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The Pull of 'New Gravity' | The Nation

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The Pull of 'New Gravity'

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In an end-of-the-year column devoted to "Politics and Prose," Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, asserted that there had been a "new gravity" and "sobriety" to American journalism since September 11. Literary responses had failed, he argued, to process the event, notably in a commemorative issue of The New Yorker in which the writing had been "excessive, even grotesque when applied to mass carnage in downtown New York."

Beinart declared it was now the era of the essay--"non-reported, non-narrative, political or historical analysis"--and "the sombre profile of a person in power"--stripped of excessive description, wanton psychoanalysis and "edge" but not of dutiful and accurate quotation. "American journalism, after a long while on the sidelines," he rallied, was "back in the game."

It was a shaky argument, one some editor of The New Republic (a magazine that confuses an antiliterary style of journalism with an anti-indulgent outlook as a matter of policy) was bound to try to make sometime.

Let's face it, the new Hunter S. Thompson won't ever be found in its Puritan liberal pages, though the journalism of a New Yorker writer like Jonathan Franzen just might be, albeit a soberer, straighter version. Franzen himself exhibits too minute a panic in his work, too much of an "edge" (see his novel of last year, The Corrections), is simply too much like a literary forefather such as Joseph Heller (Catch-22 and, more important for Franzen, Something Happened) to make any editor at The New Republic feel he had a grip on the world. And what is The New Republic--or any news and culture magazine--about if it isn't grip, skeptical firmness, analytical rectitude?

Ever since the 1960s and the advent of New Journalism--subjective and, yes, "literary" in its aspirations, distinguished by figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Joan Didion--there has been an ongoing and necessary argument in favor of old-school values like objectivity, plain writing and reporting craft. Beinart's analysis of the American print media today is just the latest salvo, objectively put of course, saying out with "the New" and in with the old. It's part of a larger debate about consciousness and language, and how best to represent the state of the nation in both journalism and fiction in ways that reassure Americans their world can be secured, defined, reinforced.

Ironically, the tag New Journalism has been a misnomer from the beginning, implying--all the more alongside the revolutionary context of the 1960s that birthed it--a rejection of past values and a blind dive into the postpsychedelic waters of contemporary reality. It also denies the historical significance of figures like George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell and Damon Runyon, who created openings in journalistic convention, idiosyncrasies that demonstrate that "New Journalism" had been around for the best part of the century--if a writer had the gift and the license to explore the possibilities. For that matter, is it so far from Walt Whitman's 1882 diary of the Civil War in Specimen Days, to Michael Herr's scattershot report on Vietnam, Dispatches?

Many writers disliked the term New Journalism for these very reasons, preferring less-catchy descriptions like "Immersion Journalism" to describe the intense amounts of research and closeness to one's subject matter required to make such subjective reporting great and accurate storytelling; or "Literary Journalism" because of the undisguised desire to apply the techniques of fiction to a retelling of factual events and conversations.

One of the most notorious indicators of the style was the use of interior monologue, even pure streams of consciousness in groundbreaking pieces like Gay Talese's "The Loser," a brilliant profile of boxer Floyd Patterson (Esquire, 1964) and Tom Wolfe's "The First Tycoon of Teen" (New York, 1965) a feature story on the recording mogul Phil Spector. How absurd, these voices from inside their heads! Wolfe's rhetorical answer to the critics was a slap in the face: "How could a journalist, writing nonfiction, accurately penetrate the thoughts of another person? The answer proved to be marvelously simple: interview him about his thoughts and emotions."

A radical and disciplined art, New Journalism presented a cinematic and psychological rupture with the prevailing journalistic approaches, using dialogue, scenes, thoughts in a dramatic reconstruction of events and interview material. But it still depended on the old verities: solid research, thorough interviewing, good writing (albeit more jazzy in tone and form) and diligent fact-checking. It was an extension of the possibilities, not a denial or negation of what had happened before.

