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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"God is my assignment editor"

I'm disappointed by Marilyn Johnson's book about obituaries and obituarists, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, though perhaps the overwritten, too-clever-by-three-quarters title provided ample warning. It's a frustrating book. The anecdotes, personalities, and information is fascinating, but the writing is terrible. Johnson writes obituaries for celebrities, so maybe she thought a book might be a place to try out a more free-wheeling style, but the cleverness is distracting.

Two better resources for obituary obsessions are Mark Singer's wonderful article about the International Association of Obituarists conference in the New Yorker. The conference is now held in one of my favorite towns, Las Vegas, New Mexico, but it used to be held in Archer City, Texas--more evidence that the town is the Nostalgia Capital of West Texas. At the end of the article, Singer introduces Steve Miller, a New Yorker who whiled away his hours at a banking job writing a brilliant, sardonic zine called GoodBye!: The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries until September 11, 2001, when his office in the World Trade Center was hit by a hijacked plane. He escaped the building and became an obituarist for the New York Sun. Miller gave a speech about obituaries and his experience on September 11 at the 2002 conference:
I am thinking now about the difficulties of making a really convincing [or true?] narrative about a person's life. If a few minutes of my own life, moments of irredeemable clarity that spanned at most a couple of hours, are so difficult to get right, how much harder is it to present a truly accurate version of an entire life in a 20 or 30 newspaper inches?

Telling his unlikely story about his new career hasn't hurt Miller's sense of humor. The archives of GoodBye! are still available; my favorite issue is October 2002, which features obituaries of Stephen Ambrose, Demogogic Historian; Henry Chauncey, Father of the SAT and a Really Bad Influence; Raymond McNally, Faux Dracula Scholar; Allen Walker Read, Philologist who Studied "OK" and "Fuck"; Joe Strummer: Anti-Rock Star of the Clash; To Huu, A Lousy Vietnamese Poet; and Armand Zildjian, Maker of Cymbals.

Johnson has some fun with Miller in The Dead Beat when they visit Arthur Miller's funeral and riff on the line from Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid." Another odd obituarist, Richard Pearson, wrote for the Washington Post until his death in 2002 and, according to Johnson, kept "a list of cowboys and thier horses' names in his desk drawer and was always writing the Associated Press wire-service editors to correct the horses' names." He described his job, "God is my assignment editor."

Johnson does a great job interviewing American and Britiish obituarists, but she tends to insert herself too often into the stories. I wanted to read more about them and much less about her. Though she mentions that overwritten obituaries are painful to read, most of her own prose is overwritten and banal. Even that delightful detail about Pearson's cowboy-horse obsession is rendered imprecisely: how often did Pearson find it necessary to correct the horses' names? The Associated Press doesn't "always" write stories with that information. The review of the book in The New York Times is positive and cites Johnson's attention to writing style, but her description of her reading practice is terrible:
Mundane obligation informs the obituary writer's craft. Certain things must be told, and in expected order. But as with the sonnet or haiku, the form can be a challenge that inspires creativity. Johnson believes a good obituary is a "tight little coil of biography" that "reminds us of a poem" and "contains the most creative writing in journalism." Her delight in the subject is unabashed, as when she travels to London (which she deems the world's "obituary capital") and holes up in her rented room with the obituary pages of The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times, savoring the "visceral pleasures of blackening my fingers, seeing the pages in full stretch with their telling photos and varied typefaces while I scrawled underlines and exclamation points and circles around the text."

Johnson is so busy being enthusiastic and irreverent that she neglects the somber side of the profession. The chapter about Portraits of Grief from The New York Times is interesting, as is Steve Miller's take on the series in his speech (he's changed his mind and now sees them as a ritualistic act of mourning). I joined the managing board of the Columbia Daily Spectator the year after the paper had covered multiple student suicides at Columbia; watching older editors deal with that much loss made us think seriously about how to cover tragedies on campus and in the city after September 11. We felt we had to write staff editorials after student deaths but were never sure what to say, what would be appropriate to say about the effects on campus. We also struggled with how to run corrections on mistakes in obituaries, how to provide adequate support to students reporting on student deaths, how to cover deaths that were not clearly suicides, and how to work with the police department.

Other obituary stuff:

Who's Who in Hell is a middling book about a British obituary writer (the obituaries are the best part of the book); it's episodic and the characters are more interesting than the story--much like American obituaries. British obituaries are much more fun than American ones, and the British papers have developed a rivalry to see who can write the weirdest, most irreverent pieces. This collection from the Daily Telegraph is a good introduction to a distinctly British genre.

52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr is a great collection of obituaries about ordinary people.

Steve Miller names Jessica Mitford "the spirit of GoodBye! magazine" in a 1996 obituary. The American Way of Death is a really cool book about the funeral industry.

Death Is a Lonely Business is my favorite Ray Bradbury title (a close contest). It's about a hack writer, not an obituarist, but it's close enough.

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