One of the great oddities of American mass culture is that people who write also are expected to talk. Many people, for example, who have written nothing more sweeping than a small-press book on the Zen of real estate investment soon find themselves besieged with invitations to appear on talk shows or celebrity panels devoted to the Intentions of the Framers, the New Monogamy, or the Decline of Literacy. The attention is very flattering, of course, and some of us even come to consider it a plausible substitute for royalties. But the notion that writers have anything more useful to say -- orally, that is -- than steam fitters or cocktail waitresses, is a debilitating social myth, on a par with the notion that the Bible is a good source of information on Paleolithic biology.
For one thing, few writers have strong opinions on any subject, because if they did they would be labeled by powerful publishers as "predictable," and promptly plucked out of key New York City Rolodexes. Many writers of my acquaintance, in fact, do not even read the newspapers for fear that if they did they would begin emitting sentences like, "The alleged perpetrator was apprehended yesterday, sources close to City Hall affirmed, in a welter of conflicting corroborations occasioned by ... "
Then consider what it is that writers talk about when they are among their own kind and can speak freely of their deepest concerns. In weeks of patient research conducted in Key West, where dozens of well-known writers go to hide out from their editors, creditors, and former spouses, I discovered the single most gripping subject of literary discussion. The Closing of the American Mind? The Postmodern Condition? The Morality of Public Policy? No, the subject is word processing. At Key West's infamous Sloppy Joe's, where Ernest Hemingway himself once courted cirrhosis, it is rumored that the bartender recently had to separate two brawling novelists of world renown, one a Macintosh man, the other IBM-compatible.
Perhaps the worst thing about casting writers in the role of Generalized Expert is what it does to the writers. You may not believe it, but most talk shows actually are more hazardous to the intelligence of their guests than to that of their viewers. As a published feminist, I myself have done service on dozens, perhaps hundreds, of talk shows, most of them, it is true, emanating from Terre Haute at 4 in the morning, but some of them televised and important enough to require the extensive application of foundation and blush. There you are, sweating under the Klieg lights at 7:15 a.m., when Joan or Jane or Bryant looks at you with feigned fascination and asks you a question that dozens of highly paid TV people have been working on for days (without, of course, the slightest reference to anything you may have written or even thought about): "What, in your opinion, is the future of relationships?"
Now, anyone with the least shred of intellectual integrity would say without hesitation, "Let us not waste this time, which sells to the sponsors for hundreds of thousands of dollars a minute, on such inane inquiries." But once you have been cast in the role of Generalized Expert, such honesty is out of the question. You lean forward and smile (that is the first rule of television: lean forward and smile) and say, "Well Joan, I'm glad you asked that, because there will almost certainly be more of them, especially in the mountain states, maybe 30 percent altogether, and they will be a little larger than the ones we have now, rounder, unless possibly ... "
Two other questions I have been asked recently are: "Will feminism destroy the family?" (yes, even in 1988, that is a hot question on the talk show circuit), and "Will the miniskirt destroy feminism?" All these questions, you will note, reflect the bowling-ball theory of social change that dominates talk-show thought: Feminism Spreads, Hits Family; Skirts Rise, Smash Feminism; Love Grows, Saves Relationships. Confronted with issues like these, it is difficult, even for someone like myself, to suppress flippancy. "Yes," I have always wanted to say, "but not for three or four weeks." And, "No, not unless they rise above the belly button." But I do not, and I realize how deeply corrupted I have become when I find myself thinking as I leave the studio: How about I do my next book on The Microskirt: New Hope for the American Family?
The lecture circuit -- the other major forum in which writers are invited to exhibit themselves as Generalized Experts -- is only slightly less corrupting. True, no makeup is required, and, if the lectern is substantial enough, it may not even be necessary to dress below the waist. But there is always the danger of uttering some mendacious pleasantry such as, "I'm glad to be here in Utica," when you are actually in Rochester. Or -- what is even more transparently insincere -- saying the same thing when you are indeed in Utica.
Then there is the unsettling question of who the audience is. What kind of person would spend an evening on a hard seat watching a talking head? People without television sets? Without heat in their homes? Without homes?
I can already hear the whir of distant word processors as my fellow writers gear up for their rebuttals. What does she want, they must be thinking, to leave the important business of public talking to the likes of Fawn Hall, Vanna White, and G. Gordon Liddy? No, my plan is simply to spread it around. Change the lectures into round tables; and when Jane or Joan or Bryant feels obliged to find out "What is the future of relationships?" or some such thing, let them ask a knowledgeable steam fitter or waitress. Writers can take their turn like anyone else, unless, of course, the subject is word processing.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a regular columnist for Mother Jones.