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The Medium and the Message
by Daniel Green

     There I am, sitting across from Sandy Flowers himself, expounding away not merely about my latest novel (compared by Sandy in introducing me to the work of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett), but on many other subjects, broached both by the host and by my own nimble transitions from this topic to that, the latter demonstrating in no uncertain terms my intimate knowledge of all the world’s affairs, as well as my effortless command of language. As a major American writer, I am of course expected to weave my words with such consummate dexterity, but to witness this exhibition of wit and learning united can only be a sublime experience indeed.

     There I am again, this time speaking with Matt Christopher, who is ordinarily gruff, abrupt, even belligerent with his guests, but who now retreats into respectful silence as I explain why his coverage of the latest sex scandal is all wrong, is indeed a disgrace to anything that might be called serious journalism, however tainted its image has already become due to the shallowness of people like himself: “You go on about the President’s ‘character,’ whatever that might be, as if you had some special power to divine a man’s true nature. Where did you get this power? I’ve checked the journalism curriculum at my college, and as far as I can tell they don’t offer a course on palm reading. What you’re really doing is judging the President—a real person—as if he were a character in a novel. You assign to him ‘motives’ and ‘flaws’ and relative degrees of ‘sympathy’—all of which are useful notions when speaking of fiction, but tell us nothing about the behavior of people. To give you somewhat more credit, perhaps you see him as a protagonist in a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare was, after all, a keen anatomist of human behavior, a supreme psychologist, if you will. But Shakespeare’s characters do not succumb to venial sins of the flesh. Their flaws are grander and more profound; they reveal human weakness that can lead to unspeakable catastrophe but that also signifies the inescapable vulnerability we all share. In any event, I suggest you leave the literary analysis to those qualified to take on the task and instead reflect upon your own obsession with these salacious rumors.”

     I first appeared on television when I was twenty-seven years old. I was President of my department’s graduate student association (usually my job entailed arranging our annual picnic or cajoling professors to donate books to our periodic book sales, the money from the latter being used to fund the former), and we were engaged in a dispute with the university over salaries for teaching assistants. I was interviewed by a local station on my way into a meeting with a group of administration mucky-mucks. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that much of the interview was actually broadcast on that evening’s news report. Most of this station’s reporters were students themselves, so it wasn’t the most polished piece I’ve ever seen, but unlike my now wife, who ran from the room when it was introduced, no doubt sensing imminent embarrassment, I thought I came across rather well. I wasn’t exactly telegenic (although neither was I repulsive), but I sure as hell sounded like I knew what I was talking about and was reasonably crisp and cogent. I had no particular desire to be on television—truth be told, I was like everyone else in my circle in regarding it largely with contempt—but if this was the medium through which one could most widely circulate one’s message, I was not yet inclined to dismiss it altogether.

     He had that squint in his eye that makes him look like a choleric gangster (luckily he was wearing his moustache at the time—without it he looks like a small-time drug dealer), and his voice seemed even more nasal and unmodulated than in real life. He thought I’d left the room, but I peeked around the corner just long enough to see that he made a very unpleasant impression on television and to know that in the future he should avoid speaking in public forums at all costs. I wasn’t that convinced he’d ever find his way into print, either, but at least if he was just a writer no one would have to know what he was truly like in person. Obviously there were other things about the man I liked perfectly well—otherwise I certainly would not have married him—but I’m very glad he stuck to writing stories as a means of expressing himself and left the television chatter to those with the talking heads for it.

     When my first book was published I agreed to appear on our community’s version of a tv “cultural affairs” program. I will agree that it didn’t really work out. The host was a retired professor in another department, who, though otherwise a thoroughly amiable fellow, knew nothing about my work and very little about literature period. He could only ask me which of my characters were based on real people I had known, if I agreed that modern literature was much too depressing, and whether I had ever thought about writing children’s stories. I tried to answer these questions with as much equanimity as I could muster, but I cannot deny I possess a certain snobbishness about what I do, and am told that on this occasion I was not entirely successful in concealing it. I said nothing outrageous, although I did try to make it clear I considered the first question irrelevant to the book I had written and the second to indicate a personal preference I did not share. (The third was easy to answer: No, I had not.) Apparently my tone was overly dismissive, as the host seemed reluctant to ask any more questions. He invited me to speak of my book in any way I wished, but I could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound tediously affected under the circumstances. (“Well, Phil, my stories explore the process of fiction-making itself, as a way of depicting the ways in which “reality” might be a product of our own imaginative projections.”) After a few additional questions about my work habits from the host, and my desultory responses—even I find my work habits a boring topic—the show mercifully was over. Suffice it to say I was never again invited to appear on this program, although it is, I believe, still on the air.

