I don’t like what I am doing now, though, which is staring at my screen, making a few false starts on a few different essays. I’d rather be sailing through some piece of literary criticism or some piece of comedy I have bouncing around in my head. But really, I seldom have thoughts that need to get out. And I am not really into forcing it.
I tried to force it for a while. I used to write a lot of facetious fiction, but after sending a bunch of stories off and getting pre-written postcards back from literary journals I kinda soured on it. It was fun to write but a drag to be told—no, we would rather continue printing the boring, depressing dogshit that MFA grads produce. No, I am not bitter.
So back to forcing it. It started to seem, in the mid ‘00s, that what people really wanted was commentary. Clearly, this is true. Slate, Salon, the New Yorker’s website, the National Review, the ever expanding NY Times opinion pages, Politico (to a great degree), the Atlantic, the New Republic, etc. etc. These outlets have vast opinion spewing sections that dominate their own most-emailed lists. Even their straight news sections are light on original reporting, just summaries of stories from real newspapers, and peppered with opinion. Heavily peppered.
I am not totally comfortable telling the world what I think because it is too often feels like telling the world what to think. But I wanted to get published. I wanted to write for a living. Commentary was an inconvenient hurdle until I was taken seriously as a thinker and some outlet would publish something silly and well-written like “The Porking of Madame R.” So, I tossed my hat into the opinion ring.
To some degree, I was right. Almost all of my success in getting something published has been getting my opinion on paper and then sending it off to a news outlet. I wrapped these creations from head to toe in comedy, but still. They were opinion pieces. I was in my early thirties when I started this, and felt uncomfortable much of the time. I felt way too young to say how the world should work. But, as one reporter friend of mine said when he was in a dismissive mood, (understandable, I was griping), “The world does not want comedy.”
OK, so I gave the world my opinion.
I don’t write those kind of pieces anymore. Or, not too much, and I almost never submit them anywhere. Some of my outlets dried up. Editors moved on, literally or just from replying to me, and other places changed formats. WBEZ cancelled an entire show I submitted to.
But really, the feeling was mutual. I did not thrive at the opinion game because I was so uncomfortable doing it.
Here is George Orwell in a passage that perfectly captures my discomfort:
There are families in which the father will say to his child, ‘You’ll get a thick ear if you do that again’, while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, ‘Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?’ And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power. There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison’, but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics—a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage—surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.
So the stakes, you might say, are remarkably low for the diagnosis. Tolstoy hates Shakespeare and wants us to hate him to. What’s the big deal? Is that bullying or criticism?
It’s bullying. I’m not going to get into the merits of Orwell’s essay or his summary of Tolstoy’s argument, (you can read it yourself here) but he’s right. Tolstoy was being a dick. And my point is that the reign of opinion in America is a mark of a dickish trend in American letters.
Why Donald Trump is winning. What ISIS really wants. How to stop gun violence. The Fed should raise interest rates. No they definitely shouldn’t. Why atheism is the only moral option for an intelligent person. Why progressive reforms are the greatest threat to the Catholic church. How to fix the health care system. The truth about the obesity epidemic. Why blue collar America votes against its own interest. Why the elites just don’t get it.
It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is understood.
I should be careful here. I am not saying that we should not inquire into how things work and what events mean. Nor I am I saying that those who do should keep the results to themselves. I’m just saying, we do far too much of it.
And since I read so much goddam opinion myself, I think—still, after a mix of disappointment with and renouncing of the entire opinion sector—that sitting down to write means sitting down to opine. And that makes me stare into a screen, make false starts, and then throw up my hands and read instead.
Well, nuts to that.