Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Perils Of Op-Ed: An End-Of-Year Reflection

As I’ve been doing this since 1997, you might think I’ve had both the time and the inclination to ask myself “What the BLEEP! are you doing, moron?” at least once since then. And yes, I have, on occasion, wondered why putting these pieces out as regularly as I usually do is important enough to me to spend an average of an hour and a half each day writing and posting them.

The matter becomes especially puzzling when I find myself with little or nothing to say...no subjects of compelling interest uppermost in my thoughts.

Well, we all have our little foibles. Among mine is a need to say those things that, in my sometimes exclusive opinion, need to be said but aren’t being said by others. It’s equal parts a belief in my own powers of expression and a commitment to Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

(Excuse me? No, I don’t wear that any more. The tights no longer fit, and capes have been out of style for decades. Besides, ever since that encounter with gold kryptonite...oh, never mind.)

Still, it’s healthful to ask oneself “Why am I doing this?” about everything one does, at least now and then, and to ponder the soundness of the answers. Especially this business of opinion-mongering. Who’s listening? What effect am I having on him? Am I happy about that effect? Would I change it if I could, and if so, how?

In case you’re curious, Liberty’s Torch, like Eternity Road before it, on average welcomes about 300 readers per day. That’s an estimate rather than a measurement, as it’s founded on Blogger’s “page load” counter and a typical ratio of about 3.3 page loads to one unique visitor. It’s not a particularly large readership, but if the comments that arrive here are any guide, it’s a passionate one. I appreciate it greatly, am pleased to have it, and will happily feed it prose until I become physically, mentally, or emotionally unable to continue.

In part, I do this for you, Gentle Reader. But only in part.

Not long ago, in my little non-fiction book An Indie Writer’s Odyssey, I wrote:

Cruising SmashWords for reading material—hey, I can’t spend all my time writing these sententious pieces—I’ve noted about two dozen writers who’ve described themselves as “best-selling.” Inasmuch as I read four or five books per week and I’d never heard of any of them before, it occurred to me that others might find this appellation as mysterious as “award-winning,” and as worthy of explication.

Many, many periodicals maintain “best-seller lists.” Which organ you read will determine which of them you’re familiar with. New Yorkers tend to think of the New York Times and the list that appears in its Sunday Book Review section, and indeed, for a considerable spate of years I was unaware that other “best-seller lists” existed anywhere. But there are many; pick up the regional dailies from other cities and you’ll find one in each—and the books listed there aren’t guaranteed to match those listed in the Times.

It’s legitimate, albeit barely, to deem oneself a “best-selling writer” if one has ever-so-briefly occupied the #20 slot on the best-seller list of the Rat’s-Ass, Nebraska Rumor and Stink: circulation 23, motto: “Road Kill Pics Page One Above-The-Fold.” After all, the Rumor and Stink—a fine publication, really; their coverage of homosexual necrophiliac bestiality scandals is unequaled by any periodical outside Zimbabwe—has a perfect right to publish whatever sort of nonsense it deems “newsworthy,” guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of these United States. But to grasp the full significance of being one of the R&S’s “best-selling writers” requires a bit more information:

  • How is the list composed? Does the publication solicit sales figures nationally, regionally, or only from very local sellers? Does it include books sold over the Internet, and books distributed in electronic form? Does it even bother with sales figures? “Best-selling” doesn’t have to mean “Most-selling.”
  • Does the list deliberately exclude certain categories of books? It’s been the case since Gutenberg that if all category restrictions are removed, the best-selling book is the Bible, and in places 2 though 10 are various cookbooks.
  • How often is the list updated? A list updated once per week will show results quite different from those of a list updated once per year—especially since most booksellers don’t keep sales figures around for that long.
  • Does the list have an agenda? That is, does it exist primarily to promote the works of certain writers, or of writers in the publication’s area of circulation? Does it exist to push works with a particular social, cultural, or political slant? Oftentimes these little qualifications won’t be mentioned even in the small print.

The relevance, just in case you’re wondering, is this: Writers of all sorts write to be read. We yearn to be read. Some among us would sell their children into slavery for a single week on the Times best-seller list. (I can’t: I don’t have any of my own, and the C.S.O. has steadfastly refused to “lend” me hers.) To be read is to receive confirmation that one has said something that others have found valuable, or at least temporarily diverting. That’s why so many of those SmashWords writers describe themselves as “best-selling,” whether honestly or not: by telling a potential reader that many others have read their works, they’re hoping to induce him to join that “multitude.”

The genesis is, of course, a desire for significance: importance to others. Everyone wants to be significant to others, even if negatively so. Why do you think serial killers put so much effort into what they do?

