Life in the Slow Lane

Summer has passed the halfway mark in these parts, and we’re in the midst of our first heat wave since mid-spring. (Is April the new August?)

I’m taking it slow, not that I have much choice in the matter. My son is at the shore this week with his mother, my soon-to-be former wife. (I haven’t met any future wives lately.)

I’m still waiting for publishers to nibble at the two brilliantly dark essay collections that my new agent has been circulating, much to her credit. No news can be good or bad news. This time of year, most reputable New York editors are ensconced at their summer colonies in the Hamptons or on Martha’s Vineyard. Authorship is a waiting game.

Nobody has approached me with advertising work lately, other than a car dealer who was looking for some free advice. As long as I wasn’t making any money, I thought I’d use the downtime to expand my political blog, The New Moderate. That’s right, a website for staunch moderates. We need a loud, self-assured moderate voice in our republic, if only to drown out the nonsensical ravings of the right and left.

So it looks as if I’ve carved out a third niche for myself (cynicism and copywriting being the other two). Maybe this will be the lucky one. I’m curious to see if anyone notices, other than my Facebook friends. Moderates, for all their virtues, tend to be an apathetic bunch.

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Hoisting the Black Flag

I’m what used to be known as a “good egg.” I’ve played by the rules all my life. My fuse is absurdly long and slow to burn. Dogs, children and crazy people gravitate to me like groupies to young musicians with too much hair. I suffer fools gladly, probably because I belong to their tribe.

Lately I’ve been feeling like more of a fool than usual. Back in May, my wife left me for a man of uncertain gender identity. (My wife always liked ambiguity better than I did; that should have been a tip-off.) Anyway, she has my forgiveness: to each his own and all that.

Then the stock market imploded, taking half my nest egg with it. I depended on that nest egg because I’m one of those most abject and ill-favored creatures of our time: a professional freelance writer who isn’t a celebrity. We non-celebrity writers are lucky to find an occasional table scrap at the feast. We gaze with envy and disbelief while literary eminentoes like Sarah Palin, Tina Fey and Joe the Plumber gobble their multi-million dollar advances in our presence. 

That brings me to the third calamity in this year’s trifecta of tribulation: my writing career has been stopped like a Dodge Dart running up against a Mack truck. My agent, a jolly New York preppie and former college classmate, professed to love my darkly humorous essays. He envisioned the possibilities: just as Fran Lebowitz chronicled the Baby Boomers in their ascendancy, I’d speak for my generation as it trudged down the long slope to oblivion.

Meanwhile, I prepared two collections of my essays for publication: Lifestyles of the Doomed, a Menckenesque  grab-bag of cynical  social observations, and the even bleaker Extremely Dark Chocolates, a ruefully funny series of meditations on mortality. I mailed the packages, and I waited for my moment… my two moments.

I heard nothing from my agent for a couple of soul-shredding months. Finally he replied: this was a terrible time to be selling my essays, he said. He had made a phone call or two; the editors wanted nothing but celebrity names and youth-oriented humor. (Ever heard of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell? That was the model to be emulated.)

My agent suggested ripping the essays apart and mining them for their edgiest nuggets — something to grab the under-30 crowd. I said thanks but no thanks.

So here I stand, unrecognized and unpublishable while plumbers, sitcom stars and semiliterate Alaskan governors win VIP treatment (and megabucks) from a tottering publishing industry. Well, at least I’m still standing after my triple-whammy year. My arms and legs still work. I still have my original head, though I could probably use a new one at this point. But how do terminally frustrated writers like me redeem their thwarted careers?

We could self-publish, of course. But that option still carries a stigma — the pungent whiff of “loser” wafts from it like cheap perfume. We could search for new agents — and submit ourselves to a grueling, heartbreaking year of slights and rejections. No thanks; I’m getting too old for that ritual.

I say it’s time to hoist the black flag and turn pirate. Yes, you heard me right. The good egg is ready to turn bad on his own behalf — on behalf of all writers of merit who can’t survive in today’s inclement publishing climate.

When professional book people no longer reward intrinsic merit, we have to take matters into our own hands. Publishing has to be more than a private  club operated, as it clearly is now, for the benefit of millionaire celebrities and anemic, inbred M.F.A. litterateurs. You have to wonder if Mark Twain could find a publisher today.

So how do we fight back? I only have a few half-cooked ideas, but they’ll get us started. First we have to ignore the rules, which are made to protect the system. Query letters? Hell – how about marching into the editorial offices of the nearest publisher and demanding to be read? Sure, we might get ourselves rudely evicted, but think of the publicity! We could camp out on their steps until we’re heard or arrested, whichever comes first. The point is that we have to start wheedling, defying, cajoling and performing end-runs around the gatekeepers. We have to be bold and reckless enough to risk the ire of editors and agents, the whole sorry system that’s designed to reject anyone who doesn’t fit the current (and woefully shoddy) Zeitgeist.

