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.
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. He has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and is a Director of Strategic Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. Oppenheimer was born in New York City and currently lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and children.