That said, there is inevitably a passage in every one of his essays that irritates the living heck out of me. The passage in question this week comes at the end of a discussion on abridged versions of classic novels. (Apparently a British press is now publishing half-length versions of long 19th-century masterpieces like Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Anna Karenina.) Gopnik is surprised to find that most abridged novels seem to read as well as the originals.
“.... when you come to the end of the compact “Moby-Dick” you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”
What drives me bonkers here is the last sentence. It’s intended to be clever, but in fact it’s false—and the reason it’s false is because Gopnik is trying so hard to be clever.
Why is it false? Because the abridged version of Moby Dick is not, in any way, phallic. I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not “reach” and “point” are accurate descriptions of a phallus; let’s say for now that Gopnik is right, and that they are (but they’re not). Even so, there exists no person in this Universe who, upon finishing a book sharing the traits with the abridged version of a classic—one that is “sound, sane” and well-plotted—thinks to themselves, “You know, that book had reach. It had point.” No one. Not even Adam Gopnik. How could he? Those words bear no relation to the reading experience he describes.
What’s more, Gopnik knows this. How can he not? Anyone smart enough to write the rest of this essay must have known, when he coined that formulation, he was saying something that was not true. He knew, and did it anyway. The pun at the end of the paragraph (“All Dick and no Moby”) was important enough that he could justify the falsity its creation demanded. He wanted to sound clever, and even though that required him to say something untrue, he didn’t care.
It’s one thing to distort experience because you are, at root, unable to capture it. That’s a lack of skill; and though it is a failing, it is not a moral one. But Gopnik has no problem getting experience right, if he wants to. He has the skill; he’s just chooses not to use it. (If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the essay). And that, ultimately, is why passages like these make me so angry—because his failure is not the failure of the mediocre writer. He could say something true, but chooses not to. He would rather sound smart than write the truth. And that IS a moral failing.