Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writers As Clowns....Plus George Benson

A writer friend recently chided me for writing in a scattershot style here, failing to thoroughly support arguments or connect seemingly disjointed thoughts. That's exactly right! I use this Slog to buck a trend.

Readers used to be serious people who paid careful attention. Right around when I got into the writing racket, in 1988, the fizz and flash of life here in The Future had begun fraying the public's neurology. Writers became less purveyors of thoughtful mental vistas and more children's party clowns, festooning their catchy, grabby prose with clever edgy flips, and plying vast energies to cajole flighty readers to please please please finish reading this sentence, this paragraph, this page, this chapter. The flop sweat's palpable as writers flail to stave off the desertion of fickle eyeballs. If momentum's lost for even an instant, shinier baubles brightly beckon. Your prose is just one cat toy.

Like all gigolos servicing a passive, imperious clientele, writers are expected to supply all the energy and bring things reliably to a satisfying, exciting whiz-bam of a conclusion every time for every reader. Message, meaning, and insight - the art of it - is subservient to the commercial imperative: first and foremost, you must get Mrs. Rosenwinkle off (and, lord knows, she ain't easy).

Even thoughtful, expansive writers must focus on cajoling the reader from word to word. Every contemporary author you've heard of*, above and beyond whatever talents and insights they have to offer, is essentially a cross between a clown and a gigolo. Writers like Hobbes, Kant, and Locke didn't give a damn about enticing or cajoling; they simply set out their thoughts (in daunting prose), expecting readers to invest time and effort in proper digestion. There was mutual respect between writer and reader; almost a spirit of collaboration. If, heavens forbid, Malcolm Gladwell were ever to release a semi-digested morsel into his bouncy buttery patter, his audience would spit it out like baby birds indignant with mother's sloppy pre-mastication.

* - except maybe Chomsky

The funny thing is that I'm actually good at enticing and cajoling and pre-masticating. When I need to, I can write with great glibness and energy. I'm a deft clown/gigolo. I got lots of readers interested in food via sheer brash brio. One cardinal rule was to avoid complexity like the plague; to say precisely one thing at a time and deliver it so seamlessly that the reader couldn't help but resonate (you're quite welcome, Mrs. Rosenwinkle).

If I had an actual idea to convey, I'd gussy it up in humor, douse it with glibness, and glide it deftly into your brain stem. And then erase my tracks so you wouldn't realize what I'd done. I was a children's party clown with an agenda.

Then my situation got far worse. I found myself with a web site to run and promote, and it was all about persuasion. There were policies to explain, requests to make, and a community to acculturate. I had to explain a novel take on food (and on the Web) to journalists, and to persuade neophytes and trendies to change course and join our cause.

Ambiguity was the enemy. Effective mass communication requires razor-sharp clarity, which means expunging all subtlety and subtext. To avoid being misunderstood, you must never say anything that might later be used against you. Statements must be interpretable in only one way. It's all about playing defense, staving off regrettable sound bites and pre-defusing snark.

It was a horror. But, even back in the "fun" days writing articles and books, I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong with the writer/reader relationship. I understood that my profession required me to predigest and spoon-feed every thought, all while dancing a jig in a garish outfit. One does what one must to convince rudderless crowds to keep scanning the squiggles you've arranged on the paper (just as comedians, in the end, are paid to make diaphragms convulse, writers are paid to make eyeballs laterally scan). Everything rests on the writer. Writing commercially has become like commercial sex; customers feel no obligation to try, to work, to participate.

Yet it gnawed at me that reading should never have become such a passive activity - merely a form of consumerism. The experience will never be fully enriching if one simply lies there, flat on one's back, responsible for nothing more than the lateral motions of one's eyeballs. Wherever bucketfuls of sugar help medicine go down, you can count on a dearth of medicine.

So I've delighted in my release from all that here on the Slog. I take perverse pleasure in bundling two or even three thoughts in the same paragraph; in lightly sketching provocative ideas deserving pages of explication, in alluding rather than ramming, and, most of all, in the blessed freedom to be ambiguous; to make people think rather than just absorb. I have nothing to sell, and no one to persuade. Everyone's most welcome to click out to view cute pet videos.

