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Speak Now

In G. K. Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades, the detective Grant describes a new kind of con artist on the scene: "[T]he Organizer of Repartee . . . a swindler of a perfectly delightful and novel kind. He hires himself out at dinner-parties to lead up to other people's repartees. According to a preconcerted scheme . . . he says the stupid things he has arranged for himself, and his client says the clever things arranged for him. In short, he allows himself to be scored off for a guinea a night." I learned about the Organizer of Repartee by  reading Catherine Blyth's The Art of Conversation, which is cited all too briefly in Daniel Menaker’s book. When spooning a modicum of praise on A Good Talk, it is apposite to heap gobs of it on Blyth's book and Stephen Miller's more historical Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, because they are excellent books, and also because the appearance of three books, in as many years, bent on rescuing conversation may tell us something about our times.

What it tells us is something we already knew. We are e-mailing and texting and tweeting and Facebooking more, and talking less. Although "in touch with" more people than ever, to use a quaint and now ironically false phrase, we are less able to speak happily, wittily, or engagingly with them. The decline of good talk is like the antiquation of formal dance: to overcome our embarrassed ineptitude, we hire "party motivators" to help wedding guests boogie down, and for a similar reason we might crave an Organizer of Repartee. The authors of all these books are, in a way, auditioning for that position. The problem, of course, is that writing about talking is even harder than talking about writing. Talk about the writing process and you are liable to seem pedantic, or self-congratulatory, or whiny; but write about the talking process and you're basically saying, "I'm a charmer!" And what is less charming than that?

In Menaker's introduction, he offers this synopsis of his book: "Distilling an approach to conversation based on the meeting of the two sample talkers of chapters 3 and 4 and the peeve-remedial efforts of chapter 5, the next chapter will rip your head half-off with its insight, drama, vampires, political skulduggery (sic), and wet T-shirt-vs.-Chippendales photo-essay. No, really, that last clause contains (I hope) molecules of the three qualities of a good conversationalist that I have found essential.... And they will, just a little less excitingly, be the real subject of chapter 6." That is the dominant tone of the book: arch neologisms like "peeve-remedial," faux self-deprecation ("molecules"), double-faux self-deprecation ("(I hope) molecules"), and the breezy mockery of one's own topic—insight, drama, vampires, Chippendales, blah, blah, etc.—deployed to cover an embarrassing truth, which in this case is that the idea for a book never got properly cooked into an actual book.

There is no accounting for taste, and some people may find  this mash-up of popular history, autobiography, anthropological treatise, and etiquette guide winning, in the way that one is allowed to find "Car Talk" hilarious, or televised golf compelling. But I winced at jokes like "the use of tools ... required early man except the Jews and the Italians to cut down on the hand gestures and ramp up the larynx," and "Women will want to 'try' others' food. Men find this very trying." I winced not only at the trite stereotypes, but also at the smug bonhomie, as if we all can take a joke, even if it's a bad one. It's the humorous side of a man who at one point mentions, ever so casually, "[m]y friend McGrath," whom insiders—but only insiders—will recognize as the former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath. Knowingness can ruin a conversation, or a book.  

We'll get back to McGrath in a moment. But first we should be clear about what this book is. After a brief amateur history of conversation, in which Menaker leans heavily on Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, we meet "[t]he two sample talkers of chapters 3 and 4," Menaker and a younger, female writer. For this section, Menaker tape-recorded a conversation the two had in a restaurant, then redacted the transcript and republished it in this book, with lengthy annotations between snatches of, as he calls them, "Fred" and "Ginger's" dialogue. (The transcript and commentary form about a quarter of the book.) Menaker's commentary is quite smart, and while in a different, more concentrated book this section would have been an appendix, it niftily captures the dance of conversation, especially between two interested and interesting people who don't know each other well but would like to. Leaving himself behind for a moment, Menaker then offers some funny and useful advice for conversation: on changing the subject, on dealing with bores, on getting past inadvertent (or intentional) insults, on mobile-phone and e-mail etiquette. And he concludes with disquisitions on his trinity of conversational virtues: curiosity, humor, and impudence.

If Menaker simply wished to write a short, highly personal book on conversation, he ought to have expanded his lists of do's and don’ts and been freer with the how-to's and what-not-to-do's. He is a wonderful counselor and taxonomist, and his tone when discussing, say, insults is compassionate, witty, and wise. "By all means, be insulted by insults," Menaker writes. "Get angry, look indignant, bridle away. But listen to them, too. Even though their behavior may be rude, people who cross the conversational line this way often convey some truth about you that you'd rather not deal with. Sometimes they're the only people who will tell you things you don't want to hear but should." Had Menaker dropped the name-dropping and the self-conscious philosophizing, had he just gleefully worn his own mantle of sociable authority, he could have written a primer that did for conversation what Paul Fussell did for Class, or what Christian Lander did for Stuff White People Like.

Or, better still, Menaker might have ramped up the name-dropping and written the book I suspect he wanted to write: a memoir of his years in publishing. By the time Menaker had mentioned—and dished about, and sometimes deliciously insulted—Harold Ross, William Shawn, Lillian Ross, Eleanor Gould Packard, Maeve Brennan, Pauline Kael, Charles McGrath, Gardner Botsford, and David Remnick, I almost began to feel sorry for these huddled New Yorker eminences, yearning to breathe free. It is apparent that Menaker is himself an Organizer of Repartee. Having retired from both magazine and book publishing, he is in that best stage of life, the honest one. He has a lot to tell, and he has earned the right to a little indiscretion. But gossip is a lesser form of conversation, and the serious question of good talk is left pretty much unanswered.

Mark Oppenheimer is the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, to be published in April. He writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times.