     It was undoubtedly the worst show we ever did. Some of my friends in the English department warned me that he was a prickly sort, but I wouldn’t have guessed that he thought quite that much of himself. He’d just published his book, to be sure (and at this school we’re always thoroughly delighted when one of our people gets into print), but it wasn’t exactly a prestigious publisher, first of all, and, second, I tried to read the thing and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I offered him an opportunity to help me out—perhaps he could make the book sound like something some viewer might want to read, don’t you know—but he wouldn’t take me up on it. We received plenty of mail pointing out how inconsiderate he’d been, believe you me. Someone even suggested facetiously that we’d done a good thing by putting him on, because even jerks deserved to be heard from occasionally. The lesson I took away from the whole experience was that people who can’t be sociable just shouldn’t be on television.

     When my next book was published my publisher decided to send me on a book tour of sorts. Confined as it was to neighboring states, I had to provide my own transportation, although the company did cough up enough money to pay for my lodging in those motels that have “Budget” as a part of their names. Thus I found myself booked for an interview on a brief segment of a noontime show in Paducah, Kentucky. Of course the interviewer would not have had time to read the book—I was not so naive as to believe she would have—but nevertheless I was prepared to answer her questions as cheerfully and respectfully as I could. To be safe, I arrived at the studio well before air time and tried my best to find out exactly what I would be asked and what sorts of things they would like me to say. Since the bookstore where I would be appearing that evening had just opened (and had also bought advertising time from the station), would I mind giving it a plug? I would not. Perhaps I could also emphasize how important it was to encourage our children to read? Of course. They had been led to believe that the main character in my book had once been a director of pornographic movies. Surely this was not based on my own personal experience? I could assure them that it was not. Perhaps I was attempting to portray the moral decline of America? That would be, I should know, a message the people of Paducah would certainly understand. It was somewhat more complicated than that, I returned. However, if they wanted me to point out that making porno films was not necessarily a wise career move, I would be glad to describe the process by which my protagonist comes himself to see the limitations of the work he is doing and is able to begin instead to make films worthy of being considered works of art. (I did not explain that his dirty movies are portrayed in the novel as embodying the essence of all art—albeit in the most artless, elemental version—and that what he learns is how to enlarge upon this primal narrative—boy meets girl, they fuck—in ever more complex and ingenious ways.) Since it was determined that this would be of less interest to the people of Paducah, we decided it might be best not to talk about the book at all—although its cover would be shown to the tv audience—but instead stick to the more general questions already suggested. As it turned out, a technical problem took the show off the air for several minutes, and my segment had to be cut out, which was no doubt just as well.

