Friday, April 24, 2009

Literary hacks in the Penny Press!

Can we pause from profundity long enough to cheer a little cheer for the best hacks in the world of hackery, the literary journalists?

They don't have a beat, these particular hacks; they aren't obsessed with cutting-edge goth-fusion, or Buffy, or the United States torturing people. They aren't advocating safer parenting, or pond-lining techniques, or same-sex marriage. They don't keep up with the Palins.

Instead, they roam over the whole of the pop culture/literary landscape in search of ... well, I'm not sure what. I'm not sure they're sure what, from day to day. A steady paycheck, yes, but once you've got some momentum going, that can be obtained by writing medical safety compliance pamphlets, or vinyl siding repair manuals, or fifth grade science histories - and yet, the hacks I'm talking about here, the literary journalists, don't write about these things (or maybe they do, but it's done quietly, late at night, with much wine and much shame, solely in order to pay persistent creditors). Instead, they're constantly groping along the contours of the landscape, feelers swaying in the breeze, hunting for something they either know enough to write about or have always wanted to know enough to write about. They aren't specialists, but neither are they quite amateurs. They aren't philosophers, even though they're often pursuing a fairly consistent ideology. And they aren't experts, even though the best of them are rarely caught in open error.

That last point is explained by their peculiar work habits. Once they settle on something, some person or book or movie or school of thought or general topic, the literary journalist will do far more than simply take in the specific artistic item in question - no, in addition to that, they'll take armloads of related books out of the library, or track down endless supplementary items online. In one very concentrated amount of time, they'll allow that subject to utterly consume their lives - and at the end of that very concentrated amount of time, they'll know their subject.

It's a weird kind of knowledge, however: it's often acquired so fast - and often, truth be told, with such a lack of deeply personal reasons - that the literary journalist finds himself aesthetically bifurcated: one the one hand, he's now something of an expert on his new subject (he can tell you the relevant books, he can rattle off the extant controversies and has pet theories about all of them, etc.), but on the other hand, he's still an outsider to it all (he's only been steeped in it for a month at the most, after all).

The result can be incredibly valuable. It's as if you went to the world's leading authority on some subject (World War One? Boer society? Viking ship-building?) and gave him a month's vacation, all expenses paid, in some tropical getaway where the only thing he wouldn't do is give even one thought to his specialty - then you bring him back and ask him to write an article about something in his bailiwick. The articles that would result from such an unlikely procedure - freed for once of academic insularity and infighting, geared for once to a jocular, populist accessibility - would be wondrous invitations to all manner of subjects.

Specialists almost never write such articles, but literary journalists write them for a living - and we're all the richer for it. And the Penny Press is where you go to find such articles, and such writers.

Long-time readers of Stevereads will already be familiar with some of the people I mean. There was, once upon a time, the likes of Gore Vidal and Wilfrid Sheed and Mary McCarthy. And today, there's Christopher Hitchens and Gordon Wood and Jill Lepore and James Atlas and a baker's dozen more.

And in the Atlantic, there's Ben Schwarz, who in the latest issue reviews several books touching on what the average German citizen during the Second World War knew of the campaign of extermination being carried out by the Nazis toward the Jews of Europe. And perhaps even more so, there's the great Caitlin Flanagan, a literary journalist who possesses the quintessential gift of all first-rate hacks: she can take any subject and make her readers interested in it.

Even if the subject is Alec Baldwin.

In the latest Atlantic, she finds herself in the unlikely position of reviewing Baldwin's account of his divorce and single-fatherhood, A Promise to Ourselves. It's not anything she could have predicted:

'I never wanted to write this book,' he tells us at the outset, in a hangdog advisory that we shouldn't expect too much. It was also a book I never wanted to read, but here we are, Alec and I, making the best of a bad situation.

The focal point of that bad situation is of course the leaked cell phone rant Baldwin yelled at his daughter, castigating her for her rude behavior and calling her a "pig." The transcript of that call is, I suppose, appalling (although in all fairness, I myself have never met a teenage girl who wasn't a self-absorbed little A-hole ... my only qualm would be in using the term "pig," since I happen to know pigs are very outgoing, giving individuals); certainly Flanagan opens that it is:

his [Baldwin's] real purpose [in the book] is to exonerate himself from an incident so grotesque that it's hard to imagine any piece of written communication short of a suicide note changing our opinion of it.

Flanagan takes this unpromising material and crafts out of it a review/meditation that will keep you feverishly reading, one delicious paragraph after another (for instance, on the indifferent intimacy of families: "Dad doesn't get too excited by the sight of Mom in her shimmy anymore, for the same reason Buddy's never taken a hankering to Sissy: they've seen too much. It's not community censure that has kept incest in check all these centuries; it's stomach flu"). The piece is easily the best thing in a typically strong issue of the Atlantic, and it keeps returning to that one catastrophic phone call, which Baldwin took outside a restaurant:

Standing on the street, once again confronted by life's inability to meet him halfway with his simple desire to be the center of the universe, he snapped. He raved at the child in the ugliest language imaginable, threatening her and calling her terrible names. Shortly thereafter, the message was leaked to an Internet scandal site (By whom? Cherchez la femme.) And the incident became infamous.

Of course I urge you to read the whole of this issue - of every issue, even in these slightly dumbed-down days of the Atlantic. But even if you skip around and pick and choose, you should make sure not to miss this piece. Back in the pre-Internet days, I used to photocopy (Google it; it was cumbersome) articles like this and make little packets of them to hand to uncaring friends, because these pieces are just that good.

And they're crafted by literary journalists, those most despised of writers, those Parnassian guns for hire - so let's all raise a glass of the cheap stuff to those working professionals! May they all be as magisterial as Helen Vendler, as thrilling as William Langeweische, as well-read as Ben Schwarz, as funny as Anthony Lane, and as damn good as Caitlin Flanagan!

No comments: