Sure, it’s great being a famous newspaper columnist, what with all the groupie sex. But I also have to put up with some things that you probably don’t. Let’s say you’re at work, facilitating a project or analyzing a policy or managing a budget or whatever it is that you do, and some fool expresses the opinion that you are incompetent. Who’s going to find out? Marjorie, in accounts receivable?
But when a reader thinks I am incompetent, he or she tends to pseudonymously post it online, in blogs or the comments about my columns, and these things are archived forever and accessible via Google, through which you can learn, for example, that on Sept. 23, 2010, someone named Greg Nog opined that, professionally speaking, I “(perform intimate acts on) frog (sexual parts).” Elsewhere on the Web, someone named ThePenIsMighter has made a similar observation about me involving “a dead donkey.” There are hundreds of these things out there.
The comparatively erudite Yellojkt, a frequent disparager of mine, periodically writes lengthy, joyful disquisitions on my abject failings as a professional, such as the blog item I am looking at from 2008, which goes on for pages and includes multiple links and is titled “Why Gene Weingarten Is an A--hat.” (Abstract: Because I suck.)
Periodically, readers will find it necessary to directly inform me, via e-mail, of my inadequacy. I often respond; the results can be entertaining. When “Fatherwad” recently urged me to retire, so as to make the world a better place, I wrote back: “I’m sorry I failed to entertain you. I have already killed myself in grief.” He responded: “Good. Then the day was not wasted.”
It was a perfectly satisfying back-and-forth, and I considered the matter closed. Alas, like many readers who have contempt for every word I write, Fatherwad finds it necessary to keep reading me; a few weeks later, he wrote me another e-mail informing me that I had not appreciably improved and offered to give me a tutorial in humor writing. I accepted, with a caveat: “Because so many people write to me prescriptively about my sorry work,” I wrote, “I have to limit the inflow to manageable numbers. Therefore, I only read those written in iambic pentameter, with at least three incidences of interior rhyme.” I sent him a study guide to both literary forms. Sadly, that proved to be the end of our relationship.
The most dramatic and persistent critic of mine is the staff of a Washington media gossip Web site that used to like me until I criticized them online for being a petty, brutish, mean-spirited trafficker in mindless character assassination and baseless innuendo. For literally months afterward, they attacked every column of mine seriatim, week after week, as the work product of a senile old fool; nothing I did was spared the most uncharitable interpretation. When I wrote one column imagining a conversation between me and my dog, they decided that I was actually hallucinating.
Each blog post was accompanied by the same photo of me. Now, for some reason, it is pretty hard to find a photo in which I look handsome, but they managed to locate the least flattering picture available: It was taken outdoors, in the rain, after I’d been walking for hours in pain in 90 degree heat shortly after undergoing botched double knee replacement surgery. I resemble some horrible bloated thing, like a corpse left out in the sun with putrid gas hissing out of its orifices.
None of this really fazes me. When your work is public, your calluses have to have calluses. Still, I have to admit one recent letter kind of got to me. It was respectful, from a woman who confesses that she doesn’t love my columns but is a big fan of those funny year-end news summaries I do. I politely thanked her. If she knew those annual summaries are actually by Dave Barry — and she might — I officially hate her.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.