November 2002

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America By Dan Savage

Dear Dan,

Trust me, I'm aware that you didn't specifically write me asking for advice on your new book, Skipping Towards Gomorrah. And hell, since the book has already been released, any advice you get about it now is sort of moot anyway. But I think it's more than coincidence that your publisher should just happen to send a review copy of your book to my editor. You're clearly crying out for help, Dan, and you need it. Allow me to be of assistance.

You have more experience giving advice than I do, since you've been writing your sex column Savage Love (clever, dude) for ten years. But I think even you'd admit that writing an advice column is an extremely easy job. (I'm going to try to prove this by convincing Jessa to give me a Bookslut advice column.) Writing a book is harder.

It helps if you have a point. Particularly if you're writing persuasive nonfiction, as you do in Gomorrah. This book definitely has a theme -- it's spelled out in your subtitle -- and it has a gimmick. It's not a bad one, either. You go in search of Americans who are guilty of the respective sins, and try to commit a few yourself. This sounds interesting in theory, but when you add your social-libertarian polemics to the mix, it just comes out a confused mess. I've got to ask: What's the point? Is this just preaching to the choir, or do you actually think conservatives are going to be convinced by your "Newt Gingrich is fat" brand of humor?

Here's how you sum up your book's mission: "Part travelogue, part memoir, part Bork-and-Bennett bitch slap, this book is a love letter to Thomas Jefferson, American freedom, and American sinners." I'm having trouble believing you wrote that sentence with anything resembling a straight face. The book I read was an occasionally entertaining chronicle of a journalist meeting sinners, and periodically discussing how much he hates Pat Buchanan. And by the way, new rule: Anyone who uses the phrase "bitch slap" is an asshole. Don't you have any sympathy at all for, say, the female escort you hire in the last chapter?

I think you're capable of much more than this, Dan. Keep this in your mind when you write your next book, which, I have a feeling, is inevitable:

(1) If you're going to bring up a controversy from your own past, do your readers a favor and address it. The fact that you pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge that basically amounted to voting fraud does, in fact, call your credibility into question. Gag order or no, getting your lawyer to write a few paragraphs "explaining" your behavior is quite lame. It might be easier to just stop voting in other state's caucuses. Your call.

(2) Feel free to show a little compassion toward your subjects. You could start by actually telling the people you meet, off the bat, that you're a journalist. And it's hard to take your defense of, say, gluttony seriously when you keep making fat jokes. You're dealing with some of society's most sensitive, troubled people. You treat gambling as a lark in your chapter on greed, ignoring the huge number of addicted gamers for whom gambling really is a problem. This book was supposed to be a "love letter" to American sinners. Where's the love, dude? In this book, just like in your column, you walk a fine line between "down-to-earth straight shooter" and "bitter asshole." Guess which side you have to err on if you want anyone to trust you enough to give them advice?

(3) Before you try to convince your readers to believe something, convince yourself first. There are some contradictions in your philosophy; you admitted as much on a recent cable talk show when you said that gay bathhouses should be outlawed. Embrace the contradictions. It's OK to be confused. It's also OK to express a marked distaste for other people's actions. You feel that way about bathhouses; why does it surprise and offend you that other people feel that way about swingers? You spend this book defending a thesis that you're not fully committed to.

Look, Dan, I feel kind of bad being so negative about your book, but you're writing at about 30% of your talent level. You've got to cut that out. Besides, I figured an advice columnist, of all people, would be receptive to taking counsel from a complete stranger. Good luck on your next project, and be sure to let me know how it goes.

Sincerely,
Mike

Confidential to Jonathan F.: We all know you're sorry for what you said about Oprah. Now shut the fuck up.

Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America by Dan Savage
E. P. Dutton
ISBN: 0525946756
320 Pages