Saturday, December 18, 2010

Daddy Dearest: NYT's Deborah Solomon Reveals Odd Obsession With Fathers As Role Models, And Mothers As Nags.

In tomorrow's "Questions For" interview in the NYT Magazine, Deborah Solomon tosses Columbia physicist Brian Greene this seeming softball: "What did your dad do for a living?"

A reasonable question, perhaps -- until you remember that this is 2010, and that working mothers have been a prominent presence in American society for longer than the 53-year-old Solomon has been alive.

But over the course of Solomon's decade-long role as the NYT's official weekly interlocutor, she has never -- not once -- asked a subject a direct question about a mother's choice of career.

By contrast, Solomon has on numerous occasions asked people about their fathers' professions, with the unspoken presumption that the mother's occupation is somehow irrelevant to the topic. Beyond that, Solomon's father-oriented questions reveal an almost-obsessive fascination with the role of fathers and fatherhood -- with her questions about mothers often implying a peripheral, nagging role in child development.

For example, in tomorrow's Greene interview, Solomon follows up her straightforward question about his father's career with a flip refererence to mothers' outsize expectations for their children's success:

"And what about your mom? Does she expect you to win a Nobel Prize soon?"

To Greene's credit, he ignores Solomon's snide question, and quickly notes that his mother is "something of a real estate mogul." (He does obediently buy into Solomon's sardonic view of mothers, by noting that his mom wishes he'd become a doctor.)

Typically, Solomon acts as though her interview subjects' mothers don't work, and only function as nagging annoyances. She underscores her obsession with a consistent curiosity about how men see ther own roles as fathers, or what impact fathers' jobs had on the careers of the celebrated people she interviews.

Solomon's questions about mothers tend to go in an edgier direction, sometimes implying that moms didn't know best. Consider this one-two punch from her May 2010 interview with Martha Stewart: "Where does your ambition come from? Did you have a critical mom?"

Ditto this dismissive query from her May 2009 interview with Senator Arlen Specter:

"This article is scheduled to appear on Mother's Day," Solomon noted to the Pennsylvania Republican. "Is there anything to be said about your mother?"

Solomon seems to see mothers as bothers and scolds, rather than role models. Check out this pointed jab from Solomon's September 2010 session with rocker Phil Collins:

"The cover of your new album is a photograph of you as a teenage drummer," Solomon observed, then inquired: "Did your mother tell you when you played the drums that you were giving her a headache?

Or the time she noted to rocker Eminem that "even your mother sued you for defamation." Or when she asked blogger Mickey Kaus during his his recent campaign for the Senate, "Does your mom approve of your Senate bid?"

Meanwhile, dads continue their noble role in their children's lives -- often presented by Solomon as simple statements of fact. "Your Greek immigrant dad ran an all-night diner in Kearney, Neb.," she reminded financier Peter Peterson. "We should mention that your dad is R. Crumb, a reclusive and revered figure who was a founder of the underground-comics movement in San Francisco in the ’60s," she genuflected at artist Sophie Crumb.

Sometimes, Solomon's fascination with dads sometimes comes off as nothing short of rude. "Where is your dad these days?" she asked basketball star Shaquille O'Neal this past August. No mention of the mom who raised O'Neal, even though she's alive and well, and writing her memoirs.

We've emailed Solomon for comment. But we know, on the face of it, that in a society where women -- like Solomon -- have long held jobs as distinguished and important as men, her failure to ask her subjects about their mothers' careers and influence is narrow-minded and bizarre.

UPDATE: In what turns out to be an bizarre coincidence -- or no coincidence at all -- Solomon herself wrote an essay called "Daddy Dearest" in The New Criterion in 1988, which revealed quite a bit about her own father issues.

"Fathers never know how they'll be remembered by their scribbling children," Solomon wrote at the outset of the piece, ostensibly a review of two memoirs by women artists about their fathers. Solomon wrote in great detail about the effect of their fathers' accomplishments and expectations, and how they played out in their daughters' lives.

