonder if this wasn't an offer I should have refused.
The president of a small liberal arts college wrote to ask if I would deliver a talk to the school's alumni about Robert Hutchins and the Great Books Movement. I said that I would, but reported that I charge a fee of $5,000. "It is an appalling sum," I added, "and far from worth it, I realize, having heard a number of these Joseph Epstein talks myself." When, after a decent interval, he wrote back to say that the trustees felt unable to approve my fee, I replied by instructing him to congratulate his trustees for "having demonstrated considerable fiscal responsibility." And I meant it.
Finally, I was invited to participate in a local university's Summer Writers' Conference by teaching a two-and-a-half hour workshop on writing short stories or anything else I might like to gas away upon. No fee mentioned. Restraining myself, I didn't reply that Kingsley Amis used to say that everything that had gone wrong with life since World War II could be summed up in the word workshop. I answered instead that I was pleased to have been invited but that my dance card was filled for the summer, with not even a mazurka or a flamenco open.
Recounting these offers, I feel like the man in the joke who claims to be losing money every day of the week and is able to stay in business only by closing on Sundays. These offers, however little came of them, nonetheless delight me: nice to be thought of, even by strangers. So don't hesitate, please, to make me an offer, especially one I can refuse.