Not content to disturb the print media, New Journalists started shaking up the literary world by producing "narrative non-fiction" bestsellers that caught the times better than any novelist seemed capable of: Capote's masterful and groundbreaking insight into murder and America's pathological underbelly, In Cold Blood (1965); Didion's neurotic essays on her pale sense of selfhood amid West Coast cultural decadence, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Mailer's rambunctious, egomaniacal coverage of an anti-Vietnam War protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night (1968).

Books like Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973), Herr's Dispatches (1977), Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) and Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979) were among a slather of later releases that proved the phenomenon was not going away--from magazine and newspaper journalism or the bestseller lists. In a twist of fate, Mikal Gilmore, the brother of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer's subject in the capital punishment "thriller" The Executioner's Song, would go on to become one of the few decent writers of the 1990s operating within what could be called the New Journalist tradition, producing a superb book on his brother as well as some excellent writing for Rolling Stone.

Something sick, though, has been happening since the 1960s and '70s heyday of such writers and books. News as non-stop entertainment, the journalist as B-grade personality, a long, slow, moronic nose dive into excess on a scale difficult to imagine back then.

Beinart is right to attack a media consumed today by "lifestyle writing," the bastard child of New Journalism, and a puffed-up aesthetic attitude lacking the flair and depth of earlier, greater writers. Rather than simply attack an excess of style, though, and perhaps a poverty of generational talent, I'd locate the current malaise in the format-driven glibness that is smothering the oxygen of intelligence--not to mention true journalistic creativity--out of magazines and newspapers today.

As serious print media have attempted to go "lighter" and chase readers in the past decade, circulation figures have dropped, even plummeted. This is a worldwide crisis for up-market magazines and newspapers, dimly explained with arguments (not entirely believed, even by those proposing them) that people are getting more information from the Internet or that the educated reader is disappearing. The truth, more awfully, is that readers of all stripes are disillusioned with what's available. Editors and publishers don't seem to know what to do about that except to go further down-market to anything dumber, faster and glitzier, pursuing that fragmenting audience, that shrinking attention span.

Unfortunately, the old formulas aren't functioning anymore in this fractured, increasingly unstable--some might even say dystopic--market. Thus the argument for "sections" and targeted bites of information neatly accompanied by highly supportive advertising. Even if it's meaningless and no one reads it, at least it turns a profit.

If the New Journalist was merely an "impresario" of stories, as the critic Michael Arlen caustically observed in 1972, today's news feature is altogether more miserable, niche-marketed directly to you without need of any bigger and possibly destabilizing voice. The impresarios are mostly gone; now only the product exists, its sheen undisturbed.

Market conditions of the industry aside, there is something deeply conservative beneath Beinart's analysis, a view that spells trouble for the future of modern journalism and where it might go in the United States today--and therefore the world at large. Certainly Beinart's reactionary spirit is in tune with the nation's siege mentality and a chauvinism that encourages the closing not just of borders but of the state of the American mind. There is a feeling that the unexpected, the elusive, manifest in the form of volatile individuals and their creativity, are not legitimate concerns and activities for American voices in an era of uncertainty and instability.

This affects both the media and literature as the struggle for "representation" in American life takes on a deeply political dimension in terms of the language that should be used. It is not just a matter of what is debated, interpreted, depicted--but how that debate should be carried out, the implication being that the wrong words themselves betray the state. There has been an across-the-board conservative intellectual push in the United States for some time now, making an argument for a return to literary order in fiction. B.R. Myers's controversial essay, "A Reader's Manifesto," in The Atlantic Monthly last summer, struck similar notes to Beinart's more recent aria, attacking the wordy pretensions and metaphoric excesses of contemporary American fiction writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx. Subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose," the essay denounced evil postmodernists, showoffs and "pansified intellectuals" who had undermined good language and sound thinking across the nation. What Myers demanded was "a reorientation towards tradition."

In one of many trainspotting examples he berated Proulx for some "characteristic prose" where she thanked her children at the end of Close Range (1999) for putting up with her "strangled, work-driven ways." According to Myers this phrase made "no sense on any level." When a reader wrote in to complain that it was "an implied metaphor and hardly difficult to understand," Myers stuck to his guns, returning to the dictionary and rules of grammar to justify himself. Fortunately for us, language moves--and is received--poetically and intuitively, even if Myers doesn't want to admit it.

