What makes someone an asshole? Everyone knows one, and some of us are one, but it seems a purely subjective matter.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines asshole as “someone or something foolish or contemptible”. One of the more popular entries in the Urban Dictionary describes asshole as “someone being arrogant, rude, obnoxious, or just a total dickhead”. Denis Leary once sang that an asshole is someone who drives slow in the fast lane, enjoys Cuban cigars, and parks in handicapped spaces while “handicapped people make handicapped faces.”
I’m fond of assholes. I like the Henry Rollinses, the Ed Abbeys, the Louis C.K.s of the world. Assholes are the real movers and shakers. They get shit done.
I’ve momentarily become sort of an asshole for expressing my enjoyment of “Five More Bands for Joe Daly to Hate” by Steve Almond—who may or may not be an asshole. I enjoyed how Almond analyzed the argumentative fallacies of Daly’s piece. Readers couldn’t trip over their feet fast enough as they ran to the defense of Daly, the person, and his article. Here was a truly wondrous TNB moment, such a crucial shift in the general lockstep of the website. Like a monkey wrench in the TNB gears.
Admittedly, I couldn’t resist feeling disappointment at Joe Daly’s decision not to fire back. What a missed opportunity! Had I been in Joe’s shoes I would’ve given Steve Almond a piece of my mind. Because that’s exactly what Nervous Breakdown articles are: pieces of people’s minds.
I respect Daly’s decision to avoid waging war (and Steve Almond was correct: Joe Daly seems like a bona fide nice guy) but chances like these—to test one’s mettle as a writer and a thinker—are few and far between.
To each his own. But I can’t help thinking it’s like Geto Boys once said: no nuts, no glory.
In his recent article “Something Nice” Greg Olear labels me “the resident curmudgeon”. In the spool of comments beneath the article, contributor Richard Cox claims I “occasionally [make] comments…that seem contrary just for the sake of being so.” I don’t necessarily disagree with Olear and Cox. The fact that Cox could even remember some supposedly thorny comment I made a while back is oddly satisfying. The not-so-nice stuff, that sticks out like a broken tooth. But, see, that’s the thing about niceness sometimes. It leaves a fading impression.
More or less, I’ve transformed into the grumbling troll under the TNB bridge. It’s one thing to be an asshole, which I’m not gonna deny, but it’s a whole other thing entirely to be The Nervous Breakdown’s Asshole. And the whole liking-Steve-Almond’s-balls thing? Guilt by association, I guess.
There are a lot of kind, intelligent people working for this site for free. We give everyone the benefit of the doubt. They love the work and they give a damn about the potential of language, ideas, and story. Do they appreciate a good argument? The jury’s still twiddling their thumbs over that.
The Nervous Breakdown contributors are aware that the articles they post, the comments they make, the goddamn Gravatar photos they use, all of it creates an impression. Ultimately, each stroke adds crucial layer upon crucial layer to the formation of the Online Persona. So it makes sense that there is, generally speaking, an air of kindness at play at TNB. Being nice and supportive is an easy act to swallow. Nobody wants to look like an asshole. Although, depending on how you were raised, that sort of eggshell walk probably makes you look like a pussy.
Does it really just come down to this—assholes and pussies?
And what about dicks? The wino from Team America was right!
Those massive assholes who shit on everybody’s good time. Who put us down and make us feel stupid and small, Debbie-Downing everything and everyone. Fucking assholes. Don’t they know how good life can be?
And those fucking pussies. With their abbreviated names and seriouser-than-thou author photos and their niceness. Writing about sad childhoods, single life woes, and the fucking Trans-Siberian-fucking-Orchestra. Those fucking pussies.
I sound like a real asshole, don’t I? I bet the blood is rushing to your face and you’re grinding your teeth. And that computer screen you’ve been staring at all day while you should’ve been working, I bet you’re staring right through it. Giving it that million yard stare.
Or maybe you’re leaning back, rubbing your chin, and pondering the Perfect Comment—the one comment that will make everything seem okay again and boost your Online Persona ever further into the TNB heavens.
And then it’s refresh. refresh. refresh.
More than a few people on The Nervous Breakdown believe that an atmosphere of kindness and praise ultimately helps a writer grow. It may not be a quantifiable theory, but, hell, at least it’s a theory.
That sounds like wishful thinking to me, and perhaps a dangerous rule to follow for anyone who takes writing seriously.
One of my personal literary heroes, Larry Brown, once remarked that “writing is a skill you’ve got to learn, just like learning to be a bricklayer or a carpenter.” I like this sentiment and not just because I’m the son of a Union carpenter. I like it because it provides me with more hope and optimism than—I’ll say it again—any acts of perfunctory kindness and soft praise ever could. Brown suggests that anybody can become a writer if he works at it hard enough. Learning to write well can be a long and complex apprenticeship. I hope Larry was right.
But, then again, maybe he was just an asshole.