Tuesday, June 01, 2004

"All You Zombies"

There once was a science fiction writer named Robert Heinlein who wrote for teenaged boys with a hard-boiled faux toughery that made me think when I was a teenaged boy that he was onto something. (I didn’t read science fiction writers who wrote as if they were "on something" until later.) And nothing he wrote was more disturbing than his short story “All You Zombies.”

Through time travel and non-elective surgery, the hero manages to be both his own mother and his own father, a state that has to serve as a neat objective correlative for more than one solipsistic teenager who cannot quite figure out how Those People! Had Me?!? It’s an alienation that makes you kind of … lonely.

And thus the story ends:

I know where I came from - but where did all you zombies come from? I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once - and you all went away. So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light. You aren't really there at all. There isn't anybody but me - Jane - here alone in the dark.

And so, only TWO DAYS into this thought experiment in which I play at newspaper column writing, I am staring into the void (just to maintain the zombie theme) of The Unread. That is to say, if a newspaper column is a personal essay distorted by the grinding together of those two great tectonic plates, Frequency and Audience, not having an audience really really unbalances what I am trying to do. (Editor’s note: Lose the mid-sentence capitalizations. Tom Wolfe has been there; Alexander Pope has done that.)

Devoid of readers though I am -- and likely to remain so, existing as I do as a pale mote on the fringe of the great Milky Way of bloggery -- the last two days my mind has seethed with ideas. Columnists hate the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The question is not where do you get ‘em but how do you deal with all the ideas you have. And you deal with all the ideas you have by thinking of audience. Here’s my starting point for the lovely long conversations I am planning on having with columnists. Since a newspaper is a mosaic consisting of a variety of elements appealing to a variety of readers, a columnist knows that she/he need not appeal to every reader. Columnists have their own audiences, some larger, some smaller, but each (we assume) sufficient to keep the columnist employed, the columnist serving either as a way of selling newspapers to those who wouldn’t buy the paper otherwise, or possibly as a way of winning esteem from those who would buy the paper in any event but might not choose to admire the paper. (Case in point: San Francisco Chronicle daring to be dull these last 20 years, so people would “respect” it.)

This is common sense. Not everyone reads everything. Many questions flow from this fragmentation. Dear Columnist: How clearly do you understand your audience? How did you “discover” your audience? (I am very much of the opinion that some columnists are anointed with the words, “Just keep doing what you’re doing” and so they blunder into success.) How do you communicate with your audience, and how do your adjust your column to the wishes of that audience? To what degree does your sense of having a continuing audience allow you to assume that your readers know something about “you,” allowing you to talk about places and people and ideas previously discussed? To what degree does your sense of audience allow you to write above – or below? – the newspaper’s statistical monstrosity, The Representative Reader? And to what degree does the fixity of your audience limit you. Back in my San Francisco Chronicle days, I was told that occasionally one of Steve Rubenstein’s weekly columns would be returned to him with the words “Not a Steve Rubenstein column!” scrawled on it by some editorial commissar.

Oh the intricate questions this gives rise to… But I have gone beyond 600 words, one of my self-imposed limits, so now I must go back and cut. Here’s my point crisply said: I don’t HAVE an audience. What deformations will result from that?

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