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DC at Night

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Hilarious Take on Titles Rejected for Tall Tales Told

When Chris Buckley speaks, everyone laughs
Author Christopher Buckley has a big problem. Recognized as one of America's most humorous satirists, he says it is getting harder and harder to make stuff up that is funnier than what is really happening in America today.

For example, take one of Buckley's latest book tours. Here is how he described one incident from that tour to a tent full of fans this past weekend at the National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress.

"Well, you know those book blurbs. Sometimes, I just make them up. I had written that I had worked for every president since William Howard Taft (1909 to 1913). So I had an AM drive-time interview. Now, AM drive-time is not really the occasion for Socratic dialogue. You have kind of a sliding scale of interviewers.  At the top you have Terry Gross of NPR and then, down at the Jurassic level, you have AM talk show jocks. I got to the studio and I saw the DJ speed reading my book jacket for an in-depth interview."

Before they went on the air, the radio jock asked him: "So, you used to work for William Howard Taft?"

"I thought, oh what the hell, so I said, yeah."

"Can we talk about that?," the DJ asked.

"And we did," Buckley said, as the crowd laughed uproariously. "Needless to say, I wasn't asked back on the show, but it was worth it."

Buckley said that with so many books coming out each year (400,000 he said, with half of them written by Joyce Carol Oates, who was speaking after him) it was becoming more and more difficult to come up with a good book title. He said he was having such a problem with his new book, which he promised, although he wouldn't talk about it, "was very reasonably priced and attractively packaged".

Titles are supposed to mean something, Buckley contended. "Like when I saw 50 Shades of Gray, I thought it was about decorating. Boy was I in for a surprise," he said. Then there are the foreign sales to be considered. When John Steinbeck's classic Grapes of Wrath was released in Japan, the English title translation said Angry Raisins. "I wonder how Moby Dick made out?" Buckley rhetorically asked.

For the next 30 minutes or so, Buckley took the crowd through the process of trying to come up with a name for his new work of previously published essays that his publishers would accept.

His 1st suggestion was Want to Buy a Dictator? That title came from an article that he wrote for Forbes magazine. Here's how Buckley tells the tale.

"When the Soviet Union was breaking up and Russia was in financial trouble, I thought about (their former leader V. I) Lenin, who was displayed in his tomb. You know, kind of the Sleeping Beauty from Hell. So I decided to write a false story about them (the Russians) trying to auction off Lenin's corpse for hard currency. First, of course, I had to come up with a reasonable price for a dead Commie dictator. $15 million seemed about right"

"When we published the story, the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree so we went home so we wouldn't have to lie. That night I was watching Peter Jennings (on the nightly news) and he was talking about (the Lenin story)"

"The next morning, I got a call from ( uber-rich magazine owner) Steve Forbes. Now this was the guy who signed my check. It was pretty early for Steve to call. In fact, Steve Forbes had never called me. He said the Russians are going ballistic. They were calling me a brazen liar and an international provocateur ... and I thought ... cool."

But that wasn't the end of the story. In reality, the Kremlin became deluged with offers for the dead Lenin. One Dallas, Texas multi-millionaire offered $37 million. "I have talked to our designers and I have been told that Mr. Lenin would make a fine addition to our lobby," he was supposed to have announced.

"So you can see it is pointless to use satire. You're in a losing competition with tomorrow's front page," Buckley said, telling the crowd that the publishers would print the story but not use the related title for the entire book".

At this point Buckley digressed to reaffirm his contention that real-life is far more funny than any satire he could create. "I was in Dallas, Texas (must be something about Texas and Dallas) where I was speaking to a group of women and this lady introduced me as a satyrist. And she didn't just say it once, she kept on saying it. And I couldn't help thinking that this crowd of nice, blue-haired old ladies were thinking - why had the (speakers) committee chosen to have a sex pervert address them at 11 a..m?"

Then Buckley returned to his titling tale. His next suggestion was Bassholes. This came from an article he did about the growth of interest in fly fishing. "I told them there was a hunger in the land for a book called Bassholes. I have done the market research.." Unfortunately, the publishers didn't share that hunger and rejected that title also.

Undaunted, Buckley turned to an experience he had as a young 29-year-old English major chosen as a speech writer for then vice-president George H. W. Bush. He wanted to title the book Look Out, President Park.

It seems that when Buckley was hired, he was taken for training in what to do if he were on the scene of an attempted assassination. "Of course, John Wilkes Booth had killed Abraham Lincoln to avenge the entire South and John Hinkley had attempted to kill President Reagan to avenge Jodie Foster, which kind of speaks to the trajectory of idealism in American assassinations".

Anyway, Buckley was taken to a room where he was subjected to a series of what he called America's least funny assassination videos. However, one video was much different. It was an actual filming of an attempt on the life of then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Here is how Buckley describes the filmed scene.

"President Park was giving a talk and this guy walked up toward him, pulls out a .357 magnum. He takes his time and then you hear blam, blam, blam. And you see President Park sink down behind the podium as if this happened all the time. You could see him thinking - I hate this part. I'm dying up here".

Suddenly the guards sprung into action. "They began spraying the front row with machine gun fire. One of the guards rushed to take cover behind Mrs. Park. He was using the 1st Lady as a shield".

At the end of the session, an extremely serious official told Buckley he had 2 choices - you either duck or take the round.

Buckley said he had a quick response.  "What was that second part, again?," he said he asked. "I was reasonably sure if it came to that, I would take the duck, but I did want to hear the second choice again".

But Look Out, President Park was also rejected. So, even though he never had to face gun fire, Buckley's next suggestion - Thu - came from one of his most deadly days as a vice-presidential speech writer. In his writing for Vice President Bush, he had included a quote by the ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides. The speech was going splendidly until Bush got to the quote. "Thu ... Thu.. Thu," he said, stumbling over the name. Bush, certainly, as a Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, no dummy, tried again. But all that came out was "Thu ... Thu ..." Finally, on a 3rd try he got it right. After the speech, a glowering Admiral came up to Buckley and intoned, "The next time use Plato."

Despite Buckley's supporting story, the publishers said there was no way Thu worked as a title. Buckley then broke into the background for yet another suggestion, this time I Wish I Had Said That. However, before he could complete the story, his allotted time expired.

And so, while greatly entertained, the crowd never did find out exactly what the official title of Buckley's forthcoming work would be. But I'm 97.6% sure that most of them - me included - were going to buy the book, no matter what the title actually is. If we can only stop laughing long enough to get to the bookstore.

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