Let us take a moment to appreciate what a finely crafted jab this is, dear readers; it was written by someone who somehow understood that I would be fundamentally disgusted at any comparison, favorable or otherwise, between my work and that of automotive journalism’s sole Pulitzer Prize winner. And just in case my blood hasn’t reached full boil in the first half of the sentence, there’s a throwaway jab at “Trump’s America” just to drive home the point that this person feels himself to be fundamentally superior to me on a socio-economic basis.
Having thus received such a kid-glove slap, I see no issue with devoting a thousand or so words — maybe more, if it proves amusing — in the cause of countering sixteen.
I have no idea if I like Dan Neil; I’ve met him only once and he seemed nice enough, although about as far from a “man’s man” as one could imagine. Not exactly the fellow you’d want as your second in a duel of honor, or even on the other end of a couch during a dorm-room move. What I do not like is Dan’s shtick, which is best described as eighteenth-century travel writing, only with the destination being the grotesque and contemptible world of the automobile. You see, it was once very popular for cultivated Englishmen (and Englishwomen) to go somewhere horrifying, like Australia or West Africa or Scotland (see Johnson’s trip) and to then write about their travels in a way that maximized the horrors of that horrifying place. Herman Melville did the same thing on our side of the Atlantic, writing the hugely popular Omoo and Typee before settling down to write a considerably less popular fiction book about a fellow who wouldn’t stop chasing a whale.
The purpose of these books was twofold. First, to titillate with disgusting or offensive anecdotes; second, to reaffirm the essential rightness of the reader in never going to those places himself. In that respect, the old travel books were very different from today’s travel-magazine pieces, which are designed to sell travel and/or excite some envy of the author. The reader of Omoo would instead experience a profound relief at having no plans whatsoever to visit the South Seas. You finished the book feeling better about staying at home. It’s no wonder that the genre was outrageously popular in an era when travel was hard and most people didn’t have the economic mobility required to leave home with no economic reward in sight for doing so.
Dan Neil’s work, the ostensible best of which can be read here, has that same fundamental purpose: to give you a car-hater’s perspective on a particular car in a manner that reinforces the essential righteousness of your car-hating. From his award-winning E55 review:
The engine of the 2004 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG produces 516 pound-feet of torque between 2,650 and 4,500 rpm. For a lot of people, this sentence means nothing. What, after all, is torque? What is a pound-foot, and is 516 of them a good thing or bad? “Pound-foot” seems like nonsense verse, like early Andre Breton or late Snoop Dogg.
You’ll forgive my being didactic, but the E55 AMG — the ultra-performance version of Mercedes’ E-Class — can’t really be appreciated without some grasp of automotive mechanics. Most cars: They go, they stop, they drink gas and poop exhaust fumes. What’s to explain?
Torque is expressed in pound-feet (or in the metric system, newton-meters, but let’s not go there, OK?). As Archimedes well understood, a lever multiplies force. Imagine you are loosening a rusty bolt. If you use a foot-long wrench and put 100 pounds of pressure on one end, you are applying 100 pound-feet of torque to the bolt.
It all seems so innocent, like chalkboard arithmetic you might remember from high school physics. But for car enthusiasts, these numbers are, well, scary… Here’s a little gearhead dish: While peak horsepower has a certain marquee value, it’s not especially relevant outside of top speed. Acceleration — the sensual, guilty, giddy gestalt of tramping the gas pedal and feeling yourself shoved into the fast-forward scenery — is the product of engine torque pitted against the mass of a car.
I’ll risk one more physics equation: F = Ma. Fun equals mass times acceleration. The E55 has F in abundance… A vast amount of binary code from the Bosch engine management system minutely adjusts the fuel-injection spray and timing for each cylinder.
The autist in me wants to mercilessly nitpick this stuff; “binary code” is nonsensical, and the oft-repeated business about torque and horsepower is easily refuted by anyone who has seen a Honda 600RR run a ten-second quarter with forty-six pound-feet of torque, while an Accord V6 with almost exactly the same amount of torque-to-weight runs fourteens. It doesn’t matter. Dan isn’t known for his insights into actual automobiles; after he and I both drove the new Ghost, he breathlessly told the Wall Street Journal‘s readers that
The Ghost’s body panels flow from headlamps to taillamps without ever traversing a panel gap — a feat of construction that requires four uncommmonly excellent human welders to work simultaneously on the panels, to ensure a continuous seam.