Most of us who blather on the Web don’t get anything for it. I certainly don’t. But then, I would reject an offer of compensation, for a simple reason: He who pays the piper calls the tune. The moment my incentives are altered by accepting money for my opinions, I’ll start to think about what might affect those payments. As long as I do this entirely because I want to do it, I’ll be free to say what I damned well please.

(By the way, note how this contrasts with my perfect willingness to accept payment for my fiction. That’s entertainment, a wholly different business.)

But the perils of op-ed don’t begin and end with keeping the paychecks (if any) coming. Indeed, that might not be the worst of them. There’s a constant temptation to ask oneself “What do my readers want me to say?”

If you succumb to the lure of telling people, however defined, what you think they want to hear, how can you claim to be of any importance to them? You’re pandering: feeding their opinions back to them, whether out of a hope for approbation or fear of negative feedback. Indeed, it’s worse than that: in suppressing your own sincere convictions, you’re doing your readers a disservice, by denying them the possibility of learning something from you, even if it’s only how passionate they are about their own convictions.

I’ve said some massively unpopular things in my years writing for the Web. The feedback has cost me a couple of friends. It’s occasionally blown me (temporarily) out of pixels. But in retrospect I don’t regret a word of it...and I’ve learned how important it is not to let such feedback throw me off my stride.

Either you honestly believe what you’ve written and have written it for that reason above all others, or you’re deceiving your readers in search of some extrinsic reward. There is no middle ground.

All that having been said, no matter what one says, one is always telling someone what he wants to hear. That’s another of the perils of op-ed: overvaluing the positive responses to one’s words.

Consider these two pieces:

I shan’t dispute those writers’ assertions, nor shall I question the sincerity of their convictions. Yet ponder this: they’re telling some fraction of their readerships what they want to hear. How large is that fraction, and how important is it to those writers that they continue to receive approbation from it? Imagine that at some later time, evidence is presented to them that causes them to question the accuracy or the validity of their previous statements. Would they react honestly, or would they succumb to the temptation to wave it aside without a rigorous examination and evaluation?

In our time you cannot avoid telling some what they want to hear, and others the exact opposite. If that matters to you more than the accuracy of your observations and the validity of your conclusions, you’re either pandering today or will pander tomorrow. In other words, you’ve abandoned honesty in favor of popularity.

Popularity matters most to pop stars and politicians. That’s not an outright condemnation of popularity. Ask Bill de Blasio how important it is to retain the approval of certain groups. Then ask yourself whether you’d be willing to sacrifice your personal integrity for popularity, as virtually every politician of our day seems to feel he must.

The Year of Our Lord 2015 is almost upon us. I intend to keep on as I’ve been doing. If you approve, fine. If not...fine! I receive nothing for my labors here, and I intend that it shall always be so. (Of course, it helps that I don’t need money, but...well, it does help.) What you read here will always reflect exactly what I believe – and that will be founded on what I think I know. If you believe I’m wrong, I’ll give you the opportunity to convince me, provided you can do so without insulting me or denigrating something I value.

As with insults and denigrations, so also with appeals to authority. I reject all such “arguments.” Anyway, a great many of them are fabrications. As Socrates said to Confucius during one of their televised debates, “Dude! Don’t go putting words in the mouths of historical figures.” (Confucius’s reply that “They don’t let you put stuff on the Internet that isn’t true!” was ruled out of bounds by moderator Zoroaster.)

There are many temptations in the world. Fortunately, I can resist those of op-ed. As for the others, Don’t Ask!

Happy New Year from your Curmudgeon Emeritus!


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your honesty. I'm one of the 300 and I'll keep reading. And maybe, just maybe, I might be lured into reading some S/F. Might have to broaden my horizon with the deaths of two of my favorites (Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn).

igor said...

OK: you got me with the gold kryptonite. In the dim recesses of my mind, I remember that there many colors, and that they all did different things to the various survivors of Krypton, but, ever since my mother threw away my comics ~50 years ago, I forget. So: what does (or what did it do in the comics) gold kyrptonite do?

By the way, even though you can read this comment, I really AM a robot; you need to get a better robot-detector.

Pascal said...

Curmudgeon Emeritus wrote this? With all that use of the 1st personal singular?

OK: What have you done with him? >:)

Thank you Fran. You've reinforced my own often difficult efforts. I'll continue to call attention to the brazen advances of the Malthusian moralizing death cult and its Soviet-Style Media eunuchs no matter how many readers find it unpleasant.

Here's to a new year where live and let live begins to retake its rightful place.

Tim Turner said...

I was in my mid-20s when I came across an article in Rolling Stone that talked about Paul McCartney's bass playing and how critical it was to the Beatles' "sound."