However, he did finger a crucial distraction from the building of the modern American novel and how it is reviewed, even sanctified today. He called this "the sentence cult," those who adore wonderful phrases and patches of writing that finally do not add up to a fully felt, organically "alive" book worth reading, let alone relating to deeply. On this point of literary fragmentation, a collapse away from storytelling and character, a collapse of identification and therefore identity, he may well be right. As to whether such a collapse makes the literature inherently bad--well, that's another thing altogether.

This debate about the state of the American novel has been going on for years. Indeed, American literature regularly convulses to such landmark essays--and the need to write them--a battle for intellectual territory that should not be underestimated. The reverberations of these opinion pieces among cultural elites carry through as manifestoes for the times and exert enormous influence in publishing houses and the media. They should also be understood as beachheads for the highbrow magazines presenting them: in this case the long-running desire of the Atlantic to overtake Harper's as the defining literary and intellectual periodical of the day, a desire underlined by its drift toward political and aesthetic conservatism. The Atlantic is ready for the Bush era, righteous, satisfied and a little smug, just as Harper's might be seen as aristocratically Clintonian, progressive to the point of dilettantism and somehow out of step with the narrowing contemporary mood.

Myers's essay is an attempt to supersede an argument put forth by Franzen in Harper's in 1996, in a piece titled "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images a Reason to Write Novels." In that essay, Franzen wrote of his own "despair about the American novel." His conclusions, and hopes, however, were somewhat different from those of Myers.

Of the social novel Franzen wrote: "I didn't know that Philip Roth, twenty years earlier, had already performed the autopsy, describing 'American reality' as a thing that stupefies...sickens...infuriates, and finally...is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." His despair for the state of the American novel was born out of the 1991Gulf War and "a winter when every house in the nation was haunted by the ghostly telepresences of Peter Arnett in Baghdad and Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia--a winter when the inhabitants of those houses seemed less like individuals than a collective algorithm for the conversion of media jingoism into an 89 percent approval rating."

Questioning the difficulties of social realism in the age of electronic media, and arguing that TV could represent reality better than any novel could, Franzen pined for the days when a book like Catch-22 had a huge social impact, raising questions about society to such a level that its title became part of the common vocabulary, entering itself in the dictionary (a thought that must give B.R. Myers a sleepless night or two).

What Franzen saw in Heller's black and absurdist work was less of a need to find legitimacy in a realistically detailed social novel of the present à la Dickens, but instead to write a novel that socially engaged, quite a different--if not unrelated--thing. It was this thinking that guided him in writing The Corrections, with its vaguely hallucinogenic, forensically detailed portrait of American family life, and the struggle of its characters to remain human amid the blizzard of consumer alienation. Despite the rave reviews and bestseller status, it is perhaps a little early yet to know if Franzen has succeeded in his project of engagement; but there is no doubt he has struck a nerve.

None too surprisingly, The New Republic took Franzen to task for his epic yet atomized scope. Observing the influence of the novelist Don DeLillo on the younger Franzen, the critic James Wood made a piercing summation of the senior writer's impact on The Corrections: "The DeLillo notion of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry, has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die." Noting that Franzen imagined "a correction of DeLillo in favor of the human," Wood went on to say that this was "more than welcome, it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things--the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!--but do not know a single human being."

It's clear that Wood--one of America's finest literary critics--finally favors something of Franzen's humanity but resents the occult unease beneath DeLillo's crowded linguistic responses to consumer capitalism and how he applies that language to create a surreptitious and infecting despair, a deep, flamboyant coldness. There is also a vague feeling from Wood that DeLillo is somehow evil, a monster of hidden tones, corrupting America from within. He is certainly appalled by a DeLillo essay that appeared in the New York Times, "The Power of History," wherein the novelist declared, "At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition, and awe. Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history."

How strange those words from 1997 read now, post-September 11. In the buildup to this statement DeLillo had defined the modern novelist as a radical and an outsider to all systems: political, social, linguistic. "Fiction will always examine the small anonymous corners of human experience," he wrote.

