Sunday, May 20, 2012

POPULARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT


Dorothy Parker was a sharp writer, able to stop readers in their eyetracks with a few well-turned words. Reading her today, 45 years after her death, is still a remarkably enriching thing to do.

But she was hampered by her own ability to be witty. Dorothy Parker was a writer and people wanted her to be their funny pet monkey. They didn't like it as much when she revved up her serious writing machine and tried to say something meaningful; it made people uncomfortable, and while critics praised her for penning stories like "Big Blonde," they preferred the sarcastic smart-ass.

Parker was never a fan of her own writing, but she came to loath the caricature her tongue had created: "It got so bad that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth."

Popularity breeds contempt. And it diminishes the real accomplishments of talented people. Edward R. Murrow might be considered the Bigfoot of 20th century journalism — just ask any Serious Journalist and listen to them pontificate — but for six years late in his career he had the dubious distinction of being the Godfather of the celebrity interview. The great Murrow, laid low by doing what was popular. Hey, he may have become a whore but it paid the bills.

Being light, being funny, making people laugh: I get it, life is not always supposed to be serious, and you catch more flies with honey than vinegar (why in hell you would want to is beyond me, but I didn't make up the idiom). 

Long time ago in the black-and-white days, I was a journalist, an investigative reporter, a Serious Man doing Serious Work. I won a few awards, got some recognition, but better than the accolades was the realization that the things I did helped change the world around me. A 10-page report on abysmal police training forced lawmakers to increase the standards. An investigative piece on a student-loan scam at a private college brought federal investigators and a grand jury. 

At the height of that phase of my career I became a features editor and started focusing on Madonna and food and home stories. And I launched a seven-day-a-week column called CHATTER (now in tree-free internet form!).

It was all supposed to be an inside joke, a gimmick — a parody of the Serious Newspaper Column. Instead of a mugshot, I signed the column (and often had other people sign it when I learned a local group of graphologists was studying my signature). Everything was written in editorial we form. The voice was snarky wit.

That was 1991. Nothing I've written — nothing I've accomplished before or since — has been as enduring or as popular. Only a few oldsters remember me as an investigative reporter. Almost everyone from that era remembers CHATTER and the smart-ass rondavis.

Popularity breeds contempt: in this case, self-contempt. I came to loath the Chatterboy. I'd go to parties and people wanted to hear from the pet monkey — and I'd obey because that's what was expected of me. No one put a gun to my head (though I often wished for one in my mouth, just saying). It was my choice. I had a hard time saying no.

I still do. I could have killed CHATTER anytime in the past 21 years and I've chosen to keep it alive. It has become my beautiful but profoundly retarded bastard child. And everyone loves a bastard from a basket.

Inside I've always wanted to be taken seriously as a Writer, as a person who had some interesting things to say about our times and our culture. But I've long resigned myself to an essential truth: people don't want to hear that (this) shit. In the world of spinach versus candy, candy wins every fucking time. I can see it in the number of blog hits — CHATTER is the big dog and Act Your Old Age is the tiny tail. People would rather be amused than provoked. Or bored.

The journey I've been on for the past year — especially the events of the past couple weeks — has reawakened in me the duality of my existence. There is the Chatterboy, a sardonic charmer (he's so fly, even the ladies like him). And there's the Writer, who emerges with his earnest brow and chases away the charmed ones because he won't stop thinking, he won't stop asking questions, he won't stop churning, and goddammit just leave me alone, just stay the fuck away from me, I need time, I don't know how much time so quit asking, don't you get it, I don't want to be your friend, it's just too hard.

Oops. Sorry. It's funny, but it's true. And it's true, but it's not funny. And it's fine (spoken in my best girl voice, and those of you who speak girl know what that means). The guy typing this on a Sunday afternoon: he doesn't count. The Chatterboy — he's the guy people want. He's a funny bad-ass. He's The Man. And maybe the blunt truth is this: he's just the better person and the better writer. So what if I can't stand that phony? At least he's popular. He gets to hang out with the cool kids.

As for me — Ron (and not rondavis) — I am my own worst enemy. And while I don't like kicking the living shit out of me, in a big, blurry, numb, lonely world, at least it's something I can still feel.

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