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Memo to Striking Entertainment Writers
Dear Entertainment Writers on Strike: Recently returned to so-called civilization from the canyons of Utah, I had the opportunity, after long hiatus, to enjoy the product of some of your writing as it gets shoveled into the American maw via television (no TV in my house–shoot ‘em if they get close to the porch). What a feat, this writing. It evidenced so much that was stale, false, crass, violent, foolish, salacious, gimmicky, irrelevant, sycophantic, complacent, compliant –it was, in short, the perfect distraction in a dying republic fast on its way to tyranny, the gift that keeps on giving to a government that would hope to turn the screw on free-thinking citizens. In other words, writers–you keep on striking! Behold: The entertainment will grow cold and grey as the corpse that it already is, with no new cadavers to puppeteer for the newness of each season, where nothing is as new as the recycled dead from the last season. Like Plato’s chained slaves in the cave of shadows, let the viewers wake up, walk into the light, starved for reality–oh writers, let no new entertainments issue from your minds! You may just save the Republic.
Now, a couple caveats to this business of writing and what it means to be a writer. I read in a piece posted by a television writer a few days ago at Salon.com–the "writer," one Doug Gordon, for several years penned trivia questions for the idiocy known as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"–that at any given time 50 percent of the members of the Writers Guild of America are "unemployed." The very logic of the complaint here indicates that Mr. Gordon–who, I assume, represents the mental midgetry of his fellow sufferers at the WGA, which is spearheading the strike–doesn’t understand what it means to be a writer. To be a writer, as I conceive it–I write journalism as a freelancer–means to be employed by no one but oneself. To be thus constantly "employed," at every waking moment, requires discipline and will and delight in uncertainty in the marketplace of ideas–who knows if your ideas have too little weight or too much. It demands steadfast energy and a pridefulness somewhere between that of an ox and a lion. Exhausting work, sometimes self-destructive, and usually it does not remunerate to the satisfaction of mortgages or the stability of a home.
"Writer" Doug Gordon, however, complains that he has a hard time holding his health insurance after the better-paid mental midgets on the producer rung of "Millionaire" fired him. Poor Dougie. He remarks in a moment of weirdness that due to lack of health insurance "most people in creative professionsoften don’t exercise or leave the house for fear of getting injured." I haven’t had health insurance for years. My wife and I can’t afford it. She’s a freelance too, working on a book investigating the criminality of the Department of Justice, for which she will be paid next to nothing. She does it because she believes in the important of the work–why else? So what does she do, this freelance, lacking health insurance and mostly broke? The last time I left her at the airport in the middle of nowhere in the Utah redrock, she turned around with not a word of warning and boarded a dual-prop with a group of random parachutists and did a skydive from 10,000 feet, her first and hopefully not her last. Huge risk and well worth it–so said the look on her face, the sex we had after. Meanwhile, we are effectively homeless, owning no property, having no base beyond the place where we are.
We rent a house in the high Utah desert for the summer, from a second-homeowner who takes pity on us with low rates. Right now we’re crashing at her father’s place in Washington DC, writing articles about the little caesars running the US government. We belong to no union. We own little of worth except books and an old Subaru and a kayak and two mountain bikes and a portable office in the form of our laptop computers and a laser printer. Poor us, so rich in small things. I like to think in overwrought moments that, severing ourselves from service to the pettiness of editors in the offices of newspapers and magazines, we follow in the steps of the lancer knights of the Middle Ages who had fulfilled obligations to their lord and thenceforth were free, serving no one, owing no fealty. The knights were thereafter called free lancers, with their only prize that they were indeed free to roam.
This isn’t what concerns little Dougie, late of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" He wants security. Wants dividends. Wants more money. The heart of his argument, which is also the chief plaint of his colleagues in the WGA, concerns the merchandising opportunities of "new media." "Whether [networks] produce new shows or dig deep into their libraries," Gordon writes at Salon, "there is no show that networks, studios and production companies won’t be able to monetize in the form of webisodes, online games, cellphone ringtones, downloads and other digital media." He goes on: "One day that million-dollar question I wrote or the joke I put in Regis’ mouth will be streamed online, preceded by a 30-second ad that will generate money for someone. Just not me."
Right. Monetization of the million-dollar question. Is this tragedy or comedy? Any "writer" who wants to make money off online games and cellphone ring-tones has lost his moral compass. But that’s par for the course in the wasteland. Wake-up call, Doug: If you join a corrupt, insipid, silly (and at once villainous) industry that presents excreta as product, you should expect to be shitted on. You’re like a woman who with smiles joins a whorehouse and then says, "But–I–get–fucked in the ass too?!?"
So dear "writers," I say it to you again: keep on striking. Strike until your knees crack open and your eyes melt out of your head and your stomachs distend. Then, perhaps, find an honest job peddling heroin or child porn. As a striking TV scribe on NPR noted in a moment of honesty, more of this kind of writers’ strike only means, as she put it, less harm done.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM is a freelance journalist who has written for Harpers’, Penthouse and Salon.com. He can be reached through his website: christopherketcham.com