In February of 2013 I took a meeting at GQ. Back then its office was still in the original Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. It was with the research editor in hopes of getting a $25 an hour fact-checking gig. I didn’t know it was freelance at the time, but at least it would have been at the offices, which I much prefer than doing remotely. I wore a suit, my only one at the time, which no longer fits me. Because NJ Transit is selectively functional I am always into the city ahead of schedule. I paced around a cold but sunny Bryant Park just after they dismantled the skating rink. I paced around the spacious, minimally adorned Condé Nast lobby while I waited for approval to go up. (It took about three calls.) I paced around the corridor in between GQ and Teen Vogue before I was finally buzzed in. I passed by an island of drab grey cubicles, which I took to be the research or otherwise miscellaneous departments; the more brightly colored editorial section flashed in my side view like a fluorescent Xanadu. I met the research editor. He was amiable, sharp, and down-to-earth. A fellow New Jerseyan at that. Our meeting lasted about 25 minutes. I told him that GQ published the only John Jeremiah Sullivan piece I can tolerate. He was grateful. He didn’t have anything for me.
I knew halfway into the interview that I was overshooting, that I had miscalculated somehow, and that this was as far as I was ever going to get. I was not unqualified in the least. I had four previous stays at magazines, all of which are either gone or mutated into forms I no longer recognize. But my career path had led to a very nice cul-de-sac with no vacancies, and this meeting was the roundabout way in which I was being told to turn around. You are actually in a dream, this is the end of it, and when the cold hits you on the way out, you will disappear because, actually, you are not the dreamer. Somewhat related: if it turns out that the Greeks were right after all, I would be not the least bit surprised—delighted, in fact—to find myself being taken down the river Styx by a bespectacled Gen X Charon, in jeans and a nice sweater.
Discouraged, I did nothing for months, which I regret. I should have been plotting my next conquest as early as the trainride home. The outcomes would have been no different, but I would have benefitted from the bringing the lesson that was merely implied in the original encounter out from the shadows and right in front of my nose.
Here you may be tempted to stop reading if you haven’t done so already. What use is it to hear another rose-colored praise chorus for the character-building virtues of failure? Only pain gives way to gain, you see? And things that don’t kill you can only ma— yadda yadda yadda, who cares? This is not that. Not that you won’t stop reading soon after this, as what I have in mind is much worse.
“I actually haven’t survived the fickle world of media that well,” Choire Sicha admitted last month, answering a question icons of midrange fame in this professional quadrant will never avoid. And in fact he continues as if he was carrying this reply in his back pocket for years:
I’ve moved out of apartments in the middle of the night, I’ve owed massive amounts of money to the IRS, I’ve searched for gas and cigarette money in the couch cushions. I’ve done all these things as a grown adult man, not as a 19-year-old, and it was not cute. I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should.
Sicha’s disarming bluntness has been much abused over the past decade. An agile cynic can easily ferret out the humblebrag. Most media denizens are immediately cognizant of the industry’s material limitations. They manage them either through generous parents or through developing the shrewdness to discern influence and access as the more substantial currencies. The naïve dreamers pouring into major metropolitan areas with Big Ten BAs and visions divined from Showtime or wherever are in the minority, and they coast soon enough into public relations, event planning, or law school. But since I touched on bitterness in a previous post, I’m opting here to take Sicha’s words at face value and follow their implications elsewhere.
I occasionally hear and read about this era they call the Golden Age of Media. Depending on who is addressing me, it is either right this moment, or about 15 years ago. For the latter it was a time when one could walk into any communicative hub and hold a job for more than five minutes, when “associate editor” had some measurable distinction, when writing had substance, and when video editors were not leaping from the dark corners of your ideation capsule to scalp you. I don’t doubt that such a time had ever existed, but I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who lament it with entitlement rather than a tragic sense of good fortune upended. Congratulations! You were at the tail end of the blip of stability in an otherwise chaotic industry. But maybe don’t take my word for it.
Daniel Defoe is best known for having written a novel that everyone reveres as a classic but that no one seems to like. Charles Dickens famously summed up Robinson Crusoe as “the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.” But Defoe’s novels were written later in his life, with the years previous being taken up by his copious pamphlets and journalism. Like his Augustan peers/enemies Addison, Steele, and Swift, Defoe did not earn income primarily through his written work—in his case he was a merchant and tax collector—but he is nonetheless recognizable as the first modern hack. He was a political pundit, a disaster reporter, an economics analyst, and a content farmer.
Defoe would have understood the struggles of today’s media grunt, and might also have thrived among them. His anonymously published 1702 pamphlet The Shortest-Way with Dissenters was hailed as a rigorous (and violent) defense of high church orthodoxy against Presbyterians and other freethinking faiths. When it was revealed that the Presbyterian Defoe was making the opposite case through irony, he was imprisoned. Defoe was also an eager networker, making business contacts while also working as a spy for the crown in Scotland during the unification. Though he never could escape debt, and it is said that he died in 1731, around age 70, evading his creditors.
