I would handily commit 3,300 acts of artistic capitulation to keep my dog in Purina.
In quiet moments, alone, we take our seats in the theaters of the mind and stage our fondest wishes. “Gee, this isn’t like I imagined it would be in the bathtub,” said Dianne Wiest in her acceptance speech at the Oscars. Exactly right. You can bet Sally Field whispered to a bar of soap, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” long before the sentiment slipped out to millions.
My own play opens with a bidding war over my novel. In the second act, I take my seat at the feast of literature, between, say, Churchill and Cicero. Chekhov leans over to ask if I want to duck out for lime rickeys. Act Three: obligatory awards ceremony. Rushdie, the emcee, calls me the Midwestern Tolstoy—no, Tolstoy was the Russian Churm, he says—and jokes that while all he got was a lousy fatwa, I got a stilt house in the Lower Keys and final casting approval with my movie option. I take the podium, wait several significant beats of my drumming heart, and announce to the world, “My choices to play the protagonist and his wife are … F. Murray Abraham and Judy Davis, from, like, 20 years ago.” Close-ups: jubilant Abraham, glowering De Niro.
“But nobody’s going to be able to sell that novel,” my acquaintance Chaz shouts over the crowd’s babble. We’re sitting in a Brazilian churrascaria in Chicago. He motions the waiter for more lamb chunks. “That book is about coal.”
“It’s not,” I insist. “It’s about four couples in the most radical community in America, in the Roaring Twenties. It’s about incomplete genius. It’s about doing things because we’re good at them, then wishing we were clever enough to escape the consequences.”
“Coal,” he says, smacking greasy lips. “Even the word is dirty. It’s worse than ‘oil.’ At least ‘oil’ sounds modern, sexy, like Donald Rumsfeld. ‘Coal’ sounds like a rock or something. Starving Welshmen.”
The bidding war, when it came last month, wasn’t as I’d imagined. I’ve been writing for a higher-education magazine, and the publisher asked if I’d write a blog, on any aspect of college life, in that wry, funny, wise Churm voice. I’d only read my first blog in June and hadn’t known people were paid to write them, so when she bobbled the contract, I got curious and queried a couple of other places by e-mail. Within minutes, an editor at Inside Higher Ed, a publication I read every day, called to offer a bucket of money. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the biggest name in the game, called a day later to say they had two buckets of money. “Finally,” I gloated, “people are noticing that my prose is the dew in a fever dream, the sharks silhouetted against the surface, a chocolate cake that knocks you in the head when you bend down for the morning paper.”
Of course, there would be editorial supervision of my work. If you have a big ship with lots of people on board and stockholders waiting back on shore, you can’t have some loose cannon rolling around on deck. The co-editors at IHE laughed and said I could write what I wanted, even about them, but the editor at the Chronicle snapped at me, “Well, we’re not going to let you write about the Iraq war.” I didn’t hear that at first, because it came out of nowhere and my ears were filled with the sounds of my own name and all that money clinking in the background. But while the Chronicle was holding several days of meetings “at the highest levels” to work on the details, I started to think. I’m a very slow thinker.
And a naif, so the editor’s restriction sounded strange to me, like something from the Nixon era. Besides, if they didn’t want me mentioning the war, I’d need to avoid other current events, no matter how jaunty my tone or seemingly innocuous the subject. For instance, I couldn’t poke fun at the Washington Post’s take on Condoleezza Rice’s “swashbuckling” arrival at Wiesbaden Army Airfield, in knee-high leather boots and a blow-open black coat that, “with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine’s dress uniform or the ‘save humanity’ ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves”:
Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame “Matrix” jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn’t give her ensemble a double take—all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?
I couldn’t write of their weird fawning over Rice’s “sexual frisson” (“Dominatrix!” they cry), because everyone would see that their fashion reporter thinks that doing George Bush’s dirty work is an erotic act. I couldn’t review recent books that document the deceit of the current administration, and I’d have to refrain from mentioning conversations with an old Army buddy angry at the possibility of a third tour in Iraq. And to say, as Hendrik Hertzberg did in The New Yorker, that Bush has instituted “a set of economic and fiscal policies that have slowed growth, spurred inequality, replenished the ranks of the poor and uninsured, and exacerbated the insecurities of the middle class”—why, that’s just mean.
