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January 25, 2005

TT: Thumper's lament

We were flooded with visitors on Sunday and Monday, and they didn't come to read about high culture, either. No, they wanted to see what Our Girl and I wrote about the death of Johnny Carson. It never fails to make me smile when one of our pop-culture posts causes the hits to pour in (posting about off-Broadway shows rarely has that kind of effect!).

Here's something else that interested me: a not-insignificant percentage of our readers were actively offended by the fact that we didn't join in the chorus of praise for Carson. You can't post comments on this blog, but Roger L. Simon linked to what I wrote on Sunday, and a lot of people responded with angry comments. (Go here to read them.)

So far I've only received two sharply critical pieces of personal e-mail, one obscene, the other temperate but unequivocal:

The point is not that there were things to critique about the Carson style. No. The thing is, Johnny Carson was not an artist nor an intellect; he was a personality, and among people above a certain age, a fairly universally beloved personality.

Shame. Might you not have waited a few days to speak ill of the dead?

In addition, other bloggers are starting to weigh in, and this posting is fairly representative of what they're saying:

Terry Teachout, the esteemed art critic and in-house blogger for ArtsJournal.com, has a remembrance of the late Johnny Carson of note for its spectacularly negative view of the seminal comedian. It's all the more spectacular because it's done with the least emotional of tone.

Consider Teachout's closer, which comes perilously close to being contemptuous, something never seen in obituaries, especially hours-old obituaries....

Now look again at what I wrote about Carson. No, it wasn't favorable, and yes, my tone was cool. I was reacting to the floodtide of unctuous celebrity comment in which we were immersed within hours of his passing. But I didn't call him stupid or offensive or evil--in fact, I didn't say anything personal about him at all. My point was that his comedy was inoffensive and ephemeral, and that I suspected it wouldn't be remembered for very long. It isn't obvious because I didn't mean for it to be, but in a sense I was writing about Carson's own celebrity from a religious perspective. "Perhaps he knew how little it means to have once been famous," I said in closing. If he did, then he died a wise man.

I can think of a lot of plausible responses to what I wrote (one of which I've already posted). But why on earth would anyone be offended by it? And what possible difference would it have made for me to wait a day, or even a week, to post it? Johnny Carson didn't read what I wrote, and I can't imagine he would have cared if he had. De mortuis nil nisi bonum has never made any sense to me whatsoever, nor is it practiced by the infinitely more robust obituarists who write for English newspapers. For them, the statute of limitations on candor expires when the death certificate is signed. I think that's as it should be, though to be honest all along is better still. I like what Rex Stout made Nero Wolfe say in The Black Mountain when he had occasion to speak frankly about his recently murdered best friend:

I pay him the tribute of speaking of him and feeling about him precisely as I did when he lived; the insult would be to smear his corpse with the honey excreted by my fear of death.

It's also worth pointing out that I didn't go on Oprah and call Carson a talentless hack (which I don't think he was). Instead, I posted what I had to say on a blog, where it's been seen by something like ten thousand viewers so far--not an insignificant figure, but trivial by comparison to the hundreds of thousands of people who presumably tuned in to one of the various TV tributes to Carson that aired on Sunday night. Exactly how is that shameful?

The funny thing is that I'm not known for being nasty. Most of the reviews I write are favorable, mainly because I'm an enthusiast who seeks out opportunities to write about things I like. I believe that silence is the most powerful form of negative criticism, and when I do feel obliged to drop the big one, I try to be careful to drop it only on those in a position to shoot back. I go out of my way not to slam little-known actors or musicians. A dead superstar, by contrast, seems to me fair game--yet it's been quite a while since anything I wrote provoked such furious responses.

So what's all the fuss about? I'm not altogether sure, but I'm not even slightly surprised, because I've been stirring up similar fusses all my life. I got my start as a critic in Kansas City, which is about as close to the center of the midwest as you can get, and I noticed early on that a great many readers of the Kansas City Star were actively averse to the frank expression of unfavorable opinion--any unfavorable opinion, however mild. These chronically agreeable people clearly agreed with Thumper's mother in Bambi, who said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Not surprisingly, they thought me rude, but more than that, they seemed to take what I wrote personally. It was as if they felt threatened by the mere existence of someone who disagreed with them.

This attitude puzzled me, and does to this day. I wish I could plumb it more deeply, but I can't, possibly because I don't share it. I don't care what other critics think unless I know their work well and respect it, and even then I'm not threatened by their disagreement. Sometimes it may cause me to rethink my own opinion--there are a few critics with whom I don't differ lightly--but what's wrong with that? I don't mind changing my mind. I'd rather be right than consistent.

Which brings us back to the late Johnny Carson. To those readers who didn't like what I wrote about him, I say: what's it to you? Why do you care? I'm just a guy with a blog. If you don't like it, start one of your own. That's the wonderful thing about the blogosphere--it puts all its participants on a potentially equal footing, something that was never true of the mainstream media. By all means feel free to get into the game. But let me give you fair warning: blogging isn't for the thin-skinned. If you were offended by what I wrote about Carson, wait till you start opening your e-mail.

Here's something I posted last year:

These three words, when used in the same paragraph, automatically turn my ears off:

(1) Offended

(2) Demand

(3) Apologize

I'll stand by that.

Posted January 25, 2005 12:01 PM

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