Mallon v. Portraits – God of the Machine
Jun 252002

Thomas Mallon, whom I generally like — he wrote Stolen Words, an excellent book on plagiarism that I’ve occasionally plagiarized myself — decides to have at The New York Times‘s “Portraits of Grief”:

[A]nyone depressed over his weight became a “gentle giant” and every binge drinker was the life of the party. As the Portraits accumulated over weeks and months, I began performing mental translations, from a sugary base 8 to a real-life base 10. The fifty-four-year-old vegetarian office temp, a bachelor with “strong opinions” who preferred “short-term jobs,” was, I would bet, an absolutely impossible man; but I would prefer to have known him rather than the bland reincarnation forced to share a page with the other murdered souls under headings like “The Joys of Fatherhood” and “Perpetual Motion.” If Rudolph W. Giuliani had perished in the attacks, as he nearly did, he would be remembered in the Portraits as a rabid Yankees fan who sometimes liked to put on lipstick.

Tim Noah, who excerpted this in Slate for those of us who don’t take The American Scholar, compares the Portraits unfavorably to the Times obituaries, which Mallon praises elsewhere. Surely this is unfair. It’s far easier to write of distinguished people, with real achievements, than of hundreds of more or less anonymous murder victims, especially when you get more space. And how hard is it to translate even Mallon’s own example from octal to decimal? The 54-year-old vegetarian office temp was so obviously impossible that I see no need to say so. No doubt you would get a fuller picture of the man having known him. Are the Portraits worthless on that account?

Go read them. Of the thirteen posted today maybe three are irredeemable treacle. Considering the assignment that’s a pretty good track record.

  2 Responses to “Mallon v. Portraits”

  1. It’s way too easy to take potshots at Portraits of Grief. 3000 dead, and not a single asshole! But you can’t compare it to obituaries for the simple reason that it isn’t journalism. It’s a memorial that happens to be published in the newspaper.

  2. These portraits indulge the public’s fear of anonymous, inconsequential existence more than they serve the deceased. Why are they necessary at all?

    No one in those buildings deserved to die. But does that mean that they deserve to be memorialized by the entire community?

    What of the senseless victims of drunk driving?

    Obituaries are reserved for those whose existence had some noticeable impact on their community — not mere membership in it.

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