The ProsenPeople

An Author's First Book Is Always Their Second Attempt

Friday, February 12, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Oppenheimer shared his thoroughly secular affiliation with Joseph and the personal inner turmoil reflected in his book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Daniel has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Exit Right was the second book I intended to write. The first was about science fiction and fantasy “fandom,” the subculture of fans who go to conventions, write fan fiction, play role-playing games, and just in general organize their identity around their love of science fiction or fantasy novels, television programs, movies, or comics.

I planned to write that book because, logically, it made sense. I was an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi. I had some pretty interesting hypotheses about why people were drawn to the stuff. I also considered myself one of the world’s leading experts on the intersection of Jewishness and science fiction. And it seemed marketable: sub-culture books were big at the time. I remember in particular Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, about Scrabble players, but there were others.

So I did what aspiring nonfiction book writers do. I did some reporting, spending a weekend at that year’s world science fiction convention. I read a bunch of other writing on the subject. I wrote a sample chapter. I did the whole book proposal. Then I showed it to my maybe-agent, who thought it was boring (to paraphrase) and suggested that she would consider representing it if I went back to the drawing board, did some more reporting, and reconceptualized the whole book somehow.

I really didn’t want to do that, because although the book made sense in the abstract, in practice it was tough. I found the interactions with the hardcore fans exhausting. There was a lot of suspicion of reporters, and there was also a lot of socially-enforced hierarchy, so that fans who really could have given me a great deal of insight into the mores of the community felt that they couldn’t speak openly because they would risk being criticized and ostracized not only for revealing too much to the outside world but for presuming to speak as experts when there were others who were more experienced.

On top of that, there were a lot of fans who were prohibitively socially awkward. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of the best qualities of the fandom communities, and one I’m sure I would have spent a great deal of time exploring if I’d ended up writing the book, was the way in which it had evolved to provide a social home for people who didn’t fit in very easily into the “normal” social world. I’m quite sure it saves and enriches a lot of lives that otherwise would be quite lonely.

All of which is great for the people within the fandom, and as an example of American subcultural creativity at its best. The problem for me, though, is that I’m someone who’s excessively sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues from other people that they like me, that they accept me, that they get what I’m saying. It was quite exhausting to embed, even for a weekend, in a community with so many people who didn’t naturally send out those signals. Or who, if they were sending them out, were doing so on a different frequency than the one I was accustomed to receiving. I couldn’t imagine spending a year or two reporting in that world. It would have wrung me out.

So there were a lot of reasons not to write that book. At the most fundamental level, though, the problem was simply that I didn’t have much to say about science fiction and fantasy fandom. Enough for an essay, but not nearly enough for a book. It just wasn’t what I was meant to write. Fantasy and science fiction, I’ve realized in retrospect, work for me as escapist entertainment, but they don’t plug directly in to that part of my brain that lights up when I’m doing my best work as a writer.

Around the time that this notion was beginning to percolate up from my unconscious, I wrote a long cover story for the alt-weekly where I worked on the conservative writer and activist David Horowitz, who had once been the radical socialist writer and activist David Horowitz. It was an odd story to write for a local paper based in Western Massachusetts, since Horowitz lived in Los Angeles and had no connection to the area. But my editor liked me and gave me a lot of autonomy to pick my topics, and I found Horowitz fascinating.

After the story came out, someone pointed out to me that over the previous few years, without recognizing or intending any pattern, I’d also written pieces on two of Horowitz’s best known comrades in the ranks of left-to-righters, Norman Podhoretz and Christopher Hitchens. Something was drawing me to the topic. Maybe, it was suggested, I should write a book about it.

Once it was framed that way for me, it became obvious. It also offered me an honorable way out of my previously intended book. I cautiously raised the idea of ditching the sci-fi book, and instead writing a book about political turncoats, with the two people whose opinions I valued most on these things—my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) Jessica, and my brother Mark. Both, much to my relief, thought it was a great idea. And that was it.

Well, not exactly. That was ten years ago. In the interim I’ve found a new agent, sold the proposal, got married, had two kids (with another on the way), been frequently riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, procrastinated terribly. The book has been with three different editors at three different imprints at two different publishing houses. I’ve worried at times that I’d never finish it. But I’ve never worried—and I suspect this is why I’ve been able to push through—that it’s the wrong book for me to write.

It feels right. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but it’s authentic. Which is an enormous relief. I don’t know that I had to go down that false path to have found my way to this better one, but I don’t think it hurt.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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My Own Master of My Own Dreams

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Oppenheimer shared the personal inner turmoil reflected in his book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Daniel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

There’s a moment early in Leslie Fiedler’s essay “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World” that reminds me why the essay impressed me so much when I first read it sometime around a decade ago. The great twentieth-century critic is trying to remember when he first really recognized Joseph—the dreamer and dream-interpreter bestowed with a coat of many colors—as the true ancestor of the modern Jewish artist and writer.

It wasn’t in the Bible itself, nor was it in any of the fiction by modern Jewish writers that played with the Joseph story. Instead, Fiedler writes:

It was a chance phrase in a most goyish poet which provided me with a clue to the meanings I am pursuing here, a verse in the Sixth Satire of Juvenal, where, describing the endless varieties of goods on sale in Rome… he remarks that ‘for a few pennies’ one can buy any dream his heart desired ‘from the Jews.’ From the Jews! It was those few words which fired my imagination with their offhand assumption that dream-peddlery is a Jewish business, that my own people have traditionally sold to the world that commodity so easy to scorn and so difficult to do without: the stuff of dreams.