I was a Beatlemaniac in the early 60s. Of course they were John, Paul, George and Ringo. But to listen to "She Loves you," or "I Want to Hold Your Hand," or "That Boy," or "Please Please Me," was to listen to the BEATLES - not to figure out who wrote what or who was the "leader" of the group.

Whatever their individual merits, the Beatles for a couple of years were THE BEATLES, not 4 individuals. And it wasn't just hype. Listen to the first couple of albums.

That's a round-about (probably inebriated) way of saying that you aren't just an op-ed blogger anymore, Fran. Your body of work, from your fictional heroes to your advice to writers, to your musings on technology to your political and social commentary has become more than just your point of view.

It's a way of thinking. A dialogue between something within you and the sensibilities of your readers. You can't discuss race, faith or many of the other issues you've dealt with without ruffling everyone's feathers at one point or another. So it's not "just" entertainment or standing on a soap box and haranguing.

But an honest dialogue - even though you're the one doing most of the writing - benefits both parties.

I guess what I'm saying is that you aren't just an op-ed writer (or blogger) to me, anymore. You certainly aren't just a physicist Catholic programmer. In a way, you aren't even "just" a point of view. Rather, you've become sort of a "way of thinking." A way of expressing. A window into the paradoxes of rationality that somehow remains pretty darned consistent on several levels.

Happy New Year and all the best wishes to you and yours.

Drew said...

Frankly I enjoy the articles where we don't agree most because they are as always very insightful, logical and well written. In this time of so much deceit and deception by the MSM, gov't, religious leaders, educators, law enforcement, etc stopping to examine one's beliefs is an outstanding practice. As a reformed Neo-Con I appreciate your time and efforts.

Guy S said...

If memory serves (And with only 5 active brain cells at any given time, it don't serve much!), gold Kryptonite was the deal breaker...the one version that would, if Supes was exposed to it, remove his powers from him forever more. Fortunately, it was supposed to be the rarest of all Kryptonites. Green could weaken and kill him, Red did strange things to him (you never knew what from exposure to exposure), and I think White was like a version of viagra...or at least it slowed him down so he wasn't "as fast as a speeding bullet"...but I can't be sure about the last one.

And from our house to yours...may the coming New Year be considerably better than this one was. May you have increased good fortunes, good times with family and friends, and never suffer from the dreaded writers block!

Anonymous said...

I am also one of those 300. In fact, Liberty's Torch is just below Drudge Report on my daily reading list. Liberty's Torch has introduced me to an interesting phenomenon. It's hard to describe. Of the things I read with which I agree, I often find that the writings touch on concepts that I have previously conceived of on my own. With Liberty's Torch, quite often I will read something I agree with, but which is written in such a way as to have never previously occurred to me. As a relatively deep thinker myself, it's exciting to be blindsided with agreeable novel concepts. Don't let it go to your head, Fran, and Happy New Year!

RichJ said...

I detect no empty arguments here. Continue standing in the gate, Continue the ministry in the truth, Francis.

Stay alert. Stay alive.

Weetabix said...

"In our time you cannot avoid telling some what they want to hear..."

I think I just had a flashback to H.I.'s parole interview in Raising Arizona.

Op-ed on, Fran!

Unknown said...

As one of the 300 I thank you. I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts whether I agree with you or not. Mostly I do. Very well written, often informative and always a pleasure to read. As a lapsed Catholic you've caused me to rethink my faith. For that alone I would thank you. I wish you a healthy, happy and prosperous new year.

Jersey Jim said...

Hi Fran - I am one of those daily readers as well. I live in Old Tappan, just across the border from your childhood home. I hope retirement leaves you plenty of time to do what brings you pleasure, even if it is not necessarily blogging.

Mark said...

If we are among the 300, that would make you Leonidas.

I always enjoy your musings and look forward to your blog as part of my daily routine. Your fiction works are equally enjoyable... I like to see characters who are truly heroic as your creations are.

I have to second Tim's statements above... I hope to continue seeing your works over the coming year.

Happy New Year to you, the C.S.O., and the menagerie.

Differ said...

I too am one of your 300. (Mark beat me to the Spartan reference). Your writing is a always thought-provoking, never dull. Thank you.

stormfriend said...

If we are using reference from film, perhaps "This...is...Sparta!" would be most apropos. I visit BoL daily, or nearly so; because at my age it is a wonderful way to get the synapses firing - without making myself angry enough to spit nails. It is also conviction and reminder that at some point in time; I can again return to my own intardnet musing and enlightenment; once "actual retirement" begins, and "working retirement" ceases - thus freeing up time that is now spent pursuing food, ammo, and etc.; in order to best safeguard kith and kin as I can. Brother Fran, thank you for continuing to write and share; my prayer for you remains that you have a brave new year...
all anguish, pain, and sadness; leave your heart and let your road be clear. Blessings in the new year... Grandpa