Dear New Fan
It was wholly a pleasure to get your friendly note, candid advice and cut-rate psychoanalysis of my split personality. And all in one brief e-mail, to wit:
"Make up your mind, Greenberg; are you a cold-blooded, programmed, got-it-made conservative or a closet poet who simply finds it impossible to resist the built-in gossamer qualities of the English language, no matter what it may reveal about who you really are?
"I am torn by my inability to credit you for either one or the other. I at first felt certain that tomorrow or the next day your stuff would revert to the bought-and-paid-for opinions typical of commercially supported American newspapers; but you had to go and write the beautifully expressed reminiscences of the kind that may be too powerful for you to resist in the future. Let us hope so. I predict a whole new fan club for you if you do."
Gosh, thanks for the tip. It would be nice to have a new fan club because I suspect the old one, such as it is, may be growing a little tired by now of putting up with my deviations from right-wing orthodoxy. I'm definitely ideologically unreliable, which I hope isn't the same as being unprincipled. At such moments, Oscar Wilde's observation comforts: "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."
Besides, having any fan club at all is an unworthy concern for an opinionator, whose proper business is getting the opinion right, not merchandizing it. What counts is the work. Not how well it is received. The bubble popularity is just that.
In a political culture that constantly conspires to rob us all of even a minimal self-respect, we're regularly enjoined to pick sides: right or left, conservative or liberal, Fox News or NPR. Whose side are you on, boy, whose side are you on? Now you tell me I need to decide whether I'm a political or literary type.
Couldn't I be both, or neither? Must I choose between these two pigeonholes you've constructed for me? Do I have to stay obsessed with all politics all the time? Couldn't I come out of my closet at night, like a vampire, and delight in the taste and treasure of the wine-red English tongue?
Or must I stick with my day job as a fuddy-duddy columnist? Not that there isn't a lot to be said for fuddy-duddyness after all the 24/7 hype you get on television. (Dramatic music swells.) A steady diet of that, and boredom would be a step up.
Hey, this is America! Why do we have to settle for only one persona any more than for just one brand of cereal?
What some might think of as just moodiness, I'd prefer to call emotional versatility. Which sounds better than Multiple Personality Disorder, with its clinical ring. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and all that good Emersonian stuff.
One of the many joys of a job like this is surprising folks who think they've got you figured. It's almost as much fun as those rare occasions when the words seem to form on the screen all by themselves, without effort or forethought, as if the writer were just their medium. Call it automatic writing. I wish it would happen more often. It'd make my job so much easier.
The kind of prose that may take the most effort and least thought is usually the worst; no wonder they call it labored. As in "the built-in gossamer qualities of the English language." Built-in gossamer. Is that anything like armor-plated velvet? You have to really try to write that badly.
The trick in this business is to write prose that's so clear it can be read effortlessly. Unfortunately, the less the reader has to work, the more the writer has to. As with so much in life, there is no easy solution. And some days there's no solution at all.
One of my favorite letters-to-the-editor many years ago came from a correspondent with mental problems. I've forgotten everything about the letter except one phrase: "It gets boring not having peace of mind all the time."
Think about it. But not for too long or it'll make your head swim. Like the constant swirl of 24/7 television news in full color and hype.
I'm not sure which of my personas is writing this response to your more than kind note, but we both send you our best.