03/20/2008 09:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Fascination with Christopher Hitchens

Today, during my mid-afternoon media stroll, I happened upon an article in the Village Voice examining Eliot Spitzer's lust. Except it wasn't an article on Eliot Spitzer's lust--it was article on Christopher Hitchens on Eliot Spitzer's lust. It turns out Hitchens had offered a take on Spitzer and that this, by itself, was newsworthy. The take wasn't particularly impressive--Hitchens offered the novel idea that men go into politics to get laid--but neither was it particularly awful. It was just ordinary, with Spitzer's hi-jinx placed alongside those of Bill Clinton and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. There were no witticisms, no insights to be gleaned, nor even any delicious wordplay to be had. It was just...ordinary.

And it struck me that this article was impossible to imagine with any other writer's name being substituted for Christopher Hitchens'. Not Salman Rushdie, not Ian McEwan, not even J.K. Rowlings attracts the same kind of fascination that Christopher Hitchens--or "Hitch" as he's often called, even by those who don't know him--regularly does. There is no other living writer on Earth that attracts the strange attention--from the press and from allegedly celebrity-hating intellectuals--that Hitchens does. To find one, we'd have to go back, all the way, I think, to Ernest Hemingway. Yes, all the way to Papa, with his boxing and his boozing and his brawling.

Think I'm exaggerating? Allow me to quote from this New York Observer piece, which recalls a student's run-in with the British-born journalist:

"After class my friend Sophie and I tailed him to the elevator, where he was chatting with Steve Wasserman, former book review editor of The Los Angeles Times, and a lissome brunette with a book contract: stiff competition.

“Mr. Hitchens, I just want to tell you what a fan I am,” said Sophie, extending her hand. Catching her London accent, he smiled and said, “Well, you’re a long way from home. Would you like a drink?”

“Of course,” Sophie replied, a bit surprised, eyeing the floor indicator on the rapidly approaching elevator.

“Great,” he said, “who knows the closest place?”

It reads like an article in Tiger Beat or Big Popper, this obsequiousness. From the already-infamous photographs of Hitchens getting his genitals waxed to a forthcoming book on his political thought, Hitchens is the rare writer-as-celebrity that most writers dream of being. Fame just doesn't happen to writers anymore, if it ever did.

Why? Why is Christopher Hitchens the center of so many people's attention? I suspect it has much to do with his personality as his writing. His drinking, his smoking, his willingness--nay, his desire--to verbally rumble with others appeals to many intellectuals and readers. In a day when most writers outdo each other to be politically correct and likable and, well, normal, Hitchens seems to be alright with being despised--which, paradoxically, makes him loved. It would all seem so calculated, as if he sat down with a marketer and planned out his public image as a rebel, were he not unique in his political opinions.

Which brings me to Hitchens' writing. I confess to enjoying Hitchens' writing. I don't admire it, or envy it, or particularly respect it, in the way I do of, say, John Judis of the New Republic's writing. I don't look to it for wisdom or insight, which limits its value. In fact, I think the brilliance of Hitchens' style--and it is brilliant--distracts one from the shoddiness of his thought. On Iraq, he has been spectacularly wrong. And not just on Iraq. On Winston Churchill, on JFK, on the Clintons, on Mother Teresa, on Israel, on Reagan, and, not least, on women--on all of this, and on a great deal more, Hitchens is wide off the mark. And yet, can anyone admit they don't enjoy his wrong-ness? Which writer, when he or she is incorrect, would one rather read? I admit I can think of no other. And I suspect you can't either. Which is why so many listen when Hitchens speaks, even when what he says is utter nonsense. Nonsense never sounded so good.