We thwarted ones need to swap ideas, band together and sound off about the pusillanimous, risk-averse, celebrity-obsessed mentality that’s driving the entire book business into the ground. If we wait much longer, the current publishing firmament will topple like the dying tree that it is. Then all of us will have to self-publish, and good luck getting noticed!

Are you with me? Aarrrrrhh, mateys, let’s raid the ship!

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Farewell to George Carlin, Professional Cynic

George Carlin died the other day, as any English-speaking person on the Western shores of the Atlantic knows by now. He died rather suddenly. Of course, all deaths are sudden; one moment you’re a member of our pulsating, overextended clan, and the next moment you’re a mere slab of meat. So let’s say his death was both sudden and unexpected.

His death surprised me. It surprised me, first of all, that he had died without giving us any warning of his impending demise. It surprised me that he was already 71. And it surprised me that he lived to be 71, given his history of heart trouble, his chronic cynicism, and his intimate acquaintance with drugs, recreational and otherwise.

I liked George Carlin. I wasn’t an ardent Carlin groupie, like so many of his fans. But I always enjoyed his merry riffs on the human condition. I enjoyed his honesty and his contemplative hippie persona. In fact, I think he represented all that was best about the counterculture that sprouted like some magic psychedelic beanstalk from the fertile ground of the 1960s.

Carlin was countercultural without being fanatical about it. His style was laid-back, eccentric, almost innocently childlike despite the famously X-rated vocabulary. He loved words, and he loved to play with them the way a child plays with blocks. He loved to observe absurdities, like any child with an inspired and half-demented mind. He didn’t rant; he reflected. He mulled. He got high on ideas.

Meanwhile, the fanatical faction of the ’60s counterculture prevailed in the world at large. My generation grew obsessed with careers, status, parenting, education, self-help, food, you name it. Political correctness fanatics now run our schools and universities. Aging fitness fanatics plod joylessly throughout our city parks. Dietary fanatics castigate us for loving cheeseburgers. Environmental fanatics order us to measure our carbon “footprints” (I’ll take a size 12, please).

I wish the counterculture had produced fewer fanatics and more George Carlins.

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Humor Needs to Be Taken Seriously… Seriously!

I’ve been solemnly engaged in the business of writing humor for about fifteen years now. I’ve worked diligently at my trade. I’ve studied under some of the undisputed masters of the craft: Rabelais, Swift, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken, to name just a few. Several of my readers, not all of them family members, have commented on my wit, my penchant for the pithy observation, and the mellifluous beauty of my comic prose (though they didn’t necessarily use the word “mellifluous”).

And what do I have to show for my efforts? Am I rich as Dave Barry? Am I as celebrated as the guy who wrote I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, whatever his name is? Of course not. I’m no more successful than your average adolescent denizen of facebook with 352 friends.

My single published book of humor, The Cynic’s Dictionary, which various readers characterized as “uproariously funny,” “a sheer joy” and “nothing less than brilliant,” never even garnered a review in Publisher’s Weekly, let alone The New York Times. In bookstores across the republic and around the world, it sold out within weeks and was rarely if ever restocked. It won a reprieve in its latter-day incarnation as a budget-priced hardcover; the new publisher told me, “It’s not a good book — it’s a great book.”

But recognition never made its way to my doorstep. While Marley and Me mysteriously vaulted to the top of the bestseller lists, The Cynic’s Dictionary died in obscurity, like some 76-year-old retired schoolteacher in Emporia, Kansas.

Meanwhile, I’ve been struggling to catapult a collection of my online essays into the increasingly impregnable fortress of print. My agent balked. “I love your work, Rick,” she apologized. Translation: nobody was going to buy a collection of essays by a nobody.

I searched for a new agent. Thirty-seven rejections later, I found one. He loved my work, too; he saw me as the ideal humorist for the Baby Boomer generation as it approached obsolescence and death. But five months after I mailed him my freshly printed manuscript, he has yet to send it to a single editor.

I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion, as you probably would, that writing humor is not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. The trouble with being a humorist is that nobody takes you seriously. Think about it. How often do you see reviews of humor books in the mainstream press? Other than David Sedaris, who seems to have been adopted as a kind of adorable gay lapdog by the NPR-New Yorker crowd, your typical humorist toils in soul-numbing obscurity. The average author of a Lebanese cookbook stands a greater chance of achieving fame, riches, and a well-placed review.

We need to start taking humor more seriously. The tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink nudge-nudge style of public wit has reigned supreme for too long now. It grows wearisome, all that self-conscious skittering around genuine feeling. The best humor is almost always based on truth, not the distancing telescope of postmodern irony. We need humor with a heart and a backbone. We need it desperately. If only we could convince the gatekeepers.

