Critics abound, but this one is different

Staff WriterMay 2, 2004 

Last month, Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Dan is probably the unlikeliest candidate ever to aspire to a Pulitzer. He writes about cars. Yes, automobiles. And for that he gets American journalism's top prize? You bet he does.

I'll bet you didn't know there were car critics. Friends, there are critics of everything. Criticism knows no bounds.

Dan's flair for tackling the unusual was apparent when he was writing for The News & Observer's auto section in the 1990s. Readers, some of whom had heretofore never opened the auto section or even knew we had one (it was produced by the classified advertising department), soon began looking for Dan Neil's byline.

Dan gave the automobiles he reviewed a personality and a lifestyle of their own, describing not only their merits and liabilities, but even a car's romantic possibilities.

In fact, it was the latter that led, in part, to his leaving the paper. In what was perhaps the first ever X-rated review of a car, he went too far by describing in titillating detail a certain Ford's capacity for sexual congress on the back seat. More on that later.

Consider an excerpt or two from his winning entry and you can appreciate his "upset" in the national writing contest.

Of the 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom, he wrote, "Not since torch-wielding peasants chased Frankenstein's monster through the town square has such a noble spirit been so mercilessly taunted." Of the 2004 BMW-built Mini Cooper: "The back seat is the automotive equivalent of a spider hole in Tikrit."

He is also informative. I've been hearing about torque since I was knee high to a grasshopper, not knowing, nor caring, about torque's role in the great scheme of life.

"Torque is, simply, twisting force," writes Dan. "Grab a doorknob, twist -- voila, torque." Now when I, suddenly a wiser man, open a door, I feel its "torque."

I contacted Dan last week in Los Angeles and asked if he recalled the "review" that cost him his job in Raleigh.

"I remember as if it were yesterday," he said. "My working theory was that nearly everyone had achieved some sort of sexual congress in an automobile -- indeed, whole industries were based on the fact. Yet no reviewer had ever written about what makes a car good for this kind of behavior.

"I had another, rather more delicate notion in mind, as well. Middle-age married people were buying SUVs in large numbers, to dutifully schlep the kids to and fro, to tow their awful boats, and the like. But the SUV is also big enough to occasionally, and comfortably, get a groove on, you know, just to spice things up, which is what married couples do.

"I wrote at some point about the kids getting into the Ford Expedition and commenting on the 'footprints' on the windshield. Well, that was just it! People went crazy! It was kind of like Janet Jackson's costume malfunction -- a none too daring transgression, overall, but the thing that finally sent people over the edge."

The article resulted in it being made clear to Dan that he had crossed the line. A later article, filed by Dan while he was on his honeymoon in Italy, was even more graphic and just too much for the local readership to bear. He left the paper over a disagreement over the editing of his column and went on to other things, including winning the Grand Prix of writing.

Dan was one of those writers who took the road less traveled. And it paid off, with a $10,000 purse, enough fame to last a lifetime and the distinction of having been the first critic ever to have apprised the public of a motor vehicle's sex appeal.

Not bad for a boy from New Bern who holds a master's degree in English from Wolfpack University.

Columnist A.C. Snow can be reached at 881-8254 or asnow@newsobserver.com.

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