Saturday, October 22, 2016

Deconstructive Criticism

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Oh my God. It is T.H. Houghton. We're a stone's throw away from one of the giants of American literature.

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Not the way you throw.

I guess the character of reclusive writer T.H. Houghton (played by Robert Prosky) in the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996 was kind of a cross between J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. Like Lee (at the time), Houghton had published only one book — albeit an influential one that was a pillar of English lit classes everywhere — but Lee wasn't the recluse that Salinger was. Houghton combined the quirkiest of both.

Anyway, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had stopped at the cafe for some coffee before taking their father (John Mahoney) to buy new clothes. While sipping coffee outdoors, they spotted T.H. Houghton nearby.

And they began trying to meet him.

Their father, however, was the one who succeeded in getting to know the reclusive writer — without really trying. Frasier and Niles left him at a sports bar to watch the Mariners ("He's just dead weight," Niles told Frasier before they ran off on their quest), and it turned out Houghton was there, too. The boys didn't see him — he was probably in the bathroom because he walked into the room a minute or two after they left, sat down next to Martin and began watching the game with him.

They hit it off, talking about old TV shows and swapping war stories after the baseball game ended.

Meanwhile, after their fruitless search came to an end, Frasier and Niles returned to the sports bar — only to find their father sitting at a table with T.H. Houghton. But the writer didn't stay long; in fact, he left the bar as they were coming in, and the boys were left to wonder anew how they could finagle a meeting with him.

Later, after Niles and Frasier had been to an art exhibit, they returned to Frasier's apartment and crossed paths with their father and Houghton on their way out for dinner. Houghton had been there all afternoon. Another near miss.

Perhaps they could all spend some time together after the two returned from dinner, Niles suggested hopefully.

"I doubt it," Frasier replied. "They'll probably run into J.D. Salinger and Salman Rushdie and go out for margaritas."

The next day, Houghton was set to pick up Martin so they could go to a Mariners doubleheader. As Martin explained to the boys, Houghton was only in town for a few days to drop off his new book with his publisher.

Niles and Frasier nearly had strokes. A new Houghton book! In hindsight, their reaction reminds me a great deal of the reaction to Harper Lee's new book a year ago.

They didn't get to spend time with Houghton, but he went off without his satchel, which contained his manuscript, and Niles and Frasier took it out and read it while Houghton and their father were at the doubleheader.

But they didn't manage to return the manuscript to the satchel before being caught red–handed.

At first, Houghton was indignant about the invasion of his privacy. But soon curiosity got the best of him and he asked Niles and Frasier for their opinions. "Somebody had to read it first," he observed.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Niles and Frasier mentioned the similarities between Houghton's book and Dante's "Divine Comedy."

Houghton concluded that he had lifted the entire structure from Dante, and he interpreted that to mean that he nothing original left to say. "I was a fool to think I had a second book in me," he said before throwing the manuscript off Frasier's balcony.

Then he thanked Niles and Frasier and told them that if the book had been published, his reputation would have been destroyed. This way, he was left with a shred of dignity, and he marched with head held high — and a sheet from the manuscript stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes — out of the apartment.

I always liked this episode because, as a writer, I know that writing is not the kind of occupation for someone who is thin–skinned. Writers will always encounter criticism, no matter how good they are. They have to accept it as a fact of the life they have chosen. In a way, I guess, it is like being a politician. Even our greatest presidents had their critics.

In this episode, the shoe was kind of on the other foot. Frasier was a thin–skinned sort, too. In an episode in the previous season, he got all bent out of shape because one member of a 12–person focus group didn't like him. This time someone else was dealing with negative thoughts.

Well, that's life. No matter how funny or smart or good–looking you are, there will always be those who don't like you or what you do — or something. Always.