Sunday, December 7, 2008

Today's unintentional comedy from the Times

I wish I could hate the New York Times the way most conservatives do. I certainly loathe the fact that our nation's putative "newspaper of record" is more preoccupied with the single-minded pursuit of agendas than being a good steward of its place in the pantheon of journalism, but the paper too often causes me to shoot Pepsi through my nose in fits of hysterical laughter to affix a word like "hate" to my reading experience.

It isn't the reflexive leftism per se. Nor is it the pretentiousness and elitism, as I can be guilty of both in my own way. Rather, it is the insularity and utter lack of self-awareness that makes it seem less adversarial and more akin to high comedy. Whether its an account of the "trauma" which accompanies couples as they weigh a first child versus the loss of their carefully assembled mid-century modern living spaces or a reporter who treks out to the burbs to assess the cheesy chain restaurants - all of which happen to be in NYC as well by the way - and discovers that the food wasn't as appalling as she expected, there's a pervasive sense that
their writers' antennas do not receive the full spectrum of sound waves. And more pathetically, that it is by choice.

Which brings me to Times guest columnist Timothy Egan, filling in for the hit or miss but reliably neurotic Maureen Dowd. I'm not familiar with his oeuvre, so he may be a self-important hack or someone who merely had a bad day and lacks the critical capacity to see when he's not on his game. But it doesn't matter. Because if you're going to sign your name to a pretentious diatribe about writing like this, it had better embody the inverse of what you're railing against. Instead, he provides this:
The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

A good general rule if you are taking up the cause of the lofty status of writers is to avoid a reference to Andy Warhol's deathly tired line in your first sentence and then slip into an equally overused reference to the old occupational switcharoo in line two. Typing either one would set off the gag reflex of someone with writing talent, but two trite lines in a row should lead to projectile vomiting and then heavy drinking to dull the pain of incompetence.

He does have a point when he references authoritarian regimes though. Since American children being told to clean their plates at dinner was an epic fail in preventing millions of starvation deaths during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, the least we can do is give magical thinking another try for the sake of the peasant scribes yearning to move their country into an era of postmodern irony. We owe them nothing less since the Chinese have on occasion been kind enough to loan us some of their Panda Bears.
Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

My first reaction is that I'm still waiting for Timothy Egan to join the profession of the aforementioned writers. But what elevates this refrain to standard-issue idiotic liberal emotionalism, and almost mitigates the self-evident absurdity of Joe having a book, is the fact that this posturing, self-important clown knows full well that as is always the case when "celebrities" are published, someone else, a mighty professional, will do the actual writing.
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.

Here’s Palin’s response, after Matt Lauer asked her when she knew the election was lost:

“I had great faith that, you know, perhaps when that voter entered that voting booth and closed that curtain that what would kick in for them was, perhaps, a bold step that would have to be taken in casting a vote for us, but having to put a lot of faith in that commitment we tried to articulate that we were the true change agent that would progress this nation.”

I have no idea what she said in that thicket of words.

I understood what she said. That's more than I could ever say when listening to Hunter S. Thompson. Then again I'm sure that Egan's nipples hardened when Joe Biden waxed eloquently about FDR's televised fireside chats during the Hoover administration. Since Timothy's singular achievement is a book about that era it does seem reasonable to assume that - whatever intellectual and literary deficiencies he displays in this piece notwithstanding - he has some level of expertise with regard to presidential chronology and the communications tools which they had at their disposal.

Even more striking than that is the fact that this man is presumably a seasoned journalist. One can thrive in the field without being a talented writer. Many do. And the lack of a high octane intellect can be easily masked with a blend of curiosity and a mindless embrace of conventional wisdom. But as fundamental to basic competence as shutting off the water before removing a toilet would be for an unlicensed plumber is a journalist's need to understand who and what is newsworthy. And you'd need a gaping hole like the one the Bolivian army put in Che Guevara's head to suggest that a middle-class, moose-hunting, former basketball star/beauty queen with an Eskimo/steelworker/fisherman/snowmachine race champion hubby who rose to governor as an outsider and drew tens of thousands of people to rallies as an unlikely VP candidate doesn't rate a huge advance and a book.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.

Writing is hard, even for the best wordsmiths. Ernest Hemingway said the most frightening thing he ever encountered was “a blank sheet of paper.” And Winston Churchill called the act of writing a book “a horrible, exhaustive struggle, like a long bout of painful illness.”

I know lots of writers too. And everything he says is true for the ones who have no discernible talent. It certainly isn't true for everyone. There are all too many people who feel the need to express themselves through the written word, feel it is their calling, but simply don't have it. Funny, isn't it, how Egan has so little self-awareness that he can romanticize poverty in failed writers not half a page after characterizing a man who lives in a nice middle-class home in Toledo as a failure in life and as a plumber.

And in spite of Timothy's somewhat delusional penchant for conflating all manner of writing endeavors, the fact that you can find more impressive, more artistically ambitious musicianship in a dinky jazz club than in any number of commercially successful and critically lauded rock bands does not delegitimize the latter. Nor does the extreme wealth of talentless lip synchers like Britney Spears or Madonna take food out of the mouths of earnest twat folk singers who play some vegan dump cum coffeehouse in Williamsburg.
When I heard J.T.P. had a book, I thought of that Chris Farley skit from “Saturday Night Live.” He’s a motivational counselor, trying to keep some slacker youths from living in a van down by the river, just like him. One kid tells him he wants to write.

“La-di-frickin’-da!” Farley says. “We got ourselves a writer here!”

If Joe really wants to write, he should keep his day job and spend his evenings reading Rick Reilly’s sports columns, Peggy Noonan’s speeches, or Jess Walter’s fiction. He should open Dostoevsky or Norman Maclean — for osmosis, if nothing else. He should study Frank McCourt on teaching or Annie Dillard on writing.

He fucking nails it here though. Whenever I read Bob Herbert, Gail Collins, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Frank Rich, the estimable Timothy Egan or even full-time wage slaves like Adam Nagourney the air is thick with "Crime and Punishment" and echoes of a litany of other monsters of the literary midway. I can't even begin to imagine what there is about Joe's life that makes it interesting enough for a book, but if his opening line were to be some variant on "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" it would scarcely be more unoriginal than how Timothy Egan started this rant. Though it would probably boost the professional writer Egan's self-esteem that he got the reference if Joe's ghost writer started the book that way.

I'd love to go on, but the full commentary itself provides ample laughter. Besides, I have a real, full-time job and writing is just too darn difficult.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter