Results tagged “The New Yorker” from critical difference

In the stories we tell about ourselves, the temptation to lie -- to ourselves, to each other -- triumphs more often than it ought to. It happens in public life (see John Edwards), in pulp fiction masquerading as memoir (see James Frey), and in the cultural myths we accept as true (see New Yorkers' entrenched and baseless insistence that they're tougher than the average bear). This is nothing new.

And yet: Is it getting worse? Is a devolution in our use of language helping to blur the distinction between truth and untruth?

"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued," Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New Yorker. Pondering the mendacity that has long been entrenched in the memoir genre, he points to the dominance of reality TV as emblematic of this cultural moment, when the degree of "blurring between reality and fiction" seems especially high.

Reality's root, too, is taking a beating. A lot of us don't even know what "real" means anymore, and the confusion is polluting our politics. The 2008 presidential campaign pitted a place called "real America," populated by "real Americans," against ... well, against a bunch of fake Americans living in fake America, apparently. Who knew that the simple act of opposing a Republican could invalidate a passport, a birth certificate, the results of a citizenship test?

Last Sunday, when President Obama flew to Massachusetts to try to salvage Martha Coakley's Senate run, Scott Brown's supporters flocked to a rally of their own. "The president may be in Boston," read a block-lettered sign in the crowd, "but the real people of Mass. are here with Scott Brown in Worcester." The phrase "real people" was, predictably, written in red.

The sign laid out a clear dichotomy, and a false one, casting Obama and his supporters as fake people (cyborgs? foreigners? carpetbaggers? all of the above?) and those on Brown's side -- the Right's side -- as authentic.

"Authentic": another word whose meaning seems now to elude us.

A few years ago, a young artist I know put up a website to sell the clothes she'd designed. Outlining her personal narrative in her bio, she strained to establish blue-collar cred: not an easy task, given her upper-middle-class upbringing, but reality didn't make as good a story. So, instead of crediting her love of design to her mother's creative passion for sewing, she twisted the truth to suggest that her mom (who was, in fact, a doctor's wife) was a seamstress. It sounded, you know, more authentic, what with the struggle and all.

When the drama that makes a compelling story is missing from lived experience, we're only too eager to fabricate it, or have it fabricated for us. But, as Mendelsohn writes, "an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly -- what William Dean Howells once described to Edith Wharton as the American taste for 'a tragedy with a happy ending' -- makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Here's the thing: We can tell whatever tales we want to, but make-believe is still make-believe, illusions are still illusions, and lies are still lies. In failing to insist on those distinctions, we engineer our own continuing gullibility.

When we lose control of a simple word like "real," when we accept its widespread dishonest misuse, we lose sight of what's genuine. If there's no true north, how are we supposed to find our way?

January 23, 2010 1:39 PM |
Former "Late Night with David Letterman" writer Nell Scovell's excellent Vanity Fair piece about the show's hostile work environment is juicy reading, and illuminating, too. But it's worth mentioning that the point Scovell makes from the inside -- that "there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined" -- is one Nancy Franklin made nearly a month ago in The New Yorker:

Did a bomb go off and kill all the women comedy writers and leave the men standing? The other night on the Emmy Awards broadcast, the names of the nominees for best writing on a comedy or variety series were read, and, out of eighty-one people, only seven were women. Leno has no women writers on his show. Neither does David Letterman, and neither does Conan O'Brien. Come on.

Score another one for Franklin, who worked that eloquent little cri de coeur into her takedown of Leno's prime-time show, just as the Letterman extortion attempt was grabbing headlines.

One of the great things about scandals is their function as catalysts for evolution that's long overdue. Is it too much to hope that, in the wake of Letterman's sexual-harassment debacle, the comedy-writing clubhouse will go co-ed for good, and the behavior of those who toil there will become professional at last?

Sexual attraction is natural; it happens in every workplace. But adults are expected to have some impulse control, and funny people are grown-ups just like the rest of us. Feeling attracted doesn't have to mean acting on it, especially when acting on it is illegal. No one should have to compete sexually at work -- and that's exactly the dynamic that's set up for the entire staff when superiors and subordinates sleep together.

Separate but related is the trouble female comedy writers have getting in the door in the first place (and, as this week's headlines remind us, the trouble persists even in fields perceived as relatively female-friendly, like dance and independent film).

"I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect," Scovell writes. "And that goes for Jay and Conan, too."

Comedy writing jobs are just that: jobs. This whole discussion is, at bottom, about the right to work, and to work unmolested, literally and figuratively. For most men, that's the status quo; they take it for granted, and they ought to. It shouldn't be any different for women -- but at the moment, it still is.
October 28, 2009 1:29 PM |
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