     Now watch me being interviewed by Manuel Diego. We are sitting at a round wooden table—solid oak it seemed to me as I sat down and rested my arm on it. Behind us is an enlarged photographic snapshot of the skyline of a large American city. (New York City, if you like, although I would not want it to be assumed I take some special pleasure in being seen against this backdrop, as if it represented the symbolic triumph of the rank outsider before the very seat of influence and authority.) If my appearance is presentable but cannot bear comparison with Manuel’s impeccable tailoring and well-preserved good looks, Manuel’s own expression of engrossed attentiveness signals clearly that my words are after all the star attraction of this show.
      “It’s striking, Mr. Daniels,” he says after I have responded to the first few questions, “how thoroughly your views challenge conventional wisdom on these issues. Do you find it frustrating that our society seems to be following a course that, for someone who sees things the way you do, must appear so obviously misguided?”
      “First, I must tell you, Manuel, that I have developed my views completely independent of whatever process it is that produces what you call ‘conventional wisdom.’ I assume such wisdom is purveyed through the mass media outlets, but since I do not normally give much consideration to what appears in the mass media I can honestly say I have not arrived at my conclusions simply by taking a contrarian view to those promulgated by the so-called chattering classes. On the other hand, I will admit that on those occasions when I have watched, say, your program—and just let me say, Manuel that I have found the caliber of intellectual debate on your show to be at an impressively high level. . . .”
      “Thank you for saying so, Professor Daniels. We do our best.”
      “Even so, I have been struck by the frequency with which even your guests simply echo one another, to the degree that even when someone has voiced a fresh opinion, if that opinion is questioned by the other chatterers the proponent of the novel view immediately begins to retract his words, assuring all assembled that he meant no disrespect to their own well-considered views, that he mostly agrees with those views and merely wished to add the slightest nuance. This phenomenon I find very puzzling—not to mention deleterious to the national dialogue—and thus I have resolved to speak my mind plainly, forcefully, and without equivocation.”
      “That you have done, sir.”
      “Second, I have long since reconciled myself to the disappointment of seeing my fellow countrymen behave under the influence of assumptions—whether these be assumptions they have always accepted and never thought to question, or those that our politicians and other self-appointed arbiters of the public good have persuaded them to accept—that I do not share, indeed that I upon due reflection find pernicious. Perhaps it is enough to find a public medium such as this, where one can simply voice one’s objection to those assumptions. Perhaps it is enough to be able to announce to one’s fellow countrymen that one does not share those assumptions. Perhaps, finally, one could perform a service for these very countrymen by reminding them that it is possible to proceed according to other, very different and, if you will allow me to say so, more rational assumptions.”

     Too pompous. Too much like writing on one’s feet. On a talk show they want talk. Next time out must make concerted effort to create a more down-to-earth persona, the kind tv seems to favor. Speak more like a real person, as my mother used to say.

     He used to watch those cowboy shows they ran on Saturday afternoons. Roy Rogers was his favorite, for sure. He would ride the arm of his father’s easy chair like he was riding Trigger. That was the first tv show that really caught his attention, I would say. Until he was about twelve or so, he watched tv all the time. He was a good student until then, too, so it didn’t interfere with his schoolwork. About that time, though, he started reading books all of the time, and not the books he was supposed to be reading for school. After that he almost never wanted to watch television. (At that time we had only one set, in the living room.) But his grades started falling off as well. He stayed back in his room with his books and only came out to take his dinner. His father and I thought he might be at that age when he just didn’t want to be around us anymore, but now I know we didn’t have anything to do with it. He was off in that world he found in those books. As far as I can tell, he’s been there ever since. The things he talks about sometimes!

     I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until after I’d already started college. I thought I wanted to be a film director, but at the school I attended (the best one I could get into, nevertheless) there really wasn’t any way to study filmmaking in a very serious way (a few “film studies” courses), so I found myself straying into literature instead—or rather finding my way back to it, since it was reading that had aroused my interest in made-up stories in the first place. (Later I would realize I could never have become a film director because I eventually came to see that, appealing as I had found reading stories to be, telling them myself would not exactly be my forte. My job as a writer has been to portray the effects that stories have on us, on our expectations about the shape our own lives are meant to assume—or on our ability to comprehend why they fail to meet these expectations. I could not easily have moved in this direction working in film, whose audiences literally won’t sit still for it. As it is, my audience is small, to be sure, but makes up in sophistication and discernment what it lacks in size. And yet.) But I didn’t finally decide that a writer I would be until one Sunday afternoon I saw Noah Postman appear as a guest on a tv show called Loud and Clear. I knew he was a famous writer, although I had at the time read none of his books. (I am sorry to report that I now have read a number of them and cannot count myself as one of Mr. Postman’s most fervent admirers.) How articulate and self-assured he was! The interviewer, known to be at odds politically with the great writer, tried his best to knock Postman off his stride, but with no success. I don’t even recall the topics they discussed; what left a lasting impression, and what made me want to emulate what I had seen and heard, was that mastery of words that gave his every thought the gleam and the edge of a newly polished sword. Whatever the specific merits of his books might be, and I could only conclude they must be considerable, if the image projected so forcefully on that program by Noah Postman signaled what it could mean to address the world as a writer, then I wanted in on it.

