Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In which my journalistic integrity is questioned

"Which is where we differ. Few print writers want to assign, edit or read the stuff [Susannah Breslin] covered. I didn’t find either of those qualities in her work. You did. But it was certainly sexy and flashy and got lots of angry comments, so it’s a great fit for the web. Does its popularity in that medium — where the loudest and most shocking win — make her, de facto, a great journalist? Not in my book." -- Caitlin Kelly


The first time I was on TV, I was a guest on "Politically Incorrect." Basically, it was a set up. At the time, I was the co-editor of an online magazine that had the word "postfeminist" in the title.

Sitting directly across from me on the stage was Erica Jong, whose Fear of Flying had long ago turned her into something of a feminist icon.

I knew what the deal was. This was a show. The intention was a cat fight. And a cat fight is what they got.

For the next 22 minutes, I insulted Jong, suggesting her feminist ideologies were woefully outdated, sad, and boring. Jong insulted me, positing me as an uppity idiot who was too naive to know anything of the world, a fool who had no appreciation for what her generation had supposedly done for me.

After the show, us four guests -- Dylan McDermott and Rita Rudner had spent the majority of the show gawking as Jong and I had gone at it -- walked off the set.

Backstage, I turned to Jong, who sneered at me with cool disdain. I smiled politely. She understood this was a show, right? Jong looked the other way, enraged.

It was no show to her. This was her life. And it was all too clear to her that she had been replaced.


Yesterday, Mark Dery wrote a wonderful post over on True/Slant: "Goodbye to All This: On Leaving True/Slant." In fact, I was going to write about that post on my blog today.

If you've not been following the True/Slant story as of late, the site was bought by Forbes Media a few months ago, and as of August 1st is no longer publishing.

Some of the True/Slant writers will be heading over to Forbes.com. Some will not.

Dery's farewell post was, as his stuff always is, complicated, brilliant, and too smart. Too smart for the internet, too smart for me, too smart for you. That's how Dery is.

I've written about his work here before. I enjoy it most not for his insights, his ability to be intoxicatingly complex and hilariously insightful at the same time, nor the way his prose dazzles on the screen like Nurevey danced on the stage, but because I always feel embarrassed when I read him. He's my own personal homo sacer, whom I can neither kill nor usurp.

This is why I like him: because he is better than I am.


What is Dery's post about? Well, it's about the current state of journalism. Although, it's as much about the current state of journalism as Penelope Trunk's blog is about career advice.

(Which is to say, Not much, and, Thank god.)

In a nutshell, the post is a pyre upon which he tosses journalism (dead), books (antiquated), magazines (over), and, of course, himself, for no man who kills something does not love it, too, love it enough to bother to kill it, for every man who kills knows when he does so that he kills not the Other, but himself in effigy.
"I was a desultory True/Slant-er, posting infrequently and at inordinate length, on topics that were sometimes topical but often not. I’m not immune to newsiness, but refuse to be stampeded trendward, along with the rest of the goggle-eyed media herd."
Dery's post in two words: fuck you. Or, more properly put: fuck you, because I love you.

To wit: Fuck your internet. Fuck your SEO. Fuck your page views. Fuck your what you're supposed to do. Fuck your flaccidity. Fuck your boredom. Fuck your ease. Fuck your dysentery of the mind. Fuck your unthinking idleness. Fuck your pablum posts. Fuck your verticals. Fuck your listicles. Fuck your PowerPoint presentations. Fuck your shit.

After I read it, I thought, oh, I know what I'll say about it on my blog. I'll say, Isn't it funny the best post on True/Slant was published after the site stopped publishing?

(Surely, the greatest post ever written on the internet will be the one written after the internet is gone.)

Then I read the comments.


Before my father left my mother, he would get home from work, and I would try and get him to wrestle me on the living room floor. I have no idea why. Invariably, these sessions would end up with me crying. I don't remember why that is the case. Years later, it occurred to me that I was entirely very likely attempting to get my father -- who had been raised by an Irish Catholic alcoholic father in the bowels of Brooklyn, and so, therefore, was not exactly what one would call physically demonstrative -- to touch me. That he was a writer, and that I became a writer who spent most of her so-called writing career wrestling with the act of writing, was to become all too obvious for far too many years.


When I began posting on my True/Slant blog, Off the Record, earlier this year, my posts would not infrequently, shortly after publication, show that a comment had been added by another True/Slant blogger, Caitlin Kelly.

I don't know Kelly. Her comments were sometimes if not oftentimes in disagreement with something that I had written. Occasionally, I read Kelly's blog.

So, I suppose I was not entirely surprised to see that Kelly had posted a series of comments to Dery's post that referenced me. In his post, he had mentioned me in flattering, surely undeserved ways as someone who wrote things that weren't, well, shit.

Among various other points, Kelly seemed to take issue with this idea. She argued that, no, my writing was shit, the worst kind of shit, really, because it wasn't even authentic shit, but manufactured shit, shit prose pumped out in hot pursuit of page views. It wasn't even good shit. It was shitty shit.

Not only, she seemed to be suggesting, was I shitty a blogger, but I was a shitty writer, and not even a shitty journalist, but not a journalist at all, as Dery had had the gall to posit. I was a shitty not-journalist.

"'Content' is just a pile 'o [sic] words produced in some order," she scolded him. "It does not demand thoughtful or insightful ideas. And, while you laud Breslin, much of her work focused on incendiary topics like porn — which attracted, as we all know it would, many prurient eyeballs."


In April of 2009, I spent a week in Los Angeles working on a story about the adult movie industry and the recession. I wrote it for a publication that I was writing for at the time.

I came home and wrote a 10,000-word essay about what I had done, and what I had seen, and what I thought about all those things. I submitted the story to the editor. The editor wanted to change it in ways that I believed would work counter to the truth of the essay. I withdrew the piece from the publication. I published it myself.

1. This is what is called "operating at a loss."

2. This is what could be called journalism.

3. This could be dismissed.

4. This (the story) could be misconstrued as a bid for page views (of which there have been over 1 million, but, hey, who's counting?).

5. This is the stuff of which vitamin soup is made.

6. This is what I'm trying to say:

7. Fuck you.


The other day, somebody wrote me an email. A woman. Someone I know only lately, and only a little bit. But I have the impression that she is very tough. Not tough. But solid. Solid like an Oak. Like an Oak in a hurricane.

This is what her email said:
Yeah, you are in there.

You do.

As you say and I concur, Folks just watch, they stare, they don't get moving.

Yeah, you engage. Keep doing that. It's good. And don't ever stop doing that.

A long time ago, I was on the set of a really crazy movie where a lot of really crazy things happened.

Driving home in the darkness, I was in a very strange state of mind. Years later, I would understand that there was a word for this state of mind, and the word was "dissociation." But that was later. Too late, really. But that's another story for another time.

I was driving out of the Valley, over the Cahuenga Pass, going back to the shitty little one-bedroom apartment I had on a boulevard named for the Happy People.

Well, at least I had balls. (That's what I told myself.)

At least I had something to say.

At least I wasn't a crashing bore.

At least I didn't waste my time on submitting pitches to the Times, on whining about my page views or lack thereof, on writing throw away comments tacked onto blog posts that I could never hope to write because I lacked the insight, the talent, and, perhaps most importantly, the balls to write them myself -- and, worst of all, I knew it.