At My Wit’s End

"The wittiest writer alive" finds it hard to live up to his title

Possibly you are not aware of this, but I happen to be “the wittiest writer alive”. I wasn’t aware of it, either, but that is what the late William F. Buckley, Jr. seems to have called me, in a review of a book of mine titled Snobbery: The American Version. I don’t recall much about the review, except that he seemed to like the book – my memory for insults is much keener than that for praise – and that I wished while reading it that his own review had been more amusing. I am not, as you can see, the most grateful writer alive.

Mr Buckley called me “the wittiest writer alive” in the pages of The New Criterion. I didn’t mind that this was conveyed to the noble readers of this excellent but relatively small-circulation magazine, but hoped it would go no further. But now, alas, it has. My brief Wikipedia entry, I recently discovered, concludes: “The late William F. Buckley, Jr…. called Epstein the wittiest writer alive.”

Promoting a book at a local suburban library recently, I was introduced as, on the authority of William F. Buckley, Jr., “the wittiest writer alive”. I am to give a talk soon to the benefactors of a Chicago Jewish educational institution, where, in the printed invitation, I am described as “the keynote speaker”, an “esteemed author”, contributor to a few OK magazines, and – you guessed it – the wittiest writer alive, according to the late William F. Buckley, Jr.”

Clearly, in the years remaining to me, I shall have to carry this little blurb – “the wittiest writer alive” – with me on my back. On my back, hell, tattooed on my forehead is more like it. The problem is that I have no wish to be “the wittiest writer alive”. I don’t feel that I can live up to it. A cheerful dullness, my general modus operandi, is now no longer available to me. I can too easily imagine conversations between other couples after my wife and I depart dinner parties. “That guy, the wittiest writer alive? You’ve got to be kidding. He seemed pretty damned boring to me.”

Given a choice, I should much prefer to be “the fourth or fifth wittiest writer alive”, or, “arguably, among the dozen or so mildly witty American writers under six feet tall”. These I could live with. As for my being the wittiest writer alive, I fear I am stuck with it, and the only solace I can take is that, owing to the word “alive”, at least it won’t appear on my tombstone.

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