I'm looking to create a collaborative process, tipping readers off-balance and challenging them to reconsider assumptions. I hide easter eggs. I bury ledes. And I gleefully scatter speed bumps - dense morsels intended to destroy momentum as readers pause to chew. I present ideas before they're fully baked, inviting readers to work them out in parallel. Maybe they'll go further with them than I can.

After Chowhound, I tried to drum up writing work, but found that no one remembered I'd ever been a writer. I was more of a "media personality", and the persona I'd adopted to promote Chowhound would certainly not freeze into my permanent cartoonish shtick. The path of Ruth Westheimer and Richard Simmons was not for me. So if I'm going to write, unpaid, an obscure little blog (also sparing myself "the touchy ritual of petitioning unhip, haughty gatekeepers" to publish my stuff), I figured I'd seize the opportunity to experiment. I'd forego my duties as clown/gigolo. More medicine, less sugar.

In my early 20's I played at Manhattan's Blue Note most nights after the last set as part of the late show. One night around 2:45am, with no one in the club besides the musicians and the bartender, George Benson stopped by and asked to sit in.

George Benson is a real guy. He wasn't groomed for stardom, he started out as a working guitarist, much-respected by his peers. So I was delighted by the prospect of seeing him relax and jam in a setting where he wasn't compelled to "entertain". He could let his hair down and be just a musician again. Nice!

The previous time I'd crossed paths with Benson was at the Hollywood Bowl, where he'd just finished a marathon version of "On Broadway", earning a multi-minute screaming ovation. The stage rotated suddenly, revealing, somewhat jarringly, the group I was with: a big band of cranky, geriatric black men in baby blue polyester uniforms, playing slightly musty (though really good) 40's swing. The crowd, obviously, couldn't wait to escape, but Benson stuck around backstage, grooving on what we were doing. He had more in common with us, really, than with the jump-suited, jeri-curled entertainer he appeared to be. This was a guy with real music to play, beyond the show biz.

So he got up on-stage at 2:45 am in the empty nightclub, and the moment he grabbed the mic, my heart sank. He held it at just the right angle to make his massive rings glitter in the spotlight. And he proceeded to dazzlingly "perform". For nobody. For no-fucking-body at all, in an empty club, at 2:45am on a Wednesday.

This is the paragraph where the writer would be expected to connect this anecdote with the rest of the article, sparing readers the effort of working it out for themselves (and certainly never expecting them to reread all 1400 words in a new light, their perspective having been subtly shifted). The density of the writing ought to start dissipating right around now, signaling that we're drawing to a close. Guide you down, gently braking to a halt, fostering the sensation that something insightful just happened. Shorter sentence here. Wry final aside.


Unknown said...

well I guess "performing" was his thing, and it wasn't your thing, and even if he appreciated what you guys were doing maybe you didn't have it in you to appreciate what he was doing. Pity.

I've pulled away from the arts in my professional life and it's broadened my appreciation for artists who aren't necessarily doing my thing.

I think that the pithy/juicy immediate style of the better writing for the internet has broadened the scope of human communication, in a good way. The linkbait listicle crap isn't really my thing but different strokes.

See clowns Mallory Ortberg and Patricia Lockwood for some good, pithy/juicy internet style that has broadened at least this one fool's scope.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for commenting!

My point wasn't that zippy writing and showy performing are somehow "bad" or "wrong", or that I'm against them or unable to appreciate them.

My point is that there are other approaches, in spite of the fact that the public has come to exclusively expect and demand zippy/showy. But that lack of public interest means that writers and performers, accustomed to desperately chasing the public's approval, can forget that the desperate mandate to ingratiate and entertain isn't, in fact, the entire gig.

That's why fellow writers feel shocked that I'd forego my obligation to desperately flail for ingratiation even within a blog almost no one reads. And that's why a musician would remain in full-on desperate ingratiation mode even in a completely empty nightclub.

At this point, we're not just flailing for attention in order to reach a position where we can proffer our art. Rather, we're flailing for attention in order earn the ability to keep on flailing on larger and larger stages. There is no end to the flailing if we "go big" or if we "go small". Either way, you'd better DANCE, varmint....

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