Page Two: Funny Papers
More than ever, the 'Chronicle' is what people make of it
The written word and the writer of those words are not one and the same. It's not just that, when printed, words take on a life of their own but also that writing is not a direct transfusion of oneself onto the page, even if one, quite foolishly, might have that goal.
Most writers find a voice with which they are comfortable. In some ways, that voice is more the directional map and gyroscope of one's writing than of oneself. Not that this distancing is intentional, though it can be; writing – like painting, making music, dancing, and the like – involves a set of skills, which sometimes is not enough to let one realize precisely the end product one is trying to achieve.
John Irving used to say that whenever you met writers whose work you really admired, you should be somewhat disappointed in them as people. His position was that really good writers put the best of themselves, in almost every way, into their writing. The writing, therefore, should be greater than the writer.
I'm not even sure I agree with that statement, but it at least makes the point very clear.
I really do wish that my writing was funnier. I'm not a fan of reading writing that is funny for its own sake (humorous essayists, The New Yorker's famed stable of wry and witty talents), but I do enjoy it when the writing is funny in pursuit of a review or in relating a story. Calvin Trillin, for instance, knocks me out with whatever he writes, while some of the funniest film criticism I've read was authored by Elvis Mitchell when he was a film reviewer for The New York Times.
There is something interesting about being the editor of this publication as well as a columnist. Often, I get lost or left out of the equation when people read my work. Some imagine it to be an intentionally hateful, vicious attack on themselves and their beliefs, regardless of the specifics of those beliefs. In other words, they tailor my meaning to attack or contradict their beliefs. This is not to complain: I don't relish the misanthropic role as much as I once did, but writers have no way of controlling how readers react to them. It is not unusual for anyone involved in a publication to find that he or she is perceived as a character different from him or herself. Mostly these characters are created in the head of the reader, though some writers have intentionally or inadvertently contributed to their creations.
Going back many decades, I remember those rare occasions, long before the Chronicle came into being, when I would meet socially a writer I had been reading. I always imagined that he or she had the best life possible – had more than enough money, loved being a writer, got laid regularly, and in general lived the good life. My attitude was the same for radio and TV personalities.
Over time, I would discover that the terrific late-night deejay I admired, for instance, worked only 25 hours a week, earning minimum wage without benefits.
Hanging out with comic-book writers and artists really drove this point home. Most of them, no matter how long they had been at it, had to continue working brutal schedules. Getting paid by the page (at one point, maybe $65 a page for art and, on the top end, $12-15 for scripts), almost all of them, no matter how much work they did for a comic-book company, were freelancers rather than employees. As contract labor, they got no benefits and for the most part did not own their creative work.
When I started spending a lot of time with comic-book writer Otto Binder, I found it unsettling to realize that essentially he wrote every day just to stay solvent – this despite having been a writer for more than 30 years at that time and a comic-book writer for more than 20. At the time, I was oblivious to how dire the situation was, not realizing that he would have to keep writing to have money to live until his death. There was no safety net.
A classic example of how ingrained such misconceptions can be came during one of Harvey Pekar's early appearances on the David Letterman show.
The interview took place shortly after a major New York publisher (either Doubleday or Ballantine) had put out an anthology of stories from Pekar's American Splendor comic books. (Pekar started self-publishing and -distributing the comic book in 1976. In 1993, having published 16 issues, he began a relationship with publisher Dark Horse.)
According to Pekar, the best some of the books ever did was break even, while some of them ended up losing money. Going into the red for thousands of dollars on his file clerk's salary allowed him very little discretionary income.
As long as I've known Pekar, he's always been looking for extra work to generate additional income. Early on in his run of appearances on Letterman, I had a hysterical phone conversation with him. Talking to Pekar on the phone is always entertaining. A beat in so many ways, especially regarding word choices and tonal rhythms, and a onetime serious jazz collector, he is still an extremely knowledgeable aficionado who is also widely read and erudite, though his language is never beholden to the Academy but rather is of the street. Pekar swiftly and steadily, without pause, pumps out endless run-on sentences in an almost whispered voice. This time he was complaining that Joyce Brabner, his wife, was taking all his clothes to make Harvey Pekar dolls, which he did plug for sale on Letterman.
Years later, after an early-morning screening of the American Splendor film at Sundance, followed by a Q&A with Pekar and Brabner, Marge Baumgarten and I went up to say hello. Without hesitation, Brabner asked if we had any work for Harvey, because they needed the income.
Though he appeared on the show a number of times, in general Letterman had no idea what to make of Pekar, finally banning him after Pekar ran down General Electric. Clearly not joking, Letterman was incredulous when Pekar claimed he had to keep his job as a clerk at the VA hospital to support himself. Making in the neighborhood of $15 million a year, Letterman – quite honestly and in all sincerity – couldn't imagine that even a minor celebrity like Pekar, who had just had a book published by a major publisher, wasn't financially set.
The Chronicle will celebrate 27 years of publishing next month. Many people who were either born or moved here have never known Austin without the Chronicle. Now there are several versions of "me," and of all of us at the paper, floating around, some of them regarded quite kindly, some not so kindly. There is something inherently interesting about how one is perceived when compared to how one perceives oneself.
At this late date, I still find that my all-time favorite letter to the Chronicle appeared in the 12th issue, Feb. 5, 1982:
"You people have a serious attitude problem! By the time I got through your Jan. 22 issue I was worn down by your snotty, groovier-than-thou, ultra-hip, snivelling, fuck-everybody attitude. Bowles is never going to endear himself to the American public by slamming the Cowboys, and that bitchy little weewee Tony Sivle told me nothing about the records he was reviewing, ad nauseum. I hope your publication dies a quick and painful death in the finest Austin tradition."
I couldn't agree more; I couldn't agree less. Although we didn't perish, the letter-writer should find succor in that continuing to publish back then was about the worst punishment anyone could have inflicted on us.
Now, all the different perceptions the outside world has of the staff, contributors, and writers, as well as of the Chronicle itself, are crucial to the paper. This is especially true of our readers' views of how we regard and conceive of the paper and ourselves (including our relationship to our readers and the community).
As I noted above, this perception usually does and should have much more to do with the readers than with what we do here. The staff works almost irrationally hard all the time to make the Chronicle as good a paper as they can produce. This is not to say anyone should love, appreciate, or agree with us just because of our intense good intentions. It is to clarify that the reality in which this paper is produced is very different than many seem to imagine.
I'm both more cogent and more fragmented than ever, but that's always been the case. The paper now is so much beyond me, beyond anyone – a combination of history, perception, intention, time, reality, and opinions.
Sometimes lately I've been given to lying down, staring at the ceiling, and watching the life of this paper flash before my eyes, as though authored by its dying breath. Oddly, what I find really interests me about that long, long voyage is the lack of humor in my writing. This is to its detriment; humor would certainly add some kind of light and freshness to my prose. On the other hand, maybe it would prove a spice too pungent and aromatic for my unleavened prose.
1 Now, feel free to make any cruel joke you want about that statement, but remember to do so would be lazier than shooting fish in a barrel.