By DOROTHY SILVER SAMUELS '73
Two summers ago, on an extended vacation from my regular day job, I did something I'd been threatening to do for more years than I can recall, even on those days I remember to take my ginkgo: I sat down at the computer keyboard, and hammered out a novel.
I was a few months shy of turning 50 at the time, and the thought of reaching that milestone without a completed book to show for my half century on this planet-combined with the tight deadline posed by my limited leave time, and the comings and goings of my three children-kept me working feverishly for six blessedly rainy weeks, writing in large 16-point type so that with a little squinting, I could decipher each day's outpouring without wearing reading glasses.
What a fun time it turned out to be. Indeed, I'd often catch myself giggling as my fingers raced across the keyboard to record an idea newly popped into my head for advancing my epic. That might sound a tad wacko, I know. But, fortunately, I was alone in my basement office. And-trust me-this writing experience was an incredibly refreshing departure for a journalist who has spent most of her workdays these past 17 years, penning editorials for the New York Times on subjects rarely known to provoke much laughter, like the death penalty, abortion rights, and the latest musings from the Supreme Court.
The end result, Filthy Rich, is no profound exegesis unraveling the mysteries of Life and Nature-unless, of course, you count the excellent skin care and fitness tips offered by my lead character, Marcy Lee Mallowitz, a 30-something former professional closet organizer turned personal life coach to a burgeoning clientele of striving New York City women.
The book attempts to capture a particularly shallow moment in American pop culture, exemplified by a crazier-than-ever obsession with celebrity, and a mindless infatuation with cheesy "reality" TV shows I found at once incredibly amusing and appalling. I'm talking about shows like MTV's "The Real World" and the original, highly addictive "Survivor" series on CBS, so popular the soggy summer I concocted my short opus that even contestants ejected early on from the rugged island paradise where it was shot could obtain lucrative endorsement deals.
The plot gets set in motion when Marcy's obnoxious (almost) fiance dumps her during a disastrous live appearance on the nation's top-rated reality game show. As a result, she finds herself America's latest instant celebrity, quickly making the list of its most admired women, just below Eleanor Roosevelt, and above another woman with man problems, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
My goals as I embarked on this writing project were either very modest, or naively ambitious. Even now, I'm not sure which. First and foremost, I wanted to complete the story from beginning to end. By the time this vacation ended, I vowed, I was going to have a finished manuscript, not a companion piece to the dusty half-written novel I started and then abandoned when I joined the Times way back when. Second, I wanted it to be funny, (and not just to me, I hoped), in the deadpan style of the parodies I wrote as a Bryn Mawr student, sometimes making the mistake of handing them in as term papers to professors, who, I came painfully to learn, did not particularly appreciate my warped sense of humor.
But notwithstanding my assorted goals and motivating neuroses as I approached the Big Five-Oh, the fact is the book would never have been written were it not for some crucial early help from my then-15-year old daughter, Laurah. After helping Laurah type a school paper one weeknight in June, around midnight, I told her my crazy idea for the novel. "Do it, Mom," she said. "It will be really fun."
"But how?" I inquired of my first-born, a natural writer whose great sense of organization is evident in her short stories, if not in the perpetually messy state of her room. "How would I structure the thing? And I need a really good ending. Without it, the book won't work. I'm sure I'd come up with something if you'd just bat it around with me."
When Laurah replied that she was really tired just then, and needed to go to sleep, I did what any good mother would do. I kept kicking my daughter in her shins to keep her awake until, with her deft editorial assistance, I'd scratched out the barest outline of the story. That primitive road map provided just enough direction for me to get started, and for that I gratefully shared the publisher's advance with Laurah-probably the easiest but most well-earned money she'll ever bank.
And so, great literature was born, kicking my teen-age daughter in the middle of the night. At the end of my summer writing spree, I had a completed draft of my book, but no publisher. My summer baby-sitter, a graduate student at Georgetown University, bridged that gap by hooking me up with Suzanne Gluck, a top-notch agent now at William Morris, whose assistant at the time just happened to be one of my sitter's good friends from college.
I wonder, did Tolstoy start this way?
The hardcover edition of Filthy Rich was out scarcely two weeks, when terrorists slammed fueled passenger planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center Towers, less than two miles from my home in New York City. A third highjacked plane, apparently en route to hit another target in Washington, D.C., crashed in Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard. As chastened Americans, including this one, hugged their loved ones closer and somberly struggled to absorb the enormity of the horror, and the scary future it portended, the frivolous moment my novel parodies seemed gone forever-a relic of a self-absorbed era of trivial pursuits rendered instantly distant by the awful events of 9/11. In the wake of the attacks, it was widely forecast that we had seen the end of the goofy fixation with celebrity, dumb reality TV shows, and the other indulgences I mock in my book. Americans, newly seared by the reality of large-scale acts of terrorism, pundits explained, would no longer be captivated by the phony doings on faux reality TV shows, or the comings and goings of celebrities and pseudo-celebrities that have been steadily displacing substance in the increasingly melding spheres of politics, news, and entertainment.
I agreed with that assessment wholeheartedly, sensing that the prevailing climate of serious introspection following 9/11 augured a permanent improvement. Pop culture's downward spiral, I felt confident, could not possibly continue.
