Jeff, you have a point. Like a totally legitimate point. So while I originally planned to make this episode of “The Critics Respond” a stout-ish defense against your allegation, complete with various facts and figures concerning what percentage of my published output contains Accord-related content, I’d rather spend this time talking about the truly odd things that occur at the intersection of talent, opportunity, and motivation.
A while ago I read through an entire book of Peter Egan columns at the urging of our good friend Sam Smith. Shortly before that, I’d read Setright’s Drive On! for the third time. As always, I was struck by Egan’s ability to convey that particular brand of Midwestern friendliness, and I remained in awe of Setright’s unashamed, remarkably eclectic elitism.
This is what I didn’t expect to take away from both books: the remarkable narrowness of their attention. Frank Sinatra may have covered the waterfront, but Egan doesn’t look past a couple boards in one particular pier. Rarely does he deviate from formula, even when a deviation would be welcome. The cast of characters is always the same: Egan himself, his wife Barb, and some fellow with a curious amount of money and/or free time.
Setright is, of course, exponentially more literate and educated than Egan, yet his thoughts turn again and again to certain tropes and incidents. It’s remarkably common for him to mention the same thing across multiple books and/or magazine columns, often with identical phrasing. Does Egan rarely get through a column without a complaint regarding British carburetors? Setright appears to have trouble completing a thought without recourse to a very small group of incidents from classical antiquity.
I have no idea how often people complained about it, but I doubt it was frequent enough to worry either author. They had the advantage of time and space, publishing just one or two columns a month and completing books at their leisure. By contrast, I usually turn out between 4,500 and 8,000 words for publication every week plus another two or three thousand here.
It’s not just about the money, although Egan or Setright were paid a rate that exceeds what modern autowriters get by a factor of twenty or even fifty. It’s about exposure and interaction. If I wrote one thing a month, it would be equivalent to disappearing from the scene. Today’s readers expect to hear from you constantly and if you can’t keep up the pace they will go to someone who will. Let me share a little tidbit with you: the per-article gap in traffic between us and TTAC is remarkably small. The difference is that they run twelve articles a day and we do one or two. If I had enough writers to put up twelve articles a day on this site, we would eclipse everybody short of Jalopnik and Autoblog in a space of months or even weeks.
The most popular writers and YouTube clowns in this business spend ten or twelve hours a day engaging their readers everywhere from Facebook to Reddit. For every hour you spend writing, you have to spend four hours discussing that writing with the consumers. I can’t do it. Won’t do it. I won’t go as far as ol’ LJK, who once wrote “It cannot be too widely known that Setright does not correspond with readers” or something to that extent. I’ll respond to comments here on this site and occasionally elsewhere. But I’m not going to have long talks with 12-year-olds online about the fucking Countach.
Just to keep my head above water in this business, I need three or four good topics a week. These topics cannot be too topical or they read like clickbait. They can’t be right of center or even have a whiff of it. They must comply with our current insane standards regarding gender-fluidity and value-neutrality or they will be edited into oblivion if they are not rejected outright. They cannot even be too blatantly pro-car because my editorial masters are responsible to masters of their own and those masters despise the automobile even as enthusiasm for it fills their pockets. Any sincere appreciation of the motorcar I might have to offer has to be tempered with a little tongue-in-cheek attitude lest it trigger some half-human public-transit-fanatic above me on the corporate ladder whose arrival to NYC in xir twenties caused xhem to adopt their media-conceived preconceptions about to the city to a level that borders on cosplay and whose intolerance for any lifestyle besides xir own would cause Torquemada to take a deep breath and shake his head in despair.
Given these circumstances, it’s virtually impossible for me to not repeat the occasional trope or topic. Honda Accord coupes, boutique guitars, a bizarre attitude to club racing that combines lackadaisical pre-race prep with murderous intent after the green flag. Musings on fatherhood, disdain for lifted FWD wagons pretending to be trucks, a fanatic obsession with tailor-made clothing. Ridiculous jargon, shocking sexual audacity, and repulsive images of the ghetto.
From time to time, I get an opportunity to break out a bit and write something different. In the past year, I’ve shown you the new Corvette ZR1, run the Nurburgring with Ross Bentley, and performed an unsentimental comparison of $150,000 convertibles at speed in the Swiss Alps. I’d like to think that each one of those pieces, and others besides, were far more interesting because they were written by me instead of by an industry-standard hack. There’s just one little problem: The better of a job I do in creating something interesting for you, the reader, the fewer chances I will get to do it in the future.
I’ll explain. This business runs on public-relations money. That’s obviously true for small fry like TTAC but it’s also the case when you’re working in the big leagues. The only magazine in the game that operates entirely on its own budget is Consumer Reports. Everybody else has to be hand-in-glove with the automakers. When those automakers make vehicles and venues available for a story, they need to know that the story will justify the investment. They need you to stay on message.
