By Mr. Fish
When it comes to the creative arts, the only profession that seems capable of purging its weaklings is sports. Why is this? Why is there always an audience for excruciatingly mediocre artists in this country, but not for clumsy, uncoordinated ballplayers? If Ryan Howard, for instance, suddenly started trying to catch line drives with his cap or if he continuously forgot to bring a bat with him to home plate, he’d disappear from public view. And, yet, there’s Mary Higgins Clark at a tiny signing table at the head of a bug-eyed chow line made up of people starved for completely unwholesome breath mints shaped like little skulls. And there’s Stephen King in an Alfa Romeo, speeding along the Gulf of Mexico and, miraculously, not sitting alone and unshaven in a dilapidated trailer in Fort Wayne, Ind., spreading marshmallow fluff on a Pop Tart and wishing that he knowed how to work a hammer or sumthin’.
Again, why is this? I have a theory.
There are two kinds of activism. There’s the organized kind and the individual kind. The organized kind is typified by all the marching and leafleting and fundraising that come out of a group of people who wish to cure a perceived social ill that has either atrophied into the norm or, if unopposed, is threatening to atrophy into the norm. These are people who want to stop the natural gas industry from fracking up the environment, for instance, or people who think that creationism should be taught in public schools in place of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The individual kind is simply the act of not adhering mindlessly to either the demands or expectations of the dominant culture or what is verging on becoming uncontroversial public opinion. It may manifest itself merely in having a disagreement and then a conversation or a debate with somebody else, usually in an attempt to change his or her mind; specifically, it is not shutting up when faced with controversy in the name of politeness, cowardice or sheer stupidity.
Both kinds have benefits that, when unified, can affect the most positive change. Or, conversely, together they can have the most deleterious effects and inspire the most treacherous results. And that’s the point: Typically, when one decides to save the world, he or she is deciding to save only the parts of the world that he or she finds most flattering to his or her ego and sense of right, wrong and beauty. After all, what good is a savior’s concept of moral law without the implied lawlessness of contrarians who embody a contrary point of view?
When Buddha said, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it,” he was speaking more as a keen observer of human nature than as a moralist who sits in judgment of some intrinsic good or evil. He recognized how, by observing the symmetric physics that determine the symbiotic truisms that constitute the material balance of the universe, a human being is prone to confusing his or her interpretation of reality with reality itself, thereby investing his or her own subjective understanding of things with the irrefutable concreteness of objective matter.
Such a person will imagine the light of his own moral judgment to be precisely what determines the darkness intrinsic to all other competing moralistic visions.
Saviors, thusly, can never be trusted to be anything but mere amplifications of the dimmest wits among us, who are those who imagine that their concept of virtue is the version best suited for everyone. In fact, I always thought that the unfortunate deification of Jesus Christ and the subsequent scriptural moralizing that his biographers had him engage in for the sake of inflating their own importance were grotesquely unethical. Wasn’t the notion that we should all help the sick and poor and love our neighbors radical and mind-blowing enough? Did we really need to have a savior who could also communicate with fish like Aquaman and get a dead guy to wipe the pus out of his eyes and start turning cartwheels around the room, yipping and yahooing like a goddamn hyena? I mean, why create a fictional Jesus who is immortal, knows he’s immortal, yet still goes around pretending that his being crucified is a merit badge signifying some kind of sacrifice, as if trading in mortality for immortality wasn’t the tactical equivalent of abandoning a sinking ship or escaping a burning building. Who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to exchange the slow, meaty disintegration of our own imperfect biology for, among other things, telepathy, the power to turn invisible, the ability to travel through time, to blow shit up with our mind, to be able to fly, to get to hang out with every celebrity who will ever live, all the while maintaining a perfect swimmer’s physique and a blood/alcohol level that hovers somewhere around the typical monster truck rallier’s 20 minutes prior to the fucking awesome arrival of Bigfoot? The only thing I felt that we should pity Jesus for was his fashion sense, which has never advanced much beyond what Roald Dahl’s Uncle Joe wore for decades prior to Charlie yanking the golden ticket from his Wonka Bar. Like Charlie, I think it might be high time that we demand that Jesus put some goddamn underpants on and humble himself by walking among the living.
Now, before I pretend that I was never ever guilty of thinking that I, myself, might make a halfway decent savior as a writer—having fooled myself into believing that I had been saved by the writings of S.J. Perelman, Albert Camus, Chuck Jones, Friedrich Nietzsche and Woody Allen—let me share with you the form letter that I used to send out to the publishers and editors of magazines and newspapers and publishing houses who rejected my work with their own form letters back when I first started out as an author:
Thank you very much for your recent rejection note.
I would very much like to respond personally to every rejection I receive, but the volume of rejection is prohibitive. This is not an indication of the time and consideration devoted to your rejection note, but merely my desire to respond as quickly as possible. Please understand that this does not reflect on your profession but rather on my needs at present.
