Several critics, who in the past have lavished praise on Lewis' intelligence and fine, witty writing, have been less kind to "Next." Its thrust, some have said, may have been new while Lewis was writing, but it reads like an artifact of the '90s now. His writing is wonderful as usual, others said, but his examples illustrate nothing except that--surprise--lonely, depressed adolescents are still as irritating as they are poignant. Some accused him of hyping the impact of Internet "experts"; others accused him of downplaying the real damage that can be done when children are taken too seriously by credulous people. Still others accused Lewis of naivete and shallow thinking. "The popular media have always tended to portray digital culture in binary terms of alarm (pornographers, hackers, thieves) or hype (everything will change forever)," tech author Jon Katz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Lewis seems to be falling into the latter trap."
Lewis acknowledges that "there are things I don't like about the book, but they're things I don't like about the subject--mainly that it has to be broken up by its nature, so there's no narrative." Also, not surprisingly, he regrets having allowed so much of it to have been published early. His belief that the Internet revolution is only beginning, however, is something for which he doesn't apologize. The online world is not going away, he notes, and despite the economic downturn, Silicon Valley "has this endless capacity for self-reinvention. I don't know how, but I have no doubt it will reinvent itself."
"Nobody had been let into Jonathan Lebed's life, and the terms [dictated by Lebed's lawyer] of my being allowed in were that it had to run as a magazine article first," Lewis says. The decision meant that a big chunk of the slender book was old news by the time it was published. "I wish I hadn't done that," he says.
But enough about "Next." On to the Inquiring Minds. And, in answer to the fans of Lewis' first book, "Liar's Poker," no, he doesn't regret becoming a writer.
"For a year, it was a gas," Lewis says of his stint at Salomon Brothers, where he made $500,000 dollars in his mid-20s selling specialized bonds. "But then it just became about making money." At the time, he was just out of the London School of Economics by way of Princeton University, where he'd been an art history major. Throughout his Wall Street period, he had been writing freelance magazine articles under pen names and gathering string for "Liar's Poker."
"I remember when I got the book contract to write 'Liar's Poker,' and it was a British and American sale and, I forget the advance, but the number that sticks in my mind was $56,000, or about that. It was a 10th of what I was going to make the next year at Salomon Brothers, and I was so excited I was jumping up and down," he recalls. "And my father [an old-line New Orleans attorney] goes, 'You're not going to do this, are you?' And I said, 'You bet I'm going to do this! This is what I've been living for!' And he goes, 'No-no-no-no. No. You want to stay. Just a couple of years. Put it in perspective. Stay. Couple more years. Get rich. Perspective.' And I said, 'No-no-no-no. No. Gotta do it. Gotta do it now."'
Lewis, then barely 30, went from the trading floor to becoming a successful magazine writer even as his first marriage, to his college sweetheart, went under. "In a flurry of sexual indiscretion, I met this woman, married her 10 days after I met her, justice of the peace in New York, just kind of went and did it, don't know why--well, I do know why," he laughs.
The second wife, model-turned-business writer Kate Bohner, became the unnamed subject of a hilarious, revealing and bizarrely controversial essay in the New Republic. Readers freaked at Lewis' references to his 'terrifyingly beautiful" wife with the "perfectly shaped bottom" that drew crowds in airports. "One does not merely marry a beautiful woman," he wrote, "one is cast in the Sancho Panzaesque role of Witness to Beauty."
The response was scathing. "It is discouraging to know that one of your staffers has nothing better to write about than how women are sex objects," one reader huffed. "Our household is laying odds on how long the Michael Lewis-Bloomingdale's model marriage will hold up," another reader wrote--presciently, as it turned out. The marriage ended a short time later, though not before Lewis could fire off his response to the critics: "And she can cook, too."
"It was just a funny little piece, meant to be touching," Lewis says. "If I'd written it for Elle magazine, nobody would have paid attention to it." In 1997--a year in which one of his ex-girlfriends told Vanity Fair that Lewis should have "psychotherapy for the rest of his life, and a warning label"--he married Soren, the MTV personality he had met while the two were covering the campaign trail. Soren, Lewis said happily, liked the New Republic piece. On the subject of his personal life, however, Lewis is more poignant.