     I always thought the idea of being a writer was more attractive to him than the prospect of actually committing himself to the work that would be necessary to truly master the craft. However, I was always glad to have students who thought good writing was worth taking seriously, so I encouraged him as much as I could. Most of my students either thought my class would provide them with that easy “A” (it rarely did), or it would allow them to indulge in emotional outpourings about the horrors of their childhoods (which it all too often did). Lucas assumed neither of these things. He had, in fact, a good deal of contempt for people who thought literature was only good for such purposes, and this would sometimes come out in the comments he would make in class. I had the impression that his classmates came to fear his acerbic remarks, which they couldn’t simply dismiss because he always expressed himself so emphatically. Eventually I held him over after class and asked him it he couldn’t tone down his criticism somewhat, as it was making his fellow students rather uncomfortable. Although in many ways I agreed with him about the sentimentality and the slipshod quality of some of the work in question, I did have a responsibility to make my classroom an agreeable place for everyone who came there with an honest desire to learn. To his credit, Lucas readily agreed that I had this responsibility and pledged that thereafter he would reserve his most provocative comments for after-class discussions. As for his own work, I don’t really recall any particular piece he submitted, but I do remember that his characters bordered on the bizarre and freakish, and his narratives were unorthodox, to say the least. Clearly he believed that the writer of fiction should stay away from the well-trodden paths and should attempt to speak in uncommon and unconventional ways.

     Frankly, he talked like only he cared about “literature,” and the rest of us were muscling in on his territory. I’ll admit not all of us were really serious about “literature,” but does that mean we couldn’t be creative? I myself, of course, have become a rather successful television writer (more than twenty-five scripts produced to date, and the most recent of these, Fifteen Minutes, was quite a hit), so even though I don’t create “literature,” clearly I must have some small bit of talent. I wouldn’t go so far as some of my colleagues do in claiming that American television will come to be seen as comparable to the Elizabethan theater, but as far as I can tell, “literature” of the sort he apparently still champions from atop his high horse has a very tiny audience, and it’s only getting tinier. I won’t say I learned nothing from being exposed to “literature.” Many of those “great writers” knew how to tell a story pretty damn well. Somebody ought to tell him and his ilk to read them.

     My most successful book was my third, Sing a Song, Black Sheep. It is the only one of my books whose protagonist, I must admit, is a thinly disguised version of myself. Although the character’s sense of alienation, of being cut off from the “mainstream” and out of sync with all that that mainstream holds to be important, is rather more profound than my own, it is nevertheless a feeling not altogether foreign to someone in my position. At the same time, my protagonist rebels against the role that has seemingly been imposed upon him, that of the outsider, the malcontent, the lonely voice crying in the wilderness. These are pre-established narratives he does not want to live out. Yet in resisting the impress of “plot” on the freedom he cherishes, my protagonist finds himself creating another plot he finds no more satisfactory and in fact leads him to act out in ways that only reinforce his loss of control, at times provoking in him a feeling that he has despite his own best efforts failed to show the world his most authentic self, a self that in the end could never be revealed because there is no “identity” that can be said to exist apart from the image that others construct from it—apart from the “story” the world makes of it. Unable to accept this, my character retreats to this core sense of himself, which continues to seem entirely real to him but which causes everyone around him to perceive him as so eccentric that they conclude his sanity is in question, that he has “lost” the personality to which he believes himself to be clinging for all he’s worth. This book struck a chord with some readers (at least more than I had managed to gather theretofore; I even received letters from a few of them, something that had not happened before and has not happened since), I believe, because they identified with its protagonist’s dilemma. Who has not felt that the world has never caught on to one’s singular qualities? That one is trapped inside a tangled tale the beginning of which seems now impossible to pinpoint and the end of which bids certain to be untoward? Something like this must have communicated itself to my own students as well, since they responded to the book with more enthusiasm that I would have expected. (I often assign my own books and then use them as an opportunity for my students to learn what the whole writing process is really about. Hard work, mostly.) Oddly enough, this book garnered more reviews than anything else I’ve published, but the publisher decided not to finance a tour—I did sign some books at a nearby B. Dalton’s—and none of the local media requested an interview or even bothered to take note of the book’s existence.