As usual, I was wrong.
Taking stock a year later, it is clear that predictions of an imminent refreshing of our tacky 24/7 entertainment culture have not panned out. Sure, there have been some encouraging upward ticks. For one thing, serious journalism enjoyed a real comeback in the days and weeks following 9/11, providing a reminder of what dedicated reporters and editors can accomplish when they strive to enlighten people about weighty matters affecting their world, rather than simply entertain the lowest common denominator. I put in this same positive category, the profound initial reaction many Americans had to the tragedy. For a while it felt like the entire nation was caught up in a process of intense soul-searching. Whether they resided near Ground Zero, or on the opposite end of the country, Americans were feeling a need to reevaluate their priorities, and to contemplate changes in their careers and personal situations for the purpose of making their lives more meaningful. Stories abound of couples who decided to renew their marriage vows, and individuals who decided to give up high-powered corporate jobs to spend more time with their families.
But it is abundantly plain that this period of reflective contemplation, while sincere, amounted merely to a pause in an ongoing cultural slide. Not that we're oblivious. Hardly. Most of us can still grow teary when recalling the horror of 9/11, and the grieving families it left behind. Pollsters tell us that Americans are feeling both more vulnerable and more patriotic than they did before the day's infamous events. On some level, I'm sure, none of us will ever be quite the same. But apart from the spreading cosmetic use of Botox, where's the elevating transformation? As a society, it seems to me, we've more or less returned to our shallow pre-9/11 self. The addition of a few saccharine and imitative nostalgia shows to this fall's "family hour" television lineup strikes me as more a symptom than solution.
The overwhelming tide of altruism that saw Americans flock to donate blood in the immediate aftermath of disaster lasted about as long as Americans' new-found interest in foreign news, which is to say not very long at all. Much as we might have liked to fulfill predictions of a less selfish, more high-minded culture, we were soon too busy watching celebrity boxing and perusing glossy magazines for the lowdown on J. Lo's love life to follow through. Not only has pop culture failed to improve since 9/11, a strong case can be made that the coarsening trend pre-9/11 has actually accelerated. Good news for sales of the paperback edition of Filthy Rich, which hit bookstores in late June, but, alas, not from a less self-absorbed perspective.
Consider the evolution of so-called reality television. Not long after 9/11, Regis Philbin's good-natured game show hit, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and the banal but relatively benign competition of the "Survivor" series, gave way to a proliferation of reality torture shows, like the Fox network's "Fear Factor" on which masochistic contestants compete for prize-money by performing sickening stunts, diving into a vat filled with rancid water and dead squid, for instance, or lying still while being swarmed over by live rats.
And remember the Fox network's notorious 2000 extravaganza, "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire," on which a nurse named Darva Conger married an unsuccessful comic and self-described millionaire, Rick Rockwell, whom she'd just met, on live TV? The subsequent divorce, the discovery of blemishes in Rockwell's resume, and Darva's decision to pose nude for Playboy, all became grist for a much-watched Diane Sawyer interview. Before 9/11 there was a general consensus that shows of that ilk, that trivialize relationships and marriage, and which treat women as chattel, were out of bounds. But last spring, instead of a tasteless one-night wonder, we saw the debut of a highly-rated series, ABC's "The Bachelor," which followed a self-impressed Harvard man as he dated a multitude of beautiful women as prelude to choosing one as his potential mate. No doubt the mothers and sisters of the creative geniuses who brought us "The Bachelor," and the Fox Network's similarly worthwhile "Bachelorettes in Alaska" are very proud.
Then, there's "The Osbournes," the wildly popular documentary series on MTV that traces the day-to-day doings of the aging rock star Ozzy Osbourne, his wife Sharon, now fighting cancer, and their two teen-agers-without a doubt the strangest and crudest TV family ever. Some critics say it is also one of the funniest. Still, I suspect even Ozzy himself would agree the current Ozzymania is hardly a reassuring barometer of cultural health-except, perhaps, in comparison to Anna Nicole Smith's classy new addition to the voyeur television genre, billed breathlessly by E!TV as "pop culture meets cleavage."
Some experts say the current affinity for this sort of in-your-face entertainment can be traced in part to an undercurrent of anger as a result of 9/11. Others point to a progressive loosening of standards that has been going on for years. Personally, I trace our failure to shape up, culturally speaking, to an idiotic mantra. If we don't carry on in the same, silly, self-indulgent ways we did before the calamity, it suggests, somehow the terrorists win.
That was the crux of Tom Cruise's pretentious little speech at the top of this year's Oscar broadcast, explaining why proceeding as usual to hand out gold statuettes to rich movie stars, and giving Gwyneth Paltrow the chance to strut into our living rooms in an unbecoming revealing gown, was an act of patriotism-much as our political leaders told us on the heels of September 11 that spending a lot of money shopping was patriotic.
As an American, a journalist, and as a mother, the absence of any real improvement in pop culture since 9/11 troubles me. But as the author of a comic novel newly out in paperback, I confess to a certain relief that its central societal critique has not been rendered out-of-date. I encourage all my fellow Mawrters to buy a copy, read it, and laugh. By all means, laugh a lot. It's the patriotic thing to do.
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