One imagines the General Lee, only with the hood and trunk also welded shut. How else could you have a body without panel gaps? Here’s what happened: we all got a spiel about how the bonnet was welded and adjusted by hand to ensure that it lined up with the cutout for the Flying Lady and the bottoms of the A-pillar. Somehow this got translated into Dan’s notes as “the car has no panel gaps”, and he promptly reported this out to what is increasingly looking like America’s last newspaper of record.
Don’t worry about that. What I want you to see is the distance that he affects between himself and the car — and, by extension, between the readers and the car. He pays the upscale, self-conscious reader that most slippery of compliments: namely, that of assuming that said reader knows no more about automobiles than they do about the effective operation of a crack pipe. The reader fairly glistens with pleasure over this, because as avocations go the automobile is probably the second trashiest one known to modern (bug-)man. (The worst, of course, is that bastard cousin of the automobile known as “powersports”. Charles Murray’s famous “bubble quiz” should have asked readers if they knew the difference between an ATV and a SxS.)
It seems obvious, therefore, that the Pulitzer committee would award their prize for automotive journalism to someone who clearly detests cars — or at least pretends to — because, after, all, they hate cars too. All right-thinking people do. How could it be otherwise? So Neil’s ironic distance is catnip for them. This modern affectation of pretending to affirm something by affirming its opposite is everywhere you look in media. Most notably you see it in the writers who claim they “love America” and then affirm their love by telling you an inspiring story of a recent immigrant from Eritrea who melts down Revolutionary War statues to make giant bronze fist-with-middle-finger-extended sculptures which are then pointed at the second-floor windows of VA nursing homes or something like that.
(Sidebar: Almost thirty years ago, some writer sat jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis down and played “Jazz (We Got)” by A Tribe Called Quest for him. “What do you think of the new jazz music?” the writer, who was white, asked — no doubt expecting to hear Marsalis offer some sort of genuflection to rap as The Sacred Black Music For A New Generation.
“This isn’t jazz — it’s trash, and it’s the opposite of jazz,” Marsalis replied, causing much consternation. To Wynton’s credit, he has not changed his mind in the years since. Even Ron Carter, who played bass on the Tribe Called Quest track in question, ended up having little respect for the so-called fusion of jazz and hip-hop. Full disclosure, however: I think The Low End Theory, the source of that track, is a great album.)
Of course, only an idiot would accuse me of not loving cars. I’ve demonstrated my unfeigned affection for the automobile everywhere from my Equifax record to podium finishes in at least thirteen different classes of motorsport and overall wins in seven. Rather, my critic is accusing me of copying Neil’s style, which he mostly perceives as a machine-gun rattle of name-dropping. From that same E55 review, Neil manages to mention
and, as they say, more! Neil also indulges in a lot of what feels like thesaurus-searching: a smile is inevitably a “rictus”, and we get a lot of reinforcement or pairing like “guilty, giddy” or “regal and elegant, expressive and exclusive”. All of this is done in the cause of making you understand Just How Distant Dan Is From The Grubby Cars And Grubbier Car People. There is a lot of language for language’s sake.
Therefore, the claim that I’m “burning up a search bar” to be “Dan Neil for Trump’s America” implies that I sit down and try to write the same kind of look-at-how-sophisticated-I-am stuff, only for the rubes out there who actually like cars. It amounts to the proverbial praising with faint damns, and I’m not totally unwilling to accept this critique. I’m one of the rubes and hicks out there in “Trump’s America” who really likes cars. Guilty as charged. The next time you hold a climate-change summit at a remote private airfield that can only be reached via G650, feel free to un-invite me.
The funny thing about the “search bar” dig, however, is that it reminded me how little thematic variety I put into my work. I have a fairly narrow range of non-automotive interests:
Brit-lit from Chaucer to 1798 (the year Coleridge and Wordworth ruined everything)
American lit from Hawthorne to the pre-Boomers like Roth and Updike
Popular music from 1930 to 1990
Military history from the Greeks up to the day the choppers left Saigon
Roman history from the Republic to the collapse
A little science and engineering, mostly to do with basic theoretical math and CompSci
The occasional bit of representational art
Some stuff that people call art but is really craft (like, say, Chihuly’s stuff)
Architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Theology and morality, from the Old Testament up to, say, Karl Barth
Twentieth century tailoring
No matter if you pick up my Some Prefer Nettles ‘zine from 1990 or read yesterday’s “Avoidable Contact”, you’ll hear the same notes being played again and again. It’s always Pope or Dryden, never Wordworth or Robert Frost. Always Seventies rock, never Sixties; always Chuck D and never House of Pain. If I need an allusion to warfare, it’s Western Front, not Eastern. When I want to quote another autowriter, you won’t get Vegas to take your bet on it being either Bedard or Setright.