Fuck you and your shortsightedness. You wouldn’t know a genius if one came up and bit you on the ass, even though the simple desire to bite you anywhere should be evidence enough.
Nevertheless, I encourage you to continue rejecting exceptionally good submissions as eventually someone will kill you.
This was back in the ’90s, when mail was still made out of paper and submitting one’s work to an editor involved much more legwork and menial labor than it does now. (Try explaining to anybody born after 1985 the concept of licking a stamp and he’ll look at you as if you just crapped your pants and started reminiscing about how cheap sodie pop and illegal abortions used to be.) In fact, the chore of writing, itself, was much more laborious in the past and required a greater commitment to all the many stages involved in the job of being an author.
Think about it. Before there were word processors and email and Wikipedia, there were dictionaries (I’ll wait while you take a minute to Google the word: dic·tion·ar·ies), which one had to leaf through in order to confirm word definitions and proper spelling and usage, and there were libraries which one typically had to leave the house in order to find, and there were books which had to be opened and closely examined for the purpose of corroborating facts and theories and assumptions, and there was the collecting and the collating of research data and the handwriting of notes into notebooks, then there was the returning home and the pounding on the keys of a typewriter, which included the whiting out of mistakes with a tiny paintbrush and the blowing on the paint to make it dry, and then there was the leaving again and the xeroxing of all the pages of original type and the assemblage of copies for both storage and distribution, then there was the buying of the envelopes and the paying for the double postage, which included the self-addressed stamped envelope wherein the form rejection letter would be contained, and then, as I indicated earlier, there was the licking of the stamps and the mailing—followed, of course, by the waiting for weeks, sometimes months, for a response. It was easy then to make the sloppy deduction that all the hard work inherent in the preparation of a submission translated directly to the significance of the product.
Of course it only makes sense, given the preposterous verbosity of the human animal, that most published writing is exactly as useless and uninteresting as all the unpublished writing that comes out of nonwriters as longwinded uninterrupted speech, the only difference being that, by virtue of the printed page, a writer is less likely to shut up even when the reader puts his or her hands over his or her ears. And while such immunity to outside interference may sometimes inspire the kind of fearless intelligence necessary for the writing of such books as “Native Son” and “The Catcher in the Rye,” most of the time it simply inspires the kind of fearless stupidity that imbeciles use to publish “Going Rogue: An American Life” and “The Bell Curve” and to make like-minded publications the kind of loud and wacky bullshit that enjoy the same kind of mass circulation as herpes, hula hoops and all the different mispronunciations of Sartre and Goethe.
Only when I first started reading what other people had written did I begin to realize that possessing the ability to write shouldn’t automatically demand that a person become a writer, just like being able to swallow a live mousetrap shouldn’t automatically demand that a person become an idiot. More often than not, being able to write about something has very little to do with having something worthwhile to say about it. My best friend all through college, for example, spent the first 15 years of his life learning how to draw with an attention to detail that made his pencil drawings appear as precise and realistic as photographs, only to piss away the 10 years after he graduated copying publicity stills out of music magazines of his favorite rock bands and implanting himself in the lineup. Not only should a person like that not be encouraged to believe that his art is anything more spectacular than a beautifully illustrated, albeit terrifically longwinded, suicide note that would guarantee no confusion among friends and family as to why, upon entering middle age, he decided to kill himself, but a person like that should probably have his air guitar confiscated and replaced with the Help Wanted section of the newspaper, which it was, thankfully. Now he’s a top-notch alcoholic with a mortgage and a shitty office job and absolutely nothing to live for. Ironically, minus the office job, he’s a more legitimate artist nowadays, being more like Jackson Pollack than he would’ve been had he continued doing what he was doing.
One thing to recognize about writing, too, is that the job of being a writer is populated by those who began as fans of the profession. In other words, wanting to be a writer is all that it takes for somebody to become a writer, especially when no one ever becomes a writer because he or she has to become one the same way that somebody has to become a dishwasher or a cashier or a house painter in order to pay the bills. As a result, the abilities of a writer are seldom what determine his or her talent, but rather it is his or her ability to simply wish to have talent that’s enough to qualify him or her as a recognized artist—which, by the way, is why art has come to have no more value to the public at large than money would if everyone were allowed to print it. Most writers, in fact, are no more able to write spectacularly than baseball fans would be able to play baseball spectacularly if all of them were suddenly put into uniforms and organized into a league of teams made to define the sport. Not only would such a scenario dumb down the game to the point where the truly gifted players would be unable to demonstrate what previously made them great because the pitches they’d be getting would either be rolling across the plate or sailing over the backstop, but the yardstick necessary for measuring the talented against the untalented would be nonexistence because everybody would be crammed onto the same diamond, their feet rubbing out all the chalked boundaries, the mass misconstruing the consensuality of the chaos with a deeply meaningful camaraderie.
I hope that clears everything up.
* * *
Mr. Fish’s debut collection of political cartoons, “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People,” is now available on Truthdig.