Darryl Pinckney is a serious writer and journalist who has been a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books for more than 30 years. He was also, for more than a year, a fiercely ardent fan of the long-running CBS soap opera "As the World Turns." How did he get hooked? In his piece "Lonely Hearts Club: A Star-Crossed Obsession with As The World Turns," in the February issue of Harper's Magazine, Pinckney explained.
BOB GARFIELD: Darryl Pinckney is a writer and journalist. He’s the author of the loosely autobiographical novel, High Cotton, and has been a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books for more than 30 years. Pinckney was also, for a time, a fiercely ardent fan of the long-running CBS soap opera -
MAURA WEST AS CARLY: Jack, this isn't something that I, I wanted to have to tell you.
BOB GARFIELD: - As the World Turns.
MAURA WEST AS CARLY: That’s not exactly true. I want you to know it.
BOB GARFIELD: In 2008, he saw some short excerpts on YouTube of the gay onscreen romance between two young characters, Luke and Noah, and he was hooked. Pinckney bought a TV -
ACTRESS: What’s going on?
BOB GARFIELD: - which he hadn't owned for years, for the express purpose of watching ATWT, as fans of the show call it. He joined the official fan club and attended events like SoapFest for a chance to meet the actors. Darryl, welcome to On the Media.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, first of all, really – really, you became hooked on the show and then decided to write about it? This isn't some sort of journalistic project that began with you on assignment, getting immersed in As the World Turns?
DARRYL PINCKNEY: No, no, honestly it took me by surprise. And once I was into it, I thought, this is a, a world very different from what I usually am sort of exploring culturally. And after a while I was sort of trying to explain it to myself, and I was just talking to a friend who happened to be an editor, and she said, explore it for us. And this was after I'd been watching for some time.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, this is kind of down-market for you. The New York Review of Books ain't exactly Soap Opera Digest.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Oh, yeah?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, was this slumming, or did you have some –
DARRYL PINCKNEY: No, no.
BOB GARFIELD: - academic interest in this? How do you get hooked on something so – plebian?
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Ooh. You can get hooked on plot, you can get hooked on character, high and low. And, you know, the high stuff runs pretty much along the same motives as the low stuff, really. I think that watching this kind of series took the place of a sort of fiction I used to read.
BOB GARFIELD: This was the pulp in your diet.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: If you want to call it that. I sort of don't want to talk down to the genre or other fans, or even my own interest.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, don't worry about running down the show or the other fans. I'll be happy to assume the role of the -
DARRYL PINCKNEY: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - obnoxious snob for you. Give me a synopsis of the various things that happened to Luke, both before and after you started watching the series.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: He was passing for straight, with the help of his black cousin. When he finally told his best friend the truth, his best friend sort of beat him up. Then his best friend nearly drowned, but Luke saved him. And while he was saving him, his other best friend’s sister was killing everyone at the camp. And then he started drinking, and then he needed a kidney. And the only guy who could give him a kidney blackmailed his mother into sort of promising to marry him, and things like that.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and you didn't want to be on the record as disrespecting the genre. But let’s -
[LAUGHTER] - just move past that. I know you are aware that Luke and Noah don't actually exist, that it’s pretend.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: I'm barely aware of it. I'm barely aware of it.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Was it easier for you to see how soap opera aficionados could kind of lose the line between fantasy and reality? I know if you read letters to Soap Opera Digest, the letters are written to the characters, not -
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - necessarily to the actors playing them.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: The ones who are deep into it that I sort of hung out with at the luncheon and then at SoapFest in Florida, I don't think they had any trouble constructing boundaries. They were very protective of the actors and their privacy. I sort of went to these things thinking there was some magical door somewhere to Oakdale, because when you’re watching it on YouTube or even on your own TV by yourself, you can fall into thinking that it’s just between kind of you and them. So –
[BOB LAUGHS] - actually meeting other fans brought me back down to earth. That’s the strange thing.
BOB GARFIELD: You, at some point in your piece in Harper’s, revealed that you had a somewhat academic interest in how the issues of gay sexuality, especially among young people, could be played out in the cultural mainstream. And did this, at any point, overcome your basic visceral obsession with the characters and the plots?
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Eventually, in the sense that our side, as it were, lost. The show’s been cancelled, and they never developed the Luke and Noah story in the way their fans wanted them to.
BOB GARFIELD: I must ask you though, you have spent most of your life in the kind of, I don't know, sexual equivalent of Jim Crowe. And on As the World Turns there were young gay men kissing. I mean, 20 years ago could you even have imagined that?
DARRYL PINCKNEY: No. These kind of gay images were coded or highbrow or late-night or camp, but nothing was sort of just straightforward and normal. And in this unlikely corner of the market, this was happening and could happen. And somehow this day-by-day excursion into a place where no one expected me to be, least of all myself, was very comforting. So I am grateful for the experience. It’s just, you know, as you said, they're not real, so there’s only so far it can go.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Darryl. Thank you very much.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Darryl Pinckney is the author of the novel High Cotton. His piece Lonely Hearts Club appears in the February issue of Harper’s.