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Introducing Positive Cynicism: an Upbeat Philosophy for Grumblers

Positive Cynicism? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Cynics are supposed to be sneering, carping, curmudgeonly critics, aren’t they?

Well, most of us cynics are chronic naysayers. And that’s the problem. Sure, we’re generally justified in our grumbling. But I’ve reached the conclusion that grumbling doesn’t make for a deeply satisfying or salubrious lifestyle. In fact, cynics are reputed to keel over from heart attacks at four times the rate of your average Joe. As chieftain of The Cynic’s Sanctuary, I’d feel especially guilty if I led my young followers into a lifelong bog of pessimism and premature cardiovascular complaints.

That’s why I’ve developed a new philosophy that I’ve dubbed Positive Cynicism. Essentially I’m offering cynics a chance to keep their integrity without feeling alienated, sliding into a terminal depression, dropping dead from heart disease or otherwise making themselves miserable during their too-brief sojourns on this perplexing planet. After all, even cynics deserve happiness, at least in moderation.

Positive Cynicism isn’t a rigorous philosophical system — just the introduction to what might be a more fulfilling way of life for members of our beleaguered tribe. You can read more about it here. 

 

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R.I.P. The Cynic’s Dictionary

It had to happen sooner or later. The Cynic’s Dictionary, my personal favorite of all my published and unpublished works, finally succumbed to a combination of old age and mass indifference. It was twelve years old. I bought the final four unsold copies from the current publisher on July 18, 2007, and that was that.

Twelve isn’t a bad lifespan for a humor book, especially in today’s bottom-line publishing climate. The Cynic’s Dictionary actually earned back its advance, and then some. The book had numerous fans who wrote to me and championed its cause, but it never cracked the media radar or the mysterious word-of-mouth machine that unaccountably propels books like Marley and Me to superstardom. 

I suppose The Cynic’s Dictionary wasn’t the sort of book that’s predestined for superstardom. It’s a relentlessly negative book, after all, even if it’s also a recklessly funny one. Most American readers prefer chicken soup and other forms of spiritual uplift. But I relished the opportunity to tell the truth with a bitter twist of lime, and I haven’t had my fill. You can bet I’ll continue to peddle my dark brand of humor, even while the success of my Words That Sell tells me that the money lies elsewhere.

One of the glories of the Internet is its ability to preserve the outpourings of renegade minds who failed to open the trick latch that leads to commercial success. Most of those minds are more interesting and engaging than the ones we reward with bestsellerdom. It pleases me to think that some of my “disgruntled definitions” might still be circulating around the Web after I’ve turned to plant food. The Cynic’s Dictionary is dead, but as a true believer I hope it stumbles upon a blissful afterlife.

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Authors Richard Bayan and Rick Bayan are the same person, Bayan reveals

Now my secret is out: I lead a double life as an author. As Richard Bayan, I’ve brought you the popular advertising thesaurus Words That Sell and its recent spawn, More Words That Sell. As Rick Bayan, I’ve created that dark-humored Biercean lexicon for our times, The Cynic’s Dictionary — along with my equally dark-humored website, The Cynic’s Sanctuary (www.i-cynic.com).

How can one man write cynical humor and serious advertising reference books? Am I schizophrenic? Not entirely. I just love words. I love the way they sound, the way they look on the page, the way they create visions in our heads, the way they can influence our attitudes and actions.

My interest in advertising stems from my career, of course. I’ve been an advertising copywriter and copy chief for over two decades. I’ve been devoted to my craft. I’ve won my share of awards. But I was never really a “company man.” When I was about to turn 50, I quit my job and decided to succeed or fail on my own. I’m still as fascinated as ever by the power of certain words to provoke certain responses, and by the power of advertising to generate interest in a product or service. We copywriters wield a weapon of immense capabilities.

As for my cynical humor… Well, that’s what happens when an idealistic history major discovers that the working world has no use for his hard-earned knowledge. Yes, cynicism is the flip side of idealism. Most of us cynics are sentimentalists under our scarred hides. Contrary to what everyone says about us, we value honesty, integrity and virtue. We just have a nasty habit of grumbling about the world’s shortcomings, and that doesn’t make us especially popular.

If you’ve read my advertising books, you’ll notice that my cynic’s sense of outrage creeps into the proceedings now and then. I’m fiercely adamant about integrity in advertising, because sleazy tactics undermine the image of advertising in the public eye. Our audience deserves better. The best advertising doesn’t try to hook an audience with deceptive come-ons.  We need to use hooks, of course, but we also need to do it honestly. For me, the goal of advertising is to build a long-lasting bond with the audience. And that bond translates into long-term sales.

I hope you’ll come here often to share your views on advertising, words, cynicism and other topics of interest to my readers. Feel free to tell me how I can improve my books or write better ones in the future. And of course, if you like my stuff, I’d like to hear that, too. Let’s get to know each other.

 

 

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