Who is Ellsworth Toohey?Posted: September 21, 2012
The title of this post is a reference to a (probably) well meaning but ultimately doomed thread on DF in which the original poster, who goes by the name “Thorkhammer,” asked, “Are blogs bad for the hobby?” and invoked the image of Ellsworth Toohey, an awful-awful-awful person from Ayn Rand’s book, “The Fountainhead.” Mentioning Ayn Rand probably doomed the discussion to begin with.
I was given a copy of ‘The Fountainhead’ as a young man by a well meaning person who probably didn’t really understand me very well. Ellsworth Tooey was a character from Rand’s book, and, like many Rand villains, he was a sneering, bullying, uncreative parasite who worked as a critic and spent his time trying to destroy ‘men of vison’ like architect Howard Roark (the novel’s hero). Rand’s argument was that men like Toohey added nothing to society and were threatened by the obvious genius of people like Roark. In case you didn’t get the point, Rand made all of her heros masculine, sexy, handsome and tall and all of her villains were ugly or physically flawed in some way. But I’m going to try to resist giving in to the temptation to fire off the obvious potshots at Ayn Rand.
I think the link that Thorkhammer was trying to make (and I’m just guessing here, since he was pretty cagey about exactly what ‘blogging’ was ‘bad for the hobby’ by refusing to provide specific examples) was that perhaps getting raked over the coals by Ellsworth Tooheys (or critics) is
a) Bad for the ‘hobby’, and,
b) A sign that the critics themselves are, like Ellsworth Toohey, threatened by the creativity (or at least productivity or even ambitions) of others.
I’d like to try to address these separately.
A) Bad for the Hobby: I reject the notion that there is some collective ‘hobby’ which can be measured as rising and falling like the values of shares on the New York Stock Exchange. I used to believe in a certain warm-fuzzy collective of like minded people who had interests in common and would naturally want to help and support one another through some sort of shared interests; I think that really isn’t the case. I won’t bother to try to count the numbers, but a very non-scientific survey (i.e.: me looking at stuff and talking to people) seems to indicate that there are a lot of people who are at one extreme or the other (i.e.: some people are exited or positive of every project, others are negative no matter what) and a lot of people somewhere in between. ANd an even larger number either has no idea what the ‘OSR’ is or does not give a fuck. And every faction has their own issue — some people seem really pissed off that other people would presume to get paid for their work (a proposition that I find silly since, as far as I know, almost everyone posting in these online communities has ponied over cash to TSR for books at one point or another — by all means, don’t buy it if you don’t want it, but as another consumer in a consumerist society, claiming that ‘money’ is ruining the hobby because other people are buying books you aren’t interested in is fucking stupid). With other writers on blogs and forums, it just seems personal. I don’t know what James Masliewski could have possibly done to make some of the people who are constantly ripping on him anonymously hate him so — possibly at some point or another he corrected their pronunciation of ‘Erelhei Cinlu’ in an online chat session and they swore, at that point, that they would dedicate their lives to getting revenge. Still other people are on some ‘decency’ kick and still haven’t forgiven Geoffrey McKinney for publishing a blasphemous book like Carcosa because it included something like 7 or 8 ‘disturbing’ sentences in book written for a game that usually involves lots and lots of violence, naked succubus pictures, pople getting beheaded by vorpral swords, being eaten by demons, people getting burned alive by fireballs or disolved by acidic dragon spit, etc. Yes, by all means, take the high road.
My argument is that NOTHING can be bad for the collective hobby because there is no collective hobby. We don’t share values or identity… we just have some of the same books on our book shelves. We might think we share a certain sensibility by virtue of liking older editions or ‘old school style’ or whatever, but once people start gathering in the different forums or blogs to discuss this ‘hobby,’ the knives come out and the factions emerge.
B) The Critics are all Ellsworth Tooheys: I don’t know why other people write ‘reviews’ or critiques or why they post in blogs or forums. I suspect some of them are just excited about it and want to talk about it with like minded enthusiasts. I used to think I could write reviews of books or movies and that other people would actually find them ‘helpful.’ If I could write why I did or didn’t like something, people could examine my reasons, and, if they agreed, either pass on something that they thought they would not enjoy or pick up something the might have otherwise missed. And maybe some people do that — I don’t know. But at this point, I think a large number of people who read reviews simply want to see their own opinion reflected back at them. So if you hated ‘Death Frost Doom’ or you have a chip on your shoulder about James Raggi or LotFP, anyone who says they like it will automatically be labeled a ‘sycophant’ or moron or worse (if anyone cares, I have never read ‘Death Frost Doom’ and thus have no opinion). And, vice versa, if someone gives a positive review to something the reader liked, the reader will think the reviewer is a clever chap because he thinks just like the reader does.
I don’t tend to write much about gaming products anymore other than to engage in the occassional bit of self promotion (“I just had illustrations published in this…”). I don’t tend to think that the world is interested in my opinion. I like to write observations on different themes or tropes in popular culture, folklore and art these days, which occsionally touches on some gaming topics… and if that gives someone else some ‘inspiration,’ well, then it wasn’t all wasted effort… but mostly I write these things (including this blog entry) because I enjoy to write these things. Writing about apocalypses or last week’s gaming session or the mole people or whatever other subject I am going on about just amuses me. If someone else gets some value out of it, great, but I am not holding my breath.