     Turn on your sets. Channel 4. I’m appearing on Amethyst!. If you find this surprising—Sandy Flowers is one thing, but Amethyst?—you’ll be no more surprised to see it than I was. You find this in itself curious? Don’t I remember talking to her? How could I forget it? Very good questions, to which I can provide no answers. I was merely skimming through the channels in a desultory fashion, when there I was. Am. I am laughing at something Amethyst has just said. We seem to be enjoying our conversation, which is occasionally interrupted by shots of the audience clapping its approval. I listen in.
     “Two things really struck me the most about your book. First, it’s nice to read something with a lot of good old-fashioned plot. It seems like a lot of our writers would rather leave the really dramatic story with lots of emotional build-up to the movies. Perhaps if more writers trusted their story-telling instincts books would become as popular as movies. But not television.”
     (Laugher from audience.)
     “Ha, ha, no, we mere scribblers will never be able to compete with you, Amethyst. In your hands, television becomes a medium of such immediacy that so literally puts us in touch with our fellow men and women those of us whose talent is for writing will always have to settle for a different kind of relationship with our audiences. As for your point about storytelling in fiction, I couldn’t agree more. My biggest gripe about so many of my contemporaries, in fact, is that they’ve allowed traditional narrative to be abducted by other media. So that we writers are left largely to write about ourselves and our inability to writer about anything else.”
     Where have I heard that one before.
     “Well, I don’t think anyone could accuse you of doing that in this book. These characters live in the real world, not in some dark and gloomy garret. But that brings me to my second point. Your characters are so pumped up with life they literally just jump right off the page! You must be quite a people watcher!”
     “And listener!”
     “Ah ha.”
     “I’ve found my greatest asset as a writer to be my ability to listen to the way people talk and to render that as dialogue. What people say and how they say it go a long way toward revealing “character,” I have discovered. But you would know this yourself, Amethyst, as the host of a talk show.”
     (Moderate audience laughter.)
     “I know what you mean, but sometimes talk is cheap. You know? Some people come on this show and talk up a storm, but I know damn well it’s all an act, and Lord knows what’s really going on inside their heads.”
     The lady may be on to something there.
     “You’re certainly correct about that. And, you know, fiction is really the only art form that allows us to get inside and explore the human mind. Although it must be said this does not always present us with a pretty picture. All of us are driven at times by conflicting impulses. I would guess that if we could really see the human psyche laid bare, so to speak, it would seem to be split into a whole host of contending voices.”
     Amethyst raises an eyebrow.
     “I don’t think we wanna go there right now. We had our show on hearing voices last week!”
     (Audience laughter.)
     “But here is where writers might provide a truly useful service, Amethyst. It’s our job to get in touch with those inner voices within ourselves so as to better understand what makes people do the things they do and to create a sense of empathy for the characters we’re writing about. Perhaps if we all examined ourselves in this way we would be less judgmental when others disappoint us. It’s not so easy to find one’s true integrity.”
     “That’s very well said, Lucas.”
     “Perhaps that’s why I find your book so moving. There is such compassion for all the characters, despite their flaws. And they do have flaws. The flaws we all have.”
     She’s really a surprisingly bright woman.
     “Exactly. And you know at one time I didn’t feel this way at all. I used to write stories that were thin and bloodless. Starved of interest in or feeling for actual people. I’m a walking example of what can happen when you decide to pause and take note of where you’re heading and realize it’s time to get real.”
     “I’m enjoying this visit so much. You’re a joy to talk to, Lucas”
     “Thank you.”
     “I’d like to have sex with you.”
     “After the show?”
     “These people can entertain themselves. Let’s go back to my office.”
     We’re in the office. It’s as lushly decorated as a penthouse apartment. My orgasm is so sublime it is as if my soul is rising into the ether.

     I recall he made a rather good impression on the search committee. Although some of us had read the work he’d submitted as part of his application, we didn’t altogether understand it. (At least I didn’t.) But in his interview he gave a very sensible explanation of what he was attempting to accomplish in his writing, and we decided to hire him because we thought with his sense of purpose he might get somewhere after all. I can only say he struck me as not at all overbearing or presumptuous, but instead answered all our questions with patience and tact. He seemed to believe himself that his work was good, and that it needed no other exaggerated claims or clever rhetoric on his part to justify it. It could speak for itself.

About the author:
Daniel Green has lived in several states. He is originally from Missouri, but now lives in Maine. His fiction has appeared in, among others, Sycamore Review, Bitter Oleander, AugustCutter, and Unlikely Stories. His essays and articles have appeared in, most recently, Antioch Review, Context, Newtopia, Northwest Review, and Philosophy and Literature.

© 2011 Word Riot

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