April 14th, 2004

Ah, Ca-RAP

So for quite some time (years, I guess), I’ve insisted on referring to myself as a journalist rather than a writer. Why? Well, mostly because I’ve run across too many hideously pretentious fucks who call themselves writers. In fact, pretty much all of the hideously pretentious fucks I’ve known who have endeavored to write professionally have insisted on calling themselves writers (ya gotta kinda put a little Euro-trill on the initial R sound there to get the effect) even while earning their livings by being surly behind the counter at video rental places or bagel shops. These are, you know, the MFAs who never quite manage to finish the big, important novels they’re forever working on, but who nonetheless look down their noses at us ink-stained types who actually lower ourselves and betray our art by, umm, you know, earning our living by, umm, you know writing. (And no, by the way, I’m not saying all MFAs are like this. Far from it. I know a lot of people who have MFAs — like a fucking lot of them — and most of them are good sorts, if burdened with loans they’ll never, ever be able to pay off. What I’m saying is that 80 percent of the people who are like that either have or are studying for an MFA. That’s all.)

Anyway, I’ve wandered pretty far off my point here, so let’s refocus. I don’t call myself a writer, even though as a pure descriptive term it would be dead on. What do I do for a living? I write. What type of person writes for a living? A writer. So what am I? A writer. But don’t call me that. It makes me feel dirty.

OK, so what does that leave me? Well, sometimes I’m a copywriter. That’s pretty easy. You put that word “copy” in front of the word “writer” and it strips all the potential pretense away. Copywriter = working stiff. (The pretentious types might say prostitute, which is fine by me, ’cause, you know, I’ve got a mortgage and everything that comes with it. And, just in case you missed it, I don’t much care for the pretentious types anyhow.) Writes neither to achieve personal satisfaction nor for the benefit of his readers, but simply for a paycheck. Good, good. I can live with that as long as the checks keep coming.

But sometimes I’m not a copywriter. Sometimes I’m a guy who writes features and trend stories for newspapers. And sometimes I’m a guy who writes books. (OK, that should be book. Singular. So far just one. But I’m working on the second one and it’s awkward to say book, so cut me a break.) I’m coming around on author, though it still doesn’t quite feel like it fits (sometimes I think it never will, even if I write 30 books). But what about the newspaper stuff? I’m not a reporter. Not often, anyhow. I used to be a reporter back in a previous life. I used to go out and gather news stories. But I don’t do that any more. I do some reporting when I write a trend piece, but, you know, that ain’t really reporting. It’s just, you know, chatting with more people than you chat with when you’re writing an artist feature or a book review or something. I’d be insulting actual reporters by calling myself a reporter. So I don’t.

As far as I can tell, that leaves me with journalist. It’s a bit much, a bit of a … whatever, but it’s what I’ve got. I think. Only now here comes Jimmy Breslin telling the New York Observer that he doesn’t want to be called a journalist, because he finds the word pretentious. (This is not what that story is about, by the way. It’s just a remark Breslin makes within it.) And I’m not like some Jimmy Breslin devotee or anything, but I do respect the guy enormously. He’s talented as all getup. (No shit, Sean. Any other brilliant observations today?)

What I’m trying to figure out is, is Breslin right? Is the word journalist pretentious? And even if it isn’t, do people think it is? ‘Cause the last thing I want is for my efforts to avoid a word I find pretentious to result in me using one that puts other people off. I’m not sure where to turn. Or what to call myself if I end up deciding Breslin is right. Any constructive ideas out there? Any at all?

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