Of course, on behalf of the Chronicle’s interests, I would never criticize other big corporations, such as universities, by comparing the dead-end jobs of service-industry America, which pay as little as possible to part-timers easily fired, to the jobs held by adjunct faculty. I wouldn’t suggest that big corporations are the business equivalent of a generalization (“What’s good for General Motors is good for the rest of America”), or detail the many times I’ve witnessed corporate bodies (commercial, governmental, social, educational) fail individual human beings, including ones in their employ.
In my own case, my town’s school system had promised to rehire my mom as a teacher, on our return from Saigon, where my dad worked with USAID, but they didn’t. There were few jobs elsewhere, maybe none for a middle-aged woman with an advanced degree. After my dad split, my mom and I were so desperately poor for a time that our house fell down around us. Rain collapsed the ceilings; the furnace quit so often I learned to sit wrapped in a blanket on top of the busted refrigerator, where it was 10 degrees warmer. Eventually my mom found a job in a Magic Chef factory, where both management and union harassed and abused her, and she, privileged most of her life, spent her 60s throwing rejected washing-machine baskets into a hopper car on an open-air siding.
Should I neglect Hinterland University? Hinterland admitted me to a selective program when I was in high school, but they wouldn’t help me find a way to pay for it. Later, when I came out of the Army, money in hand, they couldn’t find a spot for me, because, they said, it was late in the application year. Ah, the Army … that august body left me with a bad back and some weird thing that happens to my throat, which I call the drowning disease—a consequence of dive training, funnily enough.
I’ve heard tales of beneficent corporations, whose patriarchal owners cared for their employees like family. But that ship sailed long ago, and few were given passage. From what I’ve read, it was a jolly cruise that touched every port, what Conrad calls “the merry dance of death and trade.” The ship is a museum now. I went to see it a few years ago, prole that I am, taking three forms of public transport and walking a mile through a dripping Victorian tunnel before emerging into the light that is Greenwich, the measure for all time. Ships like that one paid for some very beautiful monuments, parks, symphony halls, and museums—places Internet humorists can go to think things through. I went over to Tate Britain (Henry Tate, sugar baron), where I stood in the J.M.W. Turner galleries, thinking of his famous painting The Slave Ship, feeling that some really nice things have been offered to us all for looking the other way.
You see, I’m from that radical community in my novel. My maternal grandfather was an international organizer for the United Mine Workers, and a district president. Radical, in his day, meant expecting to be able to feed and clothe your children. It meant asking your employers to see that you weren’t crushed, blown up, or burned to death while you worked for them, and to ensure that, after you retired, you didn’t hack away at silicosis until your heart failed. It meant living like men and women, not machine parts, and being able to speak your mind, even against the corporation or your government, if need be. So you’ll pardon the hell out of me if mentioning the death, misery, and disruption of a stupidly chosen war does not align with the editorial policies of a corporate publisher.
I’d made up my mind to do the right thing for all of us, when the Chronicle wrote to say that their usual stable of writers had heard about the blog, were upset at an outsider doing it, and wanted to write it themselves. They were sorry, but they needed to go in that direction. Mrs. Churm comforted me as I sobbed over the loss of the extra bucket of money. I am but a man, with two little boys and a 136-year-old house.
Now I can go to Inside Higher Ed—where the audience is younger and more Web-savvy and the prose reads simply and clearly, which means it took hours and days to write—with a clear conscience. An early post will be an interview with a very nice ex-stripper named Mimi, who happens to have a master’s from Cambridge and a new book deal. She’s angry because she says her corporate publisher is trying to package her book in pink and glitter and turn it into Pretty Woman, when what she wrote is an analysis and critique of strip-club culture. “Fucking Rupert Murdoch,” she says.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll be in Philadelphia, at the Modern Language Association Conference, to kick off the blog. It’s called The Education of Oronte Churm. If you’ll be at MLA, be sure to stop by the Inside Higher Ed booth and say hello. If not, please come on over to Insidehighered.com/churm regularly. We’ll talk as we wish, about compromise, about getting what we want, and about life, college or otherwise, as it is.