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The single biggest piece of the pie, as expressed by Thoreau

Sunday 2/20/22

"I feel that the public demand an average man,--average thoughts and manners,--not originality, nor even absolute excellence. You cannot interest them except as you are like them and sympathize with them."


There it is, right there. That's it. It's bigger than the industry-wide blackballing, bigger than anything. That is the number one issue for me to overcome. He even qualifies it--"nor even absolute excellence," with the implication being that absolute excellence is the biggest impediment to success. To what we'd today call a platform. To numbers. To global reach. People are mediocre. They want other people who are mediocre. That comforts them. I've written about this again and again: parallelism. "Except as you are like them."


I am utterly unlike anyone there has ever been. This is Thoreau writing in his journal in December 1864. When people were smarter. When they read more. When there was better writing to be read. When there was no staring at phones all day. When people were less narcissistic. Less insecure. When there was no social media. When a person might actually think for themselves. When entertainment involved nature, theater, classical music. When games had to be invented. There was a greater reliance on imagination. When people didn't follow like they follow now. When there were more individuals.


So what would Thoreau say now about this person of "absolute excellence"?


I don't know how to overcome this.


I was thinking tonight about someone I'll call a friend of mine. We're very friendly, anyway. This person loves the Beatles. Scrooge. Old time radio. They know their music well. They're smart. They're not in publishing. This individual came to a reading of mine for my first two books. They came to a talk I gave on Orson Welles at the Brattle. They love Welles. Their website got a big upswing in traffic one time because of a piece I wrote on the Beatles' BBC recordings for The Atlantic. In my acknowledgments for the Sam Cooke 33 1/3 book, they're the first person I thank. I don't just thank them--what I say is rather touching. It's not some mere "shout out."


I've shared my work with this person. They know of my books, obviously. I'll send them short stories on occasion, and pieces I've written on subjects they love. And not once, in all of these years, has this person ever said a kind word about my writing. They avoid it. It's never happened. Not a word about the Sam Cooke book. When they came to my reading, I don't think they even bought either book. Why? I think people don't know how to talk to me because of what I am. This same individual is someone who, at Christmastime, I saw praise this awful Atlantic piece on Facebook. It was this bad piece written by some sixty-something-year-old guy, about how there are no good Christmas specials, except two, and Rudolph sucks, etc. Fake, forced. Poorly written. A click-grab. Witless. But that kind of witlessness where someone stands around in the middle of their own prose gesturing at themselves as if to say, "Don't you think I'm clever?"


Now, my friend is smart. But I saw them on Facebook, saying, "This piece is so brilliant." Why? Because it sucked. There was nothing special about it. Its ideas, the way it was written. It was glib and inauthentic. The person who wrote it was mediocre. My friend had no investment in what they were saying in terming it "brilliant," there was no gravity to their words, no commitment to their words, so they could say it. But they'd never say anything positive about my work. Or they never have. Despite, I would think, not only thinking positive things, but far more than merely positive things. This is someone who would know what I am. But they don't know how to talk to me, or about me, by which I mean, about my work. Instead, they play it cool. Nonchalant. And that's what I get even from my "people," as such. It's exactly what Thoreau says.


Tonight I sent this person this new Beatles piece I recently had come out. Awesome piece. No one has written anything better about the Beatles. I asked them multiple times about Sam. When I send a note mentioning maybe Sam and something else that has nothing to do with writing, they'll respond to the second thing, and make it look like I never brought the first thing up. They just ignore it. The same thing will happen with the Beatles piece. Every time. They didn't say anything to me at the reading about how that went, or after the talk on Welles. This is a voluble, highly articulate, friendly person. A hale fellow well met. That kind of person. And nothing. Not once. This is typical. But there they are, right in the acknowledgments section for an amazing book about a musician they love. You can have an agenda, certainly, and many people do, but there is no way you can honestly knock that book, or mount any legitimate argument that it's not something truly special as a book, as a piece of writing, as a work of music criticism, as a collection of vital ideas, as a necessary document in today's world that is not bound merely to today's world, and as a nonfiction work of art. And that was a big thing. That was a big thing if I put you there. I'm not a fake guy. I don't just hand out random compliments. And when I say something nice about you, it's said in a deeply sincere way, in touching, evocative, unique language that lets you know I mean it, and makes you feel good about yourself. Has never said a word to me about the book. Acts like it does not exist. But if I was an average person, and it was a bad book, or a hackneyed piece, and it was up on some site, and then viewed on Facebook, this person--and this is a good person, I can't overstate that--could tell their FB friends it was brilliant. But to me? I won't get a single word. Or on my behalf? Or on behalf of my book? Not a single word either. This is what Thoreau is talking about. And this is exactly what I live. Can you even imagine what that is like? And this is someone who likes you.


This is the problem. This is the single biggest issue I face. This isn't about social media and likes. That stuff is indicative of the far, far, far bigger issue here. The problem is the average person--who makes people comfortable--and the person of absolute greatness. That's the issue. Because people will not talk about the latter. They'll act like they don't exist. It's too uncomfortable for them. Requires too much realness. This hurts me, of course, with a friend like this. More than that, though, it speaks to the single biggest piece of the pie, when it comes to the issues with which I'm dealing.