In the end, Solomon appears to be troubled by the attacks perpetrated by the two authors -- Musa Mayer and Eleanor Munro -- on their dads. She refers to Mayer's memoir as a "serpent's tooth of a book" devoted to her relationship with her father, the painter Philip Guston.

"[A]ll this becomes mere backdrop to the baroque spectacle of Mayer’s struggle for her father’s approval and affection," Solomon writes. "The point of Night Studio is not to illumine the artist’s achievements but to catalogue the sufferings of Guston fille." Solomon acknowledges that Guston was, as his daughter notes, preoccupied with his work, but then notes, "what artist isn't?"

The Eleanor Munro memoir came in for similar attack by Solomon, who saw it as another example of a daughter unfairly resenting the effect of her father's success on her own creativity. Solomon bristles at the suggestion that Munro's father did anything wrong:

“Our father’s work and taste set us apart,” [Munro] smugly notes, speaking for herself and her siblings. Eleven pages later, she visits the home of a high-school classmate in Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb. The fathers there, com pared to her own, “did not come down hard on ideas they disagreed with, having none of their own.” This is an offensive statement, and it reminded me of something Delmore Schwartz once said: there’s nothing so great about ideas; taxi drivers have them, too.

We're still sorting through our sense of the meaning in all this. It's clear that Solomon has an unusually exalted view of fathers and their importance -- to the point where mothers barely merit a mention. It's also clear that Solomon sees successful fathers as unfairly blamed for their children's problems.

Our problem with all of this isn't, as one commenter suggests, that we want to enforce some politically correct approach to questions in Solomon's column. It's that we believe that mothers -- whatever they do to occupy their time -- merit a mention in her efforts to understand the people she interviews.

Whether it's changing diapers or the world, mothers seem worthier of Solomon's attention than she seems willing to offer -- which is almost no attention at all.


Anonymous said...

Why anyone takes the idiotic weekly offering from Deborah Solomon seriously is beyond me.
Even "Personality Parade" in the throwaway Parade Mag Sunday supplement has more intellectual heft i.e. a wee bit above absolute zero.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the issues you raise, which say a lot about her as a journalist, she's just generally obnoxious in the interview with Brian Greene.

"Here’s a unified theory: Everything in the world will get worse. "

As someone who studies sting theory for a living and takes unified theories very seriously, she shows her ignorance of string theory and her lack of respect for science with comments like this. If only we could have a dialogue with her on

Completely unprofessional. I'm unimpressed.

Anonymous said...


Sorry bud, methinks the only think Deborah has respect for is that pickle with which she plugs out all external reality!!!!

Seriously, the only polite way to front her, is by pulling out due to cold feet, and letting her assume you're lame, and she's 'won' in some imaginary mindgame where she comes out as the top dog victor, making her 'imaginary Daddy' the happiest man ever...

Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right? Solomon is about as reflexively politically correct as they come. I always know that she's stick a shiv in the back of the conservatives and stroke the neck of the libs. It's a given. If there were a way she could do something for women, I'm sure she would do it.

What astounds me is that you've got the time to read all of her columns to be certain that she's never asked a question about mothers. Are you sure? The NYT's search engine sucks. It misses lots of articles in arbitrary ways. So you typed in "solomon and mother". What if she used "mom" or "mum" or just asked, "what did your parents do?"

And just because we're debating PC things, I'm happy to fight back against your reflexive PC instincts. Much of the work done by women I know of that's going on today is terribly inside and not particular newsworthy. It's very important but it's only interesting to people who know the others involved. Sort of "did you hear that Madge figured out how to teach her son not to wet the bed?"

So let's quit the nose counting and blind adherence to stupid quotas. Okay?

Anonymous said...

You seem to dislike Deborah Solomon's sadistic interrogation style, and react to her stifling terrorism accordingly. Chances are, she'll just polarize in her next piece. This is a woman who's always half-asleep, and very cocky about what's the right answer as she's really bought into the formula of patriarchy. You know, always simmering but cannot quite vent or blow off steam or do anything to help herself, because of her 'inner settings' , pretty much set on auto-destruct.

Anonymous said...