I am in no position to teach nascent journalists, I do not intend to seek one, and no one else offers it to me. But if anyone I know ever does and deigns to solicit advice, mentioning the Defoe example in some manner is the only one of substance I can offer. It serves two purposes. First, it instills students and interns with the full measure and timelessness of the professional hustle they need to foster in themselves. It is far better than getting it from any “mentor” whose history is in flux as long as he or she is living and is at liberty to adjust the levels of romance and pathos as desired. Second and most importantly, it eases the young into the inevitable disillusionment they are going to have to face—and not merely in journalism.
But introducing disillusionment education at the college level is not soon enough. Unlike failure, disillusionment is not a setback that can be reversed or learned from, nor is it an exclusive byproduct of failure. In fact it is possibly more often wrought out of success. Disillusionment should be taught in elementary-level health class at the earliest. Because it is like pregnancy: a natural occurrence that could become a crisis without adequate vigilance. Yet many of us fall into teaching the opposite lessons of positive thinking and “dreaming big.” “Positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.”
Culture is seldom wanting in sad platoons ready to drown in optimism’s moat. And really no one wants to deal with a cheermonger anymore than they want to deal with a buzzkill. But there’s always a kind of hedge being made, or a delusion being conjured, when telling people to manage their expectations. Realism, the preferred hedge, means getting a key to a mansion that is actually meant for a bungalow on the other side of town. But there is little to be said when one gets the key to the mansion only to find it filled with bedbug-infested furniture.
Part of it might boil down to simple optics. The realist is grounded in maturity. The failure rises up from tragedy. But the disillusioned is weighted by defeat. To determine that one is disillusioned means also to determine that one is a loser. Not that it is easy to determine. Disillusionment sets in at a pace custom to the one at a loss. Sometimes the losses are slight, but can often accumulate into a larger malaise. Other times it is a gradual degradation of single objective that outwits, overpowers, and finally buries its opponent. In either case, the end result is an equalization of every experience into drudgery. The disillusioned should not always be expected to be outwardly miserable. They may be perfunctory, almost mechanical in their actions, whether at dinner with a romantic interest, getting groceries, or reading their child a story before bed. After a certain point disillusionment is impossible to prepare for, and only identifiable when it is too late. Two instances in popular culture demonstrate this.
One is the Amazon Prime comedy I Love Dick, in which Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) becomes sexually obsessed with Dick (Kevin Bacon), a Marfa, TX-based artist who is sponsoring her husband’s academic fellowship. Based on Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir/epistolary novel, the show explores some interesting contrasts. The most buzzworthy is that between female loserdom and male humiliation; but more broadly it offers two distinct forms of disillusionment. Chris is a struggling filmmaker who plays second fiddle to her barely more successful husband in a town whose quirky customs and haute aesthete population constantly get the better of her. Dick is an established artist and local icon, who has not created new work in years and drifts palpably into isolated irrelevance. Their situations are familiar but carefully drawn enough to constitute much more than two midlife crisis dramedies crammed into one. Chris and Dick are drawn to and repelled from one another in stranger ways than mere lust can handle. Theirs is an affair, really a duel, of inadequacies, which compliment as well as best each other.
The other is Donald Trump, whose behavior over the last nine months has been more plainly indicative of one who is (a) ill-prepared for his current job and (b) frustrated by its trappings. As hazardous as his Twitter use is, Trump displays an unprecedented transparency by letting anyone with internet access into his thought process as any other user would, and in all their increasing jaundice, petulance, and boredom. In a more customary situation we would hate Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions somewhat more than we do now. But Trump’s disdain for his position puts everyone near and far to him under the same thunderdome of defeated victory. The strange (albeit very trivial) solace is in seeing what happens one man makes bold claims and just enough people call his bluff.
If these examples have anything to add to teaching disillusion, it is mostly in demonstrating the challenge of rising up from it. Conceivably it can at least be mollified, but by acceptance, not improvement. Trump could stabilize but he’d still have to take his loss. This seems unlikely, as refusing to give ground is his only distinctive attribute. Relieving oneself of burdens, achieving a kind of emotional minimalism, even asceticism. This is not to encourage self-denial but to accept that there is only so much one person can take on in a lifetime. Here Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is ripped out from cliché and put back in its place as pointed diagnosis. A lot can be said against Thoreau, being disillusioned cannot be one of them. “I am not worth seeing personally,” he admitted, “the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am.” We can’t help but believe him.
The ultimate trouble with disillusion is that it has no end; only a cycle one falls into. Of going to bed at night waiting to be throttled all over again by a new day; and of waking up in the morning one day nearer the grave. There beneath the truth of daily living is its skeleton. It has no cure. One can, I guess, take up the activity of grinding the bones to dust with all the diversionary splendor of building model train sets, no one will go out of their way to pass judgment aloud. For the more cold-sighted among us, there is the work of accepting and walking in the truth, and prayer that those not currently chaffing under its intensity will do so in time.