In other words, if I’m using a search bar, I’m not using it very well. This is easily demonstrated by reading me back-to-back with Dan Neil, who never repeats an allegory or refers to anything twice. Each and every one of his reviews stands on fresh ground. For his 2003 Mini Cooper review, he churns through John Masefield, Edmund Burke, Sam Philips, Saddam Hussein, and the “amniotic hush” of a Lexus LS430. Left jab! Right hook! Then again with the left! And you’ll never see this material again, dear reader; Neil mentions Burke just twice in his entire body of published work, the other time it’s a quote, used five years later in the context of the Volt and Fusion Hybrid.
I am afraid that I have no such predictable novelty. Pope’s Epistle to Arbuthnot makes its way into something like twenty-five of my columns or reviews over the years, which makes it slightly more common than my quoting of Setright’s belief that an automatic transmission and the turbocharger are perfectly matched, “because one will be at work when the other is not.” W. Axl Rose is frequent, but no more frequent than Marcus Aurelius. Twice I wrote about a particular woman’s ability to raise her voice to painful levels at a moment’s notice. Once I compared her to a Telarc CD, the other time I used musical notation, but it’s the same joke told two different ways.
My lack of variety can be explained like so: I like my frequent readers to feel comfortable in what I write. They should have a fair idea about what I’m going to say even as I’m saying it, the same way I could predict the precise finishing order of C/D comparison tests for about 15 years just by looking at the names of the cars. I’m not here to shock you or upset you. We are here to enjoy ourselves. So there’s no sense in continually making you reach for a reference work. Once you know that I use “yclept” instead of “called”, occasionally and just for fun, you’ll never have to think about it again. I’m not here to make you suffer. That’s the real reason I don’t have a Neil-esque command of simile and metaphor.
Also, I’m hugely lazy about writing and rarely bother to do a second draft of anything, much less research some tasty little cultural nuggets ahead of time.
All of that being said, it occurs to me that there is such a thing as being too comfortable. Therefore, in the year to come I’m going to spend a lot more time reading and learning as much as a I can, with the goal being to change things up a bit. Feel free to complain or praise as you see fit.
One last thing: while I was looking for the source of Neil’s Pulitzer Prize I came across this interesting essay about said prize. Using my own cherished Imperial Leader, a certain Larry Webster, as the example, the author writes
Car critics differ from art critics in several interesting ways. Both rely on expert knowledge and skills of assessment and interpretation. They both also reveal personal taste: one man’s ugly SUV may be another man’s “cute ‘ute.” In addition to these attributes, though, the car critic needs more highly developed physical skills. He literally has to make the car perform, to test it the way a musician might test the abilities of an instrument, to whose performance the music critic then intelligently listens. When Car and Driver’s Larry Webster compares the Porsche Carrera’s 0-60 mph acceleration to that of the Ferrari Enzo, he writes “Although we tried our best, the Carrera is extremely hard to get off the line clearly” (June 2004, p. 44). If he had trouble, we’ll have trouble.
She makes an interesting point. In music, you have the musician, and you have the music critic. A musician plays, and the critic evaluates. The autowriter, on the other hand, has to both perform and evaluate. At the same time. This is where the vast majority of autowriters fall down; they can’t play the tune well enough to know if it’s written well. In this respect, at least, I hope my critic, and all of you, will give me the nod over virtually all of my rivals. I might not always hit you with the one-two punch of mythology and pop culture, but I always perform the most honest, thorough, and appropriate evaluation possible. Time and again I’ve shown that I can drive these cars at the same pace as did the people who developed them. It’s true that I would be a more engaging authorial companion were I to use that “search bar” a little better — but,
AND HERE COMES A REFERENCE I’VE MAYBE NEVER USED BEFORE
when I hear the word “culture”, I reach for the visor release on my helmet!