Thursday, July 01, 2004

One of You is a Murderer II: Mistah Blog, He Dead

Well, of course, he's dead. You didn't need to be Jessica Fletcher, much less Columbo, to figure out you don't write in that kind of overbearing mannered Forties pulp style and expect to be allowed to live. And what a death, a really really mannered death.

(A kitchen scene. Uniformed officers bustle in background. Tall figure in Burbury and tweed hat works at lighting his pipe. The Yard is on the case.)

"He was sauteed to death," the superintendent explains to no one in particular, as the corpse is removed au jus.

"Whut kind 'o bloke wud do that?" asks the constable, who is upstage checking to see if any condiments are missing.

"A very rum one, indeed," the superintendent answers, "for after the murderer was done with the sauteeing, he deglazed the pan!"

"Lucky only four people were reading his blog, the revelations of which have brung this on" the constable says. "That narrows it down. Three men who could have done it -- done the first crime he talked about and now this one to cover it up. And, of couse, his wife, who had probably been looking for an opportunity to prang him for many a year."

And at this point the superintendent pauses, knocking the ashes out of his pipe on the constable's forehead. "Ah, my dear Witless," the superintendent says."There is a fifth reader out there, though he's a lurker, dropping in for an occasional read but never posting a comment or revealing his name. Oh, our work's cut out for us, it is, finding out who this lurker is!"

And that's how all this mess got started, when my site meter revealed to me that I have a mystery reader. So I am back to thinking about audience, and how it shapes what I write. But the effect of a single mystery reader, I admit, is about as far from the state of mind of a newspaper columnist as one can get. The newspaper columnist is a wholesaler, dealing with a mass anonymous audience, though it's possible that focus groups and the publisher's fever dreams have resulted in the columnist being presented with some sort of uberarchetype, with a gender and age and perhaps a livelihood. (Back in the my Chronicle days the Executive Editor used to say that as we wrote we must always think about -- which is not quite the same as telling us to write for -- "the little old lady in Colma.")

Columnists write first and foremost for the great silent hydra, its myriad of tiny faces quivering on stalks all a blur. Well, not everything is a blur. Popular columnists have their little posses -- nervous phone callers, cake bakers, senders of perfumed notes written in a spidery hand and, of course, now the emailers who may not be typical but are certainly intense. I'm writing as if all these respondents are fans. You always have your nuts who write at such hot length, I am told -- their names can become familiar, too. (Though why do they keep reading what they hate? I've listened to Rush Limbaugh for six minutes total in all the years he's been on the air.)

But why would a newspaper columnist spend one minute thinking about a single anonymous reader? The newspaper columnist assumes a universe of lurkers -- that's how I'll put it.

Same thing for a successful blog with many readers. Not the same thing for me because thinking of this reader whom I do not know, I realize that if my readers are not quite the wind beneath my wings, they are the mint underneath my pillow; that is, I'd rather have readers than not and do try to please them if I can figure out how.

Pabst misses Prince Valiant and knows his comics. (Note to self: Write about the Chron dropping Zippy the Pinhead.) Moore cooks. (Feed the beast. Ah, "deglazing" mentioned not 200 words ago. Check: Beast fed.) Swain is a university professor. (Time to write that column in which I explain that tenure is not equivalent to Dead Men Teaching.) Wife is wife. (Wife is my sunshine, my only sunshine. She makes me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.)

But now I have a lurker. Who knows what a lurker wants? But if the lurker continues to lurk, then lurker must like the thing he ... lurks. (Can "lurk" take an object?)

Well, this is a dead end. I can't think of how my writing about my lurker relates to the problems of an actual columnist. My method in this madness has been to throw myself into a vortex of imagination -- i.e, trying to write a post -- confident that the process will produce an idea that will relate to my research topic. Back to a variation on an old joke: If you shovel the shit, son, there's a pony in there somewhere. But this time ... Wait! Wait! Wait!

I talked earlier about how columnists respond to phone calls, notes and emails, each of those probably greater in number than the preceding by at least a factor of ten. That's new. Back in the day, columnists had to have had fewer responses from readers. Calling is a greater emotional challenge to the reader who wants to respond than writing a letter is. Writing is a greater physical challenge. Emailing is easiest of all, the ease making it all more likely that the email be ill-considered, either in praise or blame. So now columnists have fewer anonymous lurkers and more participants. Like it or not, they know more about more of their readers. Here are my questions, one practical and one philosophical: 1) How do you handle your emails, that task necessarily taking up time and changing the shape of your job? 2) Does this increase in feedback from readers change what you write?

I've done it, I've done it. Please don't kill me. With each day come new discoveries, and who's to say which of them might someday shake the world?

(And as for you, lurker, staring in through our window, smirking, for all we know defiling yourself as you read: Crawl back in your hole. -- Eds.)


G Pabst said...

In 1997, while my son was at the American University in Cairo, Jon Carroll visited Egypt and wrote a week of columns from there.

I, of course, fed them to Mark via e-mail as they came out.

Mark's thesis was: "guy's making the ugly American tour, party on the boat in the Nile, etc., and therefore has no understanding of Egypt, its customs or people." What you'd expect from a UCLA senior living overseas and gone a little native.

I passed his daily critiques on to Carroll, who both of us had met through Jason Wechter's Mystery Adventures (Mark and I were "teammates" more than once while he was in high school). (Aside: you appeared in one of these as a bogus Jesuit. I believe it was 1993, or so.)

Carroll answered, somewhat peevishly, e-mails which I then shipped to Egypt. Resulting in a couple more salvos from each side.

I think I've saved them somewhere on a disk. If you'd like to see them, I'll try to retrieve.

Let me know.

G Pabst said...

Oh, yeah. And I love your heads!

Your reference here to Conrad/Eliot/Coppola and who-knows-who* else makes having been an English major worthwhile after all.

* resonates with Santana, "Evil Ways"

mackdoggy said...


Well, I'm not altogether sure, but I just might be your mystery lurker.

'Cause you see I logged in from work once or twice.

Might be.

On another track, is that "little old lady in Colma" dead?

Maybe she died from boredom from reading the Chronicle?