NEAL Gabler, the author of two outstanding books based on original research, one on early Hollywood and the other on Walter Winchell, has turned his hand to a genre that is logistically easier to bring off but intellectually more difficult: the book-length argument. A history or a biography has a natural way of organizing itself (that is, chronologically), and its analytic passages don't have to drive the book, because narrative does. Argument is a bonus, a pleasant surprise. In a book constructed so as to make a point, obviously the point is going to have to be able to withstand intense scrutiny.
Gabler's argument here is an interesting, even an arresting one. He says that entertainment, the subject of his previous two books (and of his next one, a biography of Walt Disney), has become increasingly important, and not just because it is a big industry and a leading exporter; its logic and rhythm have become the controlling ones in American life. "Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter both seem to have been wrong," Gabler writes. "It is not any ism but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time -- a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life."
The basic means by which we now organize experience, Gabler says, is the creation of "life movies," or (a great neologism) "lifies," about public figures and about ourselves. These have a structure borrowed from popular entertainment, movies in particular. There has to be a strong central character, a plot line, and a play on the emotions. We are far more absorbed by lifies than by the facts of any situation.