By “stay on message”, I don’t mean that they need the coverage to be 100% favorable, although the biggest names in the business provide exactly that. I mean that they need the writing to be predictable and formulaic. “The shifter fell easily to hand”, and so on. They want the article to be written at the eighth-grade level. They have a few things that they really want you to mention: the difference between this 1.8T engine and the old one, a dashboard made from a single piece of plastic instead of a bolted-together mess, a 12-kilogram weight savings accomplished using a specific buzzword.
The mistake that I made when I started writing about cars — and it’s a mistake that I’m still making — is that I like to follow my intuition about a story and it frequently leads me very far away from those simple talking points. My first draft of the Lotus Nurburgring story, which I didn’t even bother to put in the mail to anybody, contained a 2,000-word digression about the “Granturismo” organization that had rented the track and their bizarre champagne-papi approach to trackdays that included hired models and limitless quantities of free alcohol served about fifteen yards from the pitlane entrance. When I went to Malaysia back in 2013, my final draft included 1700 words about an encounter with a petite local female that had to be excised from the text before it could even be put into the magazine’s editing system.
This kind of stuff works very well in a Tom Wolfe novel or a Herman Melville travelogue but it scares the suits on all sides. They want a certain sort of dependable writer. Someone who can scarf up a $25,000 vacation in a $500,000 car and turn in a story where the insanely vibrant background of their experience fades to a grey background so the talking points can shine. Someone who understands that you don’t write about downtown Barcelona just because you’ve been flown to Barcelona on a new-car test, any more than you would spend a paragraph reciting the serial numbers of the $100 bills that a PR rep handed you before you got on the plane home. (Which, by the way, does not happen in my experience. I am not aware of anybody in this business ever taking cash. And why would you, when you can take a $30k Emirates roundtrip that needn’t be reported to Customs on your way home?)
One of my esteemed colleagues recently had a once-in-a-lifetime experience of driving a $2 million car in a famous European road rally. I say “once-in-a-lifetime” because it would be once-in-a-lifetime for me. He goes every year. And here’s why he goes every year: he took that insane week-long adventure and boiled it down to a ten-item listicle that serves no purpose other than to bolster the business case for buying a new car from the people who covered his tab. If somebody sent me on that trip, they’d get a novella about gorgeous brunettes sweating through their white V-necks in the Tuscan sun and the despair of Pompey Magnus as he stamped his feet on the ground to raise an army against Caesar but received only an entourage to witness his death. As a reader, you might enjoy my piece more. But if you had to pay the bills and guarantee the coverage to your own corporate masters, you’d tear up my card in the Rolodex and reach for Old Faithful over there in the section marked “Will not fly on any airplane without a separate first class.”
In the past couple of years, I’ve done the legwork to come up with a half-dozen stories that would blow the minds of any even mildly engaged reader. Blue-light underground street racing in Moscow. AMG convertibles into the heart of darkness where homegrown Thai militias skin their enemies alive. Running head-to-head against NASCAR superstars in the bullring of Tulsa’s Chili Dome. Rolls-Royces in Juarez. The response is always the same from everywhere: yes, thank you, we’ll consider this. And then you open the magazine or webpage and it’s another story about the admirable heritage of the Porsche 911.
I don’t blame anybody involved. While the idea of risking my life for no particular reason beyond literary interest might be amusing to me, it’s terrifying to editors who might have to attend my funeral and fill ten newly-emptied pages on short notice. The prospect of sending me on a press trip and receiving a Victorian novel instead of a reliable 1,500-word recapitulation of the press release is nearly as frightening. So those opportunities will keep going to the Old Faithfuls.
There’s a choice to be made here. I can complain (more) about it in a futile attempt to get those opportunities, or I can turn my lens on the topics I have available to me. If James Joyce could create literature from a single day, I should be able to do it from a club race. If Tom Wolfe could make a conductor’s dinner party a subject of enduring merit, then I can take a Stateside second-tier drive of a middling sports car and make it utterly fascinating. Did Updike turn a few apres-ski fumblings with his neighbor’s wife into a National Book Award? I should be able to expand a short romance with a 29-year-old hairdresser into the stuff of legends.
In conclusion, therefore, I would like to apologize to Jeff, who is sick of hearing about my Accord. I can’t fix your problem. I can only offer you a choice: you can open up a magazine and read tales of astounding adventures where the interest and merit have been drained from the carcass in the best kosher-butcher style, or you can stick with me and read stories of triumph, heartbreak, sorrow, introspection, and fascination that will, sorry to say, occasionally include a six-cylinder, six-speed family sedan masquerading as a sporting coupe. Those are your choices, and neither is wrong.