If pressed, before I reread “Master of Dreams” I might have been able to dredge up that it was about Joseph. I may also have said that Freud figured into it some fashion, though whether I would be remembering that from the essay I can’t say, since “Freud is in there somewhere” is a safe prediction for nearly everything by Fiedler—as well as much of what was written by the crew of mid-century New York intellectuals with which he was loosely affiliated.

What I forgot was nearly everything else in the essay: Kafka, Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, Nathanael West, Pharaoh, Jacob, Potiphar and his wife, the ascendance and soon to descend twilight of Jewish-American fiction, the specific ways that Freud figured into it, and so much more. The essay is dizzying in its array of references, its intuitive leaps, its intoxicating sense of life, and its brilliant and seductive and suspiciously convenient assertions.

Worse than all my forgetting, I think, is what my recent rereading reveals about what I never knew in the first place: the story in Genesis, of Joseph and his many-colored coat, around which Fiedler weaves the whole thing.

So this wonderful essay, which has been so important to me, so central to my identity as a Jewish artist and intellectual, is one that I barely remember and never reread until now. And with its renewed inspiration I immediately went out and didn’t read the relatively short section of the Old Testament that was essential to fully understanding it. I probably reread The Lord of the Rings instead.

It would be ironic, except that the whole essay (I recognize now, upon rereading) grants an enormous license to modern Jewish arts to be Jewish artists without doing anything overtly Jewish. We are simply (or not so simply at all, of course) meant to follow the truth of our dreams, and in so doing to narrativize and interpret the half-remembered and barely understood dreams of the gentile world in which we live—and through that bring healing that world, ultimately prosper, and find ourselves celebrated for doing so. As Fiedler writes: “The Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well; thus determining the future of all those who can only know what lies before them dimly and in their sleep.”

I think it’s fair to say, without diminishing the brilliance of the original essay, that in one respect it’s a very appealing justification myth for all Jewish artists and thinkers whose Jewishness consists primarily of the work we wish to pursue that isn’t necessarily explicitly Jewish in its themes. So the great Josephs of the early twentieth century, for Fiedler, were Kafka, “who never mentioned the word ‘Jew,’ in his published work,” and Freud, whose most enduring myths depend on Hamlet and Oedipus, “two mythological goyim out of the dreams of Gentiles.”

So by following my own muse, for instance, into the lives of some of the most interesting political turncoats of the past century, half of whom are Jewish, and through their lives interpreting the restless dreams of the American psyche, I’m not just doing essentially Jewish work, I’m doing really Jewish work. I’m the ancestor and reincarnation of Joseph. I’m the source of renewal of the creative Jewish spirit.

It doesn’t matter that I’m entirely secular in my religious practice and identity. It doesn’t matter that I married a gentile, or that my children may not identify as particularly Jewish. What matters is my dream-peddlery.

Which is, itself, a lovely dream.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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The Submerged "I"

Monday, February 08, 2016 | Permalink

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The book I’ve just published, Exit Right, is about prominent Americans who’ve gone from the left to the right of the political spectrum. There are a few moments in the book, mostly in the introduction and postscript, when I poke my head up as an “I,” but it’s very much not about me.

That said, if I’m being honest, it’s entirely about me. It’s the product of my own struggles with the beliefs I inherited, and with the political community I grew up in. My maternal grandparents were members of the Communist Party, Philadelphia branch. My parents are leftists. Their friends, when I was growing up, were leftists too, some of them probably even communists in some sense—though by the time I came along it never would have come up.

It wasn’t a dramatically left-wing childhood. We didn’t live in an enclave of communists in Queens, as David Horowitz and his family did. We lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, a city so generic that its name is used to denote generic city-ness, and growing up there was about as exciting as that sounds.

Since I left my parents’ home for college I haven’t lived a highly dramatic left-wing adulthood. But what my life has been, from almost the beginning, has been a conversation about left-wing politics, very often an argument—with my parents, siblings, friends, classmates, co-workers, my wife, and, someday, soon my kids. I gave my grandfather a hard time about Stalin. I got into it in college with my fellow pro-labor activists about the merits of McDonald’s cheeseburgers (long story). I suspect I may have once blown it with a girl I was dating because I felt the need to complicate her views on affirmative action. I’m not usually that guy, but I’m that guy often enough to know that something’s going on.

Exit Right is about its subjects—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—and I did my best to empathize with them and understand how they experienced the world. But it’s also personal. I used their stories to tussle with my father, possibly with my grandfather. Definitely with Christopher Hitchens, who was the second great intellectual crush of my life, and whose break from the left at first enthralled me, then infuriated me, then saddened me.

I’m also struggling within myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been caught between a desire to be part of a cause—to live up to the ideals and myths of my childhood—and a discomfort with what that might entail, with the letting go of detachment and skepticism, not to mention a fear that maybe if I really let go I’d end up on the other side altogether. I have to wonder if I’ve engaged in so many conversations and arguments over the years in the hopes that one of these days I’ll find my way through to beliefs that feel so rooted and tested that I can at last commit to one political persuasion—though whether that might fall to the right or the left I don’t know. And also, of course, because by this point it’s what I know how to do.

I’m surely drawn to writing about these men who’ve gone all the way from the left to the right, who’ve refused to rise above, because theirs is the path I haven’t taken. I’ve been the detached intellectual, the one who takes his doubts about the left so far but no further. And while I’m not leaving that path, I’m not comfortable on it either. There is no point so high that we can remain political but escape the most unnerving risk of political life, which isn’t losing the fight but choosing the wrong side of it in the first place.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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