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How Much Is Enough?

I have a friend whose husband won the Nobel Prize.  We were all thrilled, but he didn’t interpret it as success: he thought he needed two before the restless face in the mirror, the critical voice in the head, stopped saying, “You’re basically a failure.”

I cringed at the time, mostly because I really did feel his pain–I have a good career, I have good success, but I must not really be any good because Fred and Lily and Cindy outsell me, or are on op-ed pages more often, or have more friends than me, or can do more headstands, or–whatever.

Like most writers, I do what I can to promote myself and my work.  For Hardball, I hired a  skilled publicist to help me.  Her name is Kimberly Burns, and she created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere when she responded to a New York Times piece about how publishers are falling over themselves to get their writers on Glenn Beck’s show.  The piece listed a number of highly successful writers who’ve appeared with Beck.  They mostly write thrillers in the Ludlum vein; they’re all male, they’re all white.  I know some of them, and they’re decent guys.

Kimberly wrote on her facebook page that she’d rather have dental work without novocaine than book one of her clients on Beck’s show–that’s what caused the outburst.  He sells books, and you shouldn’t turn your back on him, plus, you’re a censor, seemed to be the consensus.

Me, I’m proud of Kimberly.  But the furore made me think about my own insecurities, how badly I want to be as successful as the guys I know  (they outsell me by about 15:1).  And then I thought of my friend Michael Lewin, and his mantra that “sometimes money is just too expensive to buy.”  You can pay too high a price in self-respect to consort with someone you believe is a danger to the Republic.

I believe that Beck uses the same tactics that worked so well for the National Socialists in the 1930’s.  He repeats slander and inuendo, loudly, and repeatedly, and takes advantage of a part of the population that is terrified already by change, by the economic meltdown, and the threat of terrorism, and plays on their fears.  Like the National Socialists, he finds scapegoats that his listeners can blame for their own fears.  When I see a ragtag group of poor people protesting health care reform, I know he’s been a success: these are the people who will become homeless if they have a catastrophic illness, but they are sure that Beck, and his cronies like O’Reilly and Hannity, are right to oppose government-sponsored health care, because all of these broadcasters have identified the real problem as belonging to feminists, or Muslims, or blacks, or President Obama, or all of the above.  These broadcasters have persuaded a significant fraction of America that President Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist, that he wasn’t born in the U.S., and even that he has set up concentration camps in Arizona.

Even if an appearance on Glenn Beck would put me in the heady company of list-leading writers, I don’t see how I could appear with him.  Even if the penalty is ending up like Winston Smith, poor, broken-down, feebly weeping at Big Brother’s face on the screen, I’d still feel better at the end of the day.  I guess it’s good to know, in the middle of my insecurities and longing for success, that there’s at least one thing I won’t do.

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  • Sara –

    I agree. Not that being booked on Beck will ever be my problem, but the mere fact that a stand-up comedian has the ability to somehow become a lauded political pundit flummoxes me.

    I applaud your agent as well for having the power of her convictions, and I continue the applause for you. After all, what do you really gain if you get the whole world but lose your soul?

    Jason

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, I agree. I think it would be a real step down to appear on the Faux news station. I don’t think there’s enough disinfectant in the world that would wash that experience off once you’re done.

    My husband will watch them from time to time–when he wants a laugh. I just yell at the TV and walk out of the room.

    I always thought that you would be a great guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

  • Shirley Harrison

    You would be good on the new Headline News show with Joy Behar. Maybe Kimberly can find a connection with HLN or Barbara Walters, who put Joy on “The View,” and get you booked.

  • Frank Paine

    I find your comment about the National Socialist tactic absolutely on target. The furor raised by Beck and the shouting at so-called town meetings on health care remind me as nothing else but the methods used by the Hitler Youth.
    These latter day facistas have studied the book.

    And I certainly agree — you’d be a great guest on Stewart.
    He does not pull his punches either.

    To reiterate Satchel Page’s apt comment: Don’t look back; The bastards may be gaining on you.

  • pam newton

    Too right! It would be very difficult to give good interview whilst holding one’s nose!

    I only know of Beck via the web but we have the same divisive brand of hate-mongering shock-jocks in Australia. Interesting to see the resonances across nations and cultures that this kind of right-wing infotainment produces. Much the same “enemies” are identified – greens, gays, teachers, academics, lefties(liberals), non-whites, non-christian.

    Our mob are currently trying to whip up a frenzy and focus the nation’s hatred and fears on “boat people” “illegal immigrants” (aka asylum seekers to the sane).

    Still what can you expect from a nation founded by a bunch of people who lobbed here in boats and took over the original owners’ land?

    Interesting the figures you quote re the male writers – any wonder many female writers use initials instead of feminine given names on their book covers?

  • Pam, yes, we in the US of A have the same founders complex. I always wonder what goes through nativists’ heads when they want all the immigrants to go home (except me, I’m the only good one.) I know a woman from Poland who is a huge follower of Beck and Limbaugh and turns bright red with fury on the subject of South and Central American immigrants.
    Frank, thanks for thinking so carefully about this. Genny, your husband has a much stronger stomach than I do!
    And I’ll ask Kimberly to get right on Jon Stewart!

  • So how do you reach a conservative audience? Bill O’Reilly?

  • I tend to remain quiet on subjects I know nothing about (and I have never heard of this Beck person – I must be living under a frozen rock up here in the Canadian wilds) but dear G-d in Heaven, I hope Jacqui of the comment above was speaking with tongue in cheek, because I HAVE heard of Bill O’Reilly and his hate-mongering regarding Canadians!

  • Susan

    Sara,
    Having aspired to be a writer when I was younger, my definition of success would be “Sara Paretsky’s career”. You are a fantastic writer who has created characters so believable and vivid that many of your readers feel they are real, and told stories that are entertaining and meaningful. That you have put these things on paper is in itself “success”. That you have shared it hundreds of thousands of others, and made a career out of what you clearly love, is what they call “gravy”. Ofcourse, I understand that promotion is a necessary part of getting and keeping readership. But I believe that you have reached a point in your career where the public seeks out, reads and judges your works regardless of what any commentator, liberal or conservative, has to say about it.

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, I forgot to mention that the main reason my husband watches “faux news” is because he believes it’s important to know your enemy.

    One of the reasons I enjoy Jon Stewart is because he takes them on–using their own words. Just recently Hannity did a story about agroup protest in DC. The video from Fox of the group was actually several different events. They distorted their own video to make it appear that the group was larger than it really was. I guess that’s their definition of “fair and balanced”. No shame!

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