Editor’s note: Last night, The American Spectator hosted its annual Washington dinner. Here is the speech one of our longtime writers — who did speak at our 2008 dinner — meant to deliver this year.
Thank you everyone for letting me have a few moments of your time at this wonderful event.
I’m sure some of you may remember last year at this very podium I proposed marriage to my fellow writer Stephanie Gutmann just after Justice Alito spoke. Although many people suggested it, we did not ask Justice Alito to preside at our wedding. But I am happy to report that on August 8 Stephanie and I were married at her parents’ house in Vermont with a justice of the peace presiding. We’re now living happily together in Piermont, New York, overlooking the Hudson. Stephanie and her father, David Gutmann, a well known psychologist, and his cousin Ben Watternberg, with whom I’m sure you’re familiar, are all in the audience tonight.
After speaking last year for a few brief moments, it occurred to me that I’d like to say something about the writers for The American Spectator, who are, after all, ultimately what the magazine is all about.
Writing is a strange profession. I came to it very late myself. I only started writing for a small newspaper when I was 28 and I still remember the thrill I got at seeing the first obituary I wrote in the paper the next day. Like everyone else, I spelled “cemetery” wrong the first time as well.
I started writing about planning boards and zoning boards and arguments over siting local recycling centers and soon began to marvel at the people who wrote about really big issues like energy and environmentalism for national magazines. What a life they must lead! I could see that some of the ideas they wrote about were things I was mulling over in my own mind. Soon I decided to take the big gamble, quit my job and try to write a book on one of these subjects. One thing led to another and within two years I found myself on the cover of Harper’s magazine with a story that was one of the first major critiques of environmentalism.
I was in heaven. I confess I still had to pinch myself now and then at the idea that I was consorting with famous editors I had always read about and appearing in a magazine read by hundreds of thousands of people.
I say all this because I want to note that in all this dizzying climb it never occurred to me whether I was ever going to make a living at this. I just assumed that the people whose names appeared regularly in national magazines and who wrote books — books, for heaven’s sake! — were comfortably well off.
I remember I began to have my doubts when I met a certain writer who used to hang out in Harper’s who wore elegant British clothes and a top hat even, and had a very elegant British manner, and who regularly turned out short pieces of elegant prose for the magazine. I began to notice that he was always wearing the same suit of clothes. Then I began to notice that the clothes were rather shabby. I remember one day realizing — and by the way, this was not Tom Bethell, although I suppose it could have been — I remember noticing that this particular British cravat that he was wearing was almost completely worn through.
I began to wonder, “What kind of profession is this I have entered?” There were other eccentrics — a writer who lived on a family farm down in Arkansas, another who had pioneered a crumbling brownstone neighborhood a few blocks from a violent housing project in Brooklyn. These were not the comfortably successful lives I had imagined for those names I read in the magazine every month.
Then I began to notice little clues that I probably should have picked up along the way but somehow missed. I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame after breezing through the Classics comic in grade school. One of the main characters — whom I’d forgotten entirely — is Gringoire, a young poet who has written a mystery play for All Fools’ Day. He tries to get the actors started but they want to wait until the bishop arrives. When the bishop arrives, he gives a speech and goes off and the crowd follows him. Then when the players finally begin, some beggar gets up on the stage and starts clowning and what’s left of the crowd wants to watch him instead of the mystery play. By this time I had written a play that I had labored mightily to be performed before a few scant audiences and I knew exactly what Hugo was talking about.
Then later in the book, Gringoire ends up captured with a bunch of gypsies and is brought before the King to be executed. He makes one last desperate speech on his behalf. “Why do you want to execute me?” he asks, “I’m only a writer. Writers have never amounted to anything, even the most successful. Homer spent his whole life begging for meals on the Greek Islands. Euripides spent his last years living in a cave. It is only long after they are dead that they ever receive any recognition and then some publisher reaps the rewards. Writers are harmless. We never amount to anything.” And of course, his life is spared.
Now I read all this in my adulthood and I say to myself, “Wait a minute. How did I miss all this? Whatever was it gave me the impression that writers were all rich and famous, that people who wrote books sat there counting the money as their royalties rolled in? Why is it that my agent, who is now hawking my own books, is telling me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll never collect any royalties. The only money you’ll ever see is the amount the publisher is foolish enough to give you as an advance.'”
And this was all before the advent of the Internet!
With the Internet we can now safely say that the marginal value of the written word is inexorably headed toward zero. People are now happy to write for free! Everybody in the world is a daily columnist on Facebook. I once met a poet in a bookshop who told me there were more people writing poetry than reading it. Now soon that’s going to be true for every kind of writing! Even prestigious newspapers can’t survive. How is the poor freelance writer who thinks his opinions are worth something ever going to keep body and soul together by scribbling something every day on a “blog”?
So Stephanie and I are “successful writers,” so to speak. We live in a small apartment house that is kind of a college dormitory. The kids upstairs, all in their twenties, have no visible means of income, party all day and drive a Mercedes van. We drive a ten-year-old Dodge Challenger. When we tell them we are writers — that Stephanie blogs every other day in the London Telegraph, that I write for a magazine in Washington called The American Spectator — they look at us askance and say to themselves, “Are these people for real? If they’re such great writers, what are they doing here?”
So why do we do it? I want to answer that question by recounting a story from Stephanie’s book, The Other War, about press coverage in Israel and Palestine. In order to research this book, Stephanie put on a flowery dress and a big sun hat and spent weeks wandering all by herself on the West Bank in the midst of some of the fighting. She dressed that because there are dozens of rich European women wandering the West Bank looking for sympathetic stories or handing out foundation money and she wanted to look like one of them.
She did have a Palestinian driver and he showed her around and translated for her. At one point he said, “Why don’t you meet my friend? He owns a coffee shop.” So she wandered into this coffee shop in the midst of many suspicious eyes and sat down to talk to him. “You’re an American?” he began. “We know all Americans hate the Palestinians? Why do you hate the Palestinians? Can you tell me that?’
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said very slowly. “Why do you say all Americans hate the Palestinians?”
“Because you come all the way over here to get rid of Saddam Hussein but you won’t get rid of Yasser Arafat!” he exploded.
And all of a sudden, there it was. Everybody on the West Bank knew Yasser Arafat was a crook and was stealing money and rewarding his friends and squirreling the rest away in Switzerland, but because of the press interpretation of the situation, nobody outside knew this. She says she had a half-hour intense discussion with him in which they agreed on almost everything and she practically walked out of the café in tears.
And that’s why we do it. Because we like to be on the cutting edge of history. Because we like to throw our bodies out there and find out what’s really happening in the world. Because we like to do people’s thinking for them and be their eyes and ears and discover things that nobody has ever seen before or recognized and put it in print somewhere so we can say, “I was the one who found that out first. I got that story.”
It’s more fun than being rich. I’ve heard writers say, “It’s more fun than being President.” And so as you go around the room tonight shaking hands with the writers and matching up the face with that name you’ve been reading in the magazine all these years, remember, no matter how ill their clothes may fit them, no matter how much more frazzled they may look than you always imagined — they’re having fun, too!
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