Solomon is a trainwreck. Her "questions for" Patti Smith focused not on the artist's body of work but on her split ends.

Anonymous said...

She isn't even worth commenting on.

Ken Cady said...

How odd that a piece pointing out the lack of questions about a mother's role in someone's life, which is meant to be raise a feminist point, the comments are all degrading to a woman. All anonymous at that.

Anonymous said...


The anonymous who commented on her lack of respect for the science, here.

For the record, I'm being degrading to a person who happened to leave her respect for others and her brain at home before showing up to work. Indeed, she happens to be a woman.

Don't lump me in with the "irony" for saying she is disrespectful and asked stupid questions. I would have done that if this she was a he.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous who said she wasn't worth commenting on, here, Ken Cady:

I stand by the initial statement.

The reporter in question's gender is irrelevant to the discussion. Were she a man, the discussion would be slightly different, but my point -- She (or he or the reporter) isn't worth commenting on -- would be the same. Thus, it is, in fact, a perfectly feminist statement.

Solomon is not worth commenting on because Solomon's work is not good journalism. It brings to mind the "work" of Larry King. It brings to mind the Barbara Walters interview of JonBenet Ramsey's parents.

Do you remember that interview? The first question Walters asked in that interview was "Did you kill your daughter?"

Now, Ken, I'm gonna go slow here. Go find a journalist. Ask that journalist what's wrong with that question. I'll wait.

That's right. The answer's a foregone conclusion. Or do you think the Ramseys were going to slyly look to the left, look to the right, chuckle and say, "You got us, Barbara. We didn't mean to, and then, well, we had to do someth-- Say? Is that camera on?"

But let's not stay in the distant past. Let's go to just a few weeks ago. Solomon interviewed Peter Peterson. Here's the link:

Here's the part of the interview that has me saying "What a terrible reporter." Note: reporter. Not "what a terrible woman."

"The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, whose report is due out Dec. 1, has been nicknamed the Cat Food Commission, because many of us are worried about cutbacks to Social Security that would have older people eating cat food to survive."

His response: "That's absurd."

Where the hell is the follow-up questions of "Why do you say that's absurd?" The rest of the interview is similarly dead.

Deborah Solomon is simply not a very good reporter. As a female, as a male, on a boat, on a goat, in the rain, on a plane, she's just a lousy, uninspiring, dull hack.

No wonder she does so well at the New York Times.

Ken Cady said...

In reply:
One thing Deborah Solomon does each week is put her name on her work. I think those criticizing her should have the same ownership of heir comments, and not stand behind "Anonymous."
My comment was in respect to the totality of the comments wherein no one could find anything good to say about a woman who is an apparent success in her field. I did not select any particular comment for criticism.

Anonymous said...

Ken, you're right. Her name doesn't make her immune from criticism, nor does it make her entitled to being a delusional prick.

L. Grammi

Anonymous said...

Ken Cady argues the canard that those who make anonymous comments are somehow "hiding" and therefore cannot be making valid points.

One wonders how protected a life Cady has lived. For the rest of us, here's how it usually works:

1. Be told by higher ups that honest opinions are valuable and desired.
2. Make an honest statement about what isn't working and put your name to it.
3. Receive a work evaluation that indicates you need to work more on being a "team player."
4. A few months later, get taken aside and let go, as "we're moving in a different direction."
5. Look for a new job and discover that people are not hiring you because, "well, she made a comment once online about something and, golly, she actually had an opinion on something, and we can't use that sort of anarchist here at ConformCo."

Ken, it really doesn't work out in a risk/reward analysis to do what you think should be done.

Read the paper. Look at the Ombuds columns. Read the corrections pages. How often, percentage-wise, do any of the Times Powers That Be ever say "We made a mistake" without there being a caveat? It's almost always a "yes, but" that concludes with something like, "overall, the Times does an excellent job and this incident, which really wasn't the Times' fault, shouldn't detract from that record of perfection."

Anonymous said...

OK, but "rocker" Phil Collins? You might need a modifier in there, like "soft" or "prog."