But there is also the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them. There is something in the novel itself, its size, its openness to strong social themes that suggests a matching of odd-couple appetites--the solitary writer and the public figure at the teeming center of events. The writer wants to see inside the human works, down to dreams and routine rambling thoughts, in order to locate the neural strands that link him to men and women who shape history. Genius, ruthlessness, military mastery, eloquent self-sacrifice--the coin of actual seething lives.

Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality.

This is a nihilistic view, divorcing itself from history's involving tug or becoming perhaps a perversion of it. DeLillo might argue that such perversions are simply the logical result of a "social individual" in the Information Age. A kind of endgame--alienated, yes, but lit with negative protest nonetheless.

Franzen identified this problem similarly in his "Perchance to Dream" essay as the way "privacy is exactly what the American Century has tended toward. First there was mass suburbanization, then the perfection of at-home entertainment, and finally the creation of virtual communities whose most striking feature is that interaction within them is entirely optional--terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user."

The collapse of the myth of the Internet as a democratizing force in news and information, as a glue for a new public consciousness, is part of this great feeling of disaffection and disconnection. While it remains a counterculture organizing ground for assorted global protest groups, it is not quite the democratic free-for-all it was once hoped to be. Meanwhile, clichés like "the New New Journalism" and "the Way New Journalism," which try to give countercultural weight to new forms of Internet journalism, have fallen fast to the reality that major news corporations are maintaining their centrality and indeed expanding it, seeking international print and electronic monopolies over freelance writers in a manner that all but strangles them out of the mainstream system. Add to this a babble of impotent, even crazed voices, and you have confusion, not liberty, shouting to be heard outside the corporate gates.

Where New Journalism once challenged a homogeneity of opinion, even one of its most extreme practitioners, Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of "Gonzo," finds a heterogeneity on the Net so repulsive he can't bear it. As he put it, "There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but at least there is some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting."

The language of the Net itself is affecting new books and the audiences who might be reading them. Figures like Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are also partly a literary byproduct of chat rooms and websites, and use an eclipsed language more heady and conversational at once, and therefore "young." Overall, though, one senses an impatience at root in Net culture, a desperation for sensation and the moment that does not feed itself into writing or reading books. In that regard the seething quality of the public consciousness, its near-madness, is really what the Net comes to represent--and with it a deep loneliness, a frenzy masked as social activity. Novelists like DeLillo, Franzen, Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody order that sea of thought, but also manifest its rabidity and pointless depths, indexing it to the furies and absurdities of consumer culture. To steal a line from Marshall McLuhan, "Some like it cold."

A critic like Wood finds this sprawling ambition depressing. You might recall his lament that "It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.... This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries anymore." It could be argued that just when New Journalism was pushing its way into literature's representational culture, the more talented novelists were moving out to the fringes of consciousness, to places "nonfiction narrative" could not reach. So much so that Tom Wolfe himself eventually berated modern American novelists for their abstractions and lack of research in his own essay manifesto, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." Wolfe espoused a return to the qualities of naturalism, citing Emile Zola and, of course, the importance of the "novelist as reporter." (Since Wolfe had recently written The Bonfire of the Vanities, his screed was seen in many quarters as bald self-promotion.)

Wolfe's views are not so far away from those of B.R. Myers. Wolfe's zippy writing style may have sung with pop culture verve, but he has always been a conservative at heart, as his rigid championing of realism, or "documentation," as he prefers to call it, shows. Aside from a stoush with Mailer over A Man in Full, Wolfe has also argued with John Updike and John Irving, the latter describing all of Wolfe's novels as nothing but "yak" and "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." Wolfe responded to them all in an essay called "My Three Stooges" (it can be found in his latest collection, Hooking Up), accusing Mailer, Updike and Irving of having "wasted their careers by not engaging in the life around them...turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history."

