Wednesday, March 27, 2013

We never cared about you

You know who Buzz Bissinger is for mostly good reasons, particularly if you're in your 30s, specifically if you're a writer, almost certainly if you're a sports writer (or former sports writer) with a preference for long-form stuff. Friday Night Lights was a foundational text for anyone who gave a fuck about great storytelling within the context of sports, and for a 20-odd-year-old piece it holds up remarkably well. Whatever Bissinger earned from that one piece of work — millions of dollars, as much fame as a writer could conceivably hope to have, the juche to get someone to publish hoary, hagiographical drivel like Three Nights in August — was well-earned and earned honestly.

In the intervening years, those who follow certain segments of media came to know Bissinger in other ways, and as other things than simply the writer of an outstanding book. We now know him as a perhaps-reformed anti-intellectual who proudly uses a term like "douche juice" in social media and basically draws attention to himself using methods crafted over hundreds of years by teething infants. And, you know ... fine. The afterglow from Lights and sporadic demonstrations of writing talent meant he probably deserved a position from which he could continue to be a presence, even if that presence was unpalatable and boorish. It helps that even at his most vitriolic and incoherent, he wasn't as bad as anything you would be exposed to should you wander into the commentary section of virtually any major metro newspaper.

But now, we know this about Bissinger. And I'm really at a loss as to why. But more on that in a few hundred words or so.

The alpha and omega to becoming a writer is simply getting your reps in, which is why we have college programs for writing and attendant student publications. Yes, there are things that young writers need to be taught, but the vast majority of those things are fairly mundane and could be covered in a one-hour session if young people were willing to listen to anyone about anything. But that which is taught by teachers or advisors is much less important to development than the self-reflection that comes as a result of incessant, and public, failure. With one notable exception.

The hallmark of every 20-year-old writer is a self-obsession bordering on the pathological. Every kid thinks he/she is Gay Talese (only edgier!), and more importantly, thinks that everyone else wants to know more about them — what they think, how funny they are, how many members of the opposite sex so want the D from them, etc. — and views every opportunity to write for public consumption as a mandate to slake readers' unquenchable thirst. And that misperception will never be adressed unless an adult, at some point very early in the development process, absolutely fucking crushes that young writer for being such a solipsistic, uninteresting douchebag. This newspaper is not your fucking diary, a very wise advisor once said to this particular, then-young, then-writer after my umpteenth masturbatory column, so maybe you should pick up the phone AND ACTUALLY INTERVIEW SOMEONE. He had to say this to me more than a couple of times, and I remember each time thinking he was being such an asshole because, hey, Simers! But he was right, and he finally got through, and then I later became the person who ruined other young writers' day by telling them the exact same thing whenever they wasted 1,000 words on a story about a Vegas trip gone wrong, or whatever.

Thing is, it was a much easier lesson to sell when opportunities for public consumption were relatively limited, and my generation was the last to grow up thinking that in order to get readers, you had to actually listen to an adult (or an editor) at any point in time. And while I audibly groan whenever I hear people bitch about blogging or the internet or the death of newspapers, within those self-serving diatribes rested at least one legitimate complaint: Scarcity of space is important if what you care about is interesting content. Reasonable confines to copy space serve as an implicit contract with readers: We can't afford to run anything not really worth reading, so read with confidence. That shit is history now. Yeah, there are still editors in play, but they've been reduced to grammar-checkers and slideshow builders; "journalism" is now a euphemism for the serialized memoir. Were you a bully when younger and now regret it? Do you think prices for three-story walkups are simply outrageous?!? Are you proud of how brave Lena Dunham is for fucking dudes on television in spite of being a size 12?!?!? Here's $100 and the ability to put "Contributor to" on your goddamn CV.

Thing is, though, that while the old rules don't apply anymore, the new ones aren't much kinder to this kind of navel-gazing bullshit, which is why the old rules didn't suffer the diarists too well. doesn't survive on those stories, because outside of self-absorbed Brooklynites, friends/family of the author and assholes who like to go on Twitter rants about Lena Dunham stories on Slate, there isn't much of an audience. Readers still demand things that are interesting, or relevant, to them, just like the adults in journalism school were telling us all along. Be informative, or be salacious; them's your choices.

So here's where I admit that I was being facetious above: I know exactly why I now know that Buzz Bissinger isn't just the author of one great book and dozens of embarrassing public acts of stupidity or boorishness, but that he's spent more than a half-milly on overtight designer clothing, has a sexless marriage, and the rest of his life-cum-carwreck he cops to in that "essay." GQ probably set a two-year record in page hits, so that covers its motivation, which is really no different than its ever been. Lurid sells, because god help us we eat that shit up. I'll spare the readers of America that particular lecture.
As for Bissinger, he was kind enough to reveal his entire motivation in these two paragraphs that were ostensibly there to explain the roots of his addiction to designer clothing:
I am also a writer. I crave stimulation. I need it to create, to survive. Without it I feel dead, useless, overcome by the worst anxiety of all, nothingness, dead man walking. There was a time earlier in my life when I loved to write, the same feeling of orgasm that I now get with clothing. But in my mid-fifties the words were harder to find, the excuses to fuck around more pronounced, the anxiety multiplied that whatever I was working on would never reach the dizzying heights of Friday Night Lights. It had been my first book, written nearly twenty years earlier when I was 35—2 million copies sold, a film, a television series.
I began to dread the process, nothing ever good enough, the thoughts in my brain never quite finding the page, the withering negativity that had always been my guidepost in life only more withering. I fucked around more and more—nasty guillotine rants on Twitter going after everything and everyone, Googling my name six or seven times a day, craving crumbs of attention.
And there you have it. A once-great writer pimping out his last shred of credibility for the opportunity to spend a few thousands words answering all the questions about himself that absolutely no one asked. And what can readers take away from this, beyond a few images we can't hope to ever scrub from our mind and some shit to snark about on Twitter? The knowledge that $650,000 in Italian leather can buy you a portal back to your early 20s, as if anyone with half a fucking brain would actually want to go back there.

Post-script: Just read that he's now in rehab. I hope he gets well, because he's clearly not anything approximating well now, and hasn't been for a while. But this adds another layer to my disgust over the article: GQ basically ran an article by a sick man now getting treatment that served only to humiliate himself and his family in the most public of fashions. Whomever greenlighted this piece, released after he checked into rehab, should be ashamed of him or herself.