Not Dead Yet
Introducing the pre-obituary: a few choice words before you go.
Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
I have an idea for a brand new type of newspaper feature. And gosh do newspapers need one. No industry in living memory has collapsed faster than daily print journalism. You can still buy a buggy whip, which is more than can be said for a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post, or Seattle Post-Intelligencer. One would think that a business in such dire condition would be—for desperation’s sake—wildly innovative. But newspapers exhibit a fossilization of form and content that’s been preserved in sedimentary rock since the early 1970s when the “Women’s Pages” were converted to the “Leisure Section.” General Motors itself showed more inventive originality on its way to Chapter 11, as the two people who bought Pontiac Azteks can attest.
Readers are fleeing newspapers. What are newspapers offering to lure them back? Out-of-register color photographs have replaced blurry black and white pics. More working women and black people appear in comic strips. (Although comparisons to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” show, if anything, a decline in the social relevance of the funny pages, “Marmaduke” always excepted.) Various versions of “Dr. Gridlock” have been instituted so that when you get to work and open your morning paper you can see why you didn’t get to work. That avant-garde broadsheet the New York Times supplemented its dull “Corrections” with a “Public Editor” who combines pomposity with groveling as only a New York Times editor can. And, in “Styles of the Times,” Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust have been crossbred with Anna Wintour to produce something for famously overdressed people with scary romantic entanglements that’s known in the trade as the Gay Sports Pages. Then there’s Sudoku. (Tip for silencing airplane seatmates: Take out a Friday Sudoku and rapidly fill every box in ink—it’s not like they’ll check if your numbers are right.)
One bright idea isn’t going to solve the problems of the American newspaper industry, but it’s one bright idea more than the American newspaper industry has had in 40 years. What I propose is “Pre-Obituaries”—official notices that certain people aren’t dead yet accompanied by brief summaries of their lives indicating why we wish they were.
The main advantage of the Pre-Obit over the traditional obituary is the knowledge of reader and writer alike that the as-good-as-dead people are still around to have their feelings hurt. It was a travesty of literary justice that we waited until J. D. Salinger finally hit the delete key at 91 before admitting that Catcher in the Rye stinks. The book’s only virtue is that it captures, with annoying accuracy, the maunderings of a twerp. The book’s only pleasure is in slamming the cover shut—simpler than slamming the door shut on a real Holden Caulfield, if less satisfying. The rest of Salinger’s published oeuvre was precious or boring or both. But we felt constrained to delay saying so, perhaps because of an outdated Victorian hope for a death-bed flash of genius.
Let us wait no more. With the Pre-Obituary we can abandon pusillanimous constraint and false hope and say what we think about the lives of public nuisances when their lives are not yet a dead letter. And we won’t be stuck in the treacle of nostalgia and sentiment. We won’t find ourselves saying of some oaf, “His like will not pass this way again.” Or, if we do say it, we can comfortably add, “Thank God!” The precept of Diogenes isn’t “Do not speak ill of the living.”
Think of the opportunities we’ve missed already. Bea Arthur (1922-2009) performed a grievous disservice to popular culture by uniting two equally dreadful but previously discrete American types. In her portrayal of loud, Bolshie Maude, Arthur taught every angry feminist to be a common scold and every termagant housewife to be Emma Goldman. Once Arthur had become respectable by dying no one had the nerve to title her funeral notice “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Paul Newman (1925-2008) was not, in and of himself, a bad person. But he deserved to be damned to his face for lending charm to the smirk of liberalism. And after he’d become an immortal only a heartless writer would have pointed out that for an entire generation of young people, Paul Newman is, mainly, a salad dressing.