In Wolfe's final opinion, the American social novel is suffering not from "obsolescence" but from "anorexia." For all its force of actuality, though, Franzen's sickened density in The Corrections is quite a different creature from Wolfe's idea of what a social novel should be. It doesn't just observe or document; it palpitates, realistically, with the surreal excess Wolfe once identified as an indulgence. And in a strange way, perhaps, it softens the blows of DeLillo, tries to put us back together again without hiding the cracks.

Now, however, a new era of unvarnished reporting and the dogmatism of style that underlies it appears to be dawning. September 11 is fuel to this conservative fire. The world has become so unsteady, the argument runs, that we have to get back to our roots, find the lines that moor us safely to what and where we are. Plasticity of language, tangential and subjective reporting, work that emphasizes a fractured or restless view of the world--these must be stopped. Examples abound.

There can be little argument that September 11 has sent everyone into the spin of re-evaluation. But writers have always had to wrestle with such extreme moments, monstrous acts that threaten to annihilate us, spiritually if not actually. Where is the sense in it? How do we become human again, rather than vengeful, blind with loss or hate? One danger for literary journalism, of course, is that it threatens to aestheticize the experience of an event like September 11. The same may well be true of writing about Hiroshima, the Holocaust, even something as basic as a brutal, anonymous murder. Straight journalism must negotiate the obverse dangers, the tendency to reduce everything to the details, an impartiality that becomes desensitizing and objective to the point of emotional irrelevance.

The proof of value must finally lie within the words themselves. And for all of Beinart's criticisms of unnecessary poetics and dubious metaphors, the literary fraternity and journalists of literary inclination still gave us much to be grateful for. What that may mean in terms of novels and a broader state of mind to come is still too early to tell; but his and Myers's demand for a retreat from the frontiers of ambiguity, from wordplay and a tensile language that the likes of Don DeLillo tease into something conscious and unsettling within us is, well, a backward step. It may be awful to say it, but the obsession with information that underlies the work of DeLillo, Franzen and others could still be capturing the real and enduring trauma for society, way beyond the immediate horror of September 11 and its psychic impact.

I have to note that the English novelist Ian McEwan's dark and cool eloquence in The Guardian--his interrogation of the images and our action-replay absorption in them, our nauseating lust for news--was of the first order, as both literary essay and as a moral inquiry between self and the society of spectacle. Factual journalism alone can't easily create that kind of recognition. In Vanity Fair, the novelist Toni Morrison's address to the dead was the finest elegy I read from anyone, anywhere, with her bruising admission of "nothing to give...except this gesture, this thread between your humanity and mine." Yes, facts can make us grieve, too, but there are times when we also need the obscure magic of poetry to heal us.

Even the issue of The New Yorker so maligned by Beinart was filled with great literary journalism. The one exception to the form was an essay--nonreported, nonnarrative, political, historical, analytical--by Susan Sontag, a piece strangely overlooked by Beinart in his comments, given the new aesthetic world order he perceives. Sontag questioned the proposition of national innocence, and how that outlook refuses some of the baggage--some of the baggage--of responsibility America has to bear for its foreign policy. It was easier to misunderstand, simplify and demonize her arguments than to take on board the questions she was asking, even the sober ones.

September 11 did do something to the imagination, did go beyond words. It was a profound blow to the spirit. In all the realms of journalism and analysis since then, some have spoken well, some haven't. Some, most interesting of all, have evoked confusion and mixed feelings, and longed for the light of understanding. The clamor to speak has itself become a problem, a moral dilemma that reflects the media's sickening habit of overproduction, its sheer commerciality.

After any death, any tragedy, there is an inevitable level of sobriety and reserve, yes. If that leads to better journalism, better writing, better books, how wonderful for us all. But the argument that literary responses and literary journalism are somehow not up to the task, that reflection and rebuilding the public consciousness should be left to the practitioners of conventional bricks-and-mortar journalism and old-fashioned storytellers who know their rules of grammar, is far from convincing. To do the job fully we need a little soul and poetry, a little shaking up too. Literary journalism and great, radically written novels are more than able to fill that gap. And perhaps raise a few questions as well in that world between the imagined and the real where nightmares--and dreams--are born.

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