Oh, get those pickle-tasting expressions off your faces; maybe you're missing the point. Here we are in the 1990s, with the publishing industry inches from becoming road kill on the information superhighway. Yet two busy and successful radio and TV personalities have each gone to all the old-fashioned trouble of concocting best-selling books. Shouldn't bibliophiles feel gratified that Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh still consider print a higher self-validation?
Instead, books such as Limbaugh's "See, I Told You So"--a follow-up to his Bible Belt bible "The Way Things Ought To Be"--and Stern's shock-jock autobiography "Private Parts" make the genteel minority want to holler rape, and with cause. What we're seeing is a cultural version of the displacement that so flustered our political owls last year, when Dan Rather learned with consternation that he now counted for less than some nattering CNN shill with a phone bank in the all-important business of helping voters understand their own priorities.
In fact, the Limbaughs and Sterns were always out there--or down there, in the rank pop undergrowth that cultivated folk once didn't mind letting grow wild. However many millions of fans swore by them, at them, or both, such performers weren't supposed to matter, because higher-minded media mavens still got to shape the public's impression of which of its own cultural interests were worthwhile: OK to the Beatles and even "Dallas," but thumbs down on dwarf-tossing and "The Gong Show." What's getting people upset now about the likes of Stern and Limbaugh isn't just their noisy, vulgar prominence but their new consequence. It's one thing if the hoi polloi prefer Howard Stern to the news: nobody cares. But once they decide Stern \o7 is\f7 the news, it's Katie Couric, bar the door.
By definition, in both men's books we're getting at best a bastardized version of what they really do. That's also true of their TV work--Stern's E! network dinner-theater of cruelty, Limbaugh's syndicated half-hour harangues. Their metier is radio, where both are--it would be stupid to deny this--superlative craftsmen. Many who can't stand Limbaugh's politics, but love the art of radio, admit he's one of the best; as for Stern, to preside over the audio melees he instigates day after day takes phenomenal technique. The books they put their names on, by contrast, are assembled rather than written. Stern, whose charm is in what he shrugs off, is cheerfully frank about this. Limbaugh, whose first book (according to Michael Arkush's useful quickie bio "Rush!") was largely the work of Wall Street Journal writer John Fund, stays more coy. His acknowledgments thank over half-a-dozen helpmeets for structural pointers, research and unspecified "assistance"--all the accepted euphemisms.
In Limbaugh's book, the seams show. For plodding pages at a time, most of its chapters clot into doggedly argued, reasoned if not reasonable tracts against familiar Limbaugh goat-getters such as feminists or the environmental movement. This is leavened only occasionally by interjected trademark Rush-isms--"Thank goodness I'm here to straighten all this out"--as if someone had suddenly remembered to stick in some of the act. From a man who's made no bones about putting entertainment value first, "See, I Told You So" doles out the fun in skimpy doses.
But in Stern's case, the assembly format suits his style, because he loves the seams. His book's a slapdash collage of transcribed reminiscences, bits culled from his radio show, mock quizzes and spur-of-the-moment random rants, its text broken up with reproduced hate mail and boxed comments from colleagues and family--even in print, his yen is to get a conversation going. If "Private Parts" weren't so distended--446 pages gilds the lily, and a good many weeds along with it--it might be a classic of disreputable American humor. As it is, it's a mess that's often howlingly funny.
One way both men benefit from print is that, on paper, their targets stay more abstract. You don't have to actually hear or see the hapless stooges, from hookers to doddering dignitaries, whom Stern enlists as fodder for his act. In his book, he hurls the epithet "humorless" at those of his verbal hit-and-run victims who don't immediately consent to being treated on his terms, which means to be degraded for his benefit. (Still, David Letterman is just as brutal when it comes to treating handy "little people"--immigrant cabbies, shopkeepers--as human props; is it Letterman's salary, or his suit, that makes his behavior more acceptable?) And since one of Limbaugh's purposes in "See, I Told You So" is to appear more temperate, thoughtful and substantive than he's perceived to be, you won't catch him outright ridiculing the homeless, say, or mocking Chelsea Clinton's looks, as he often has on his show.