Friday, September 09, 2011

Right and Wrong (and a little comfort) in the Penny Press!

Ordinarily, the running disagreements I have with the Penny Press are matters of degree, of shading, and they're conducted sotto voce over a heaping plate of food in the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant I frequent solely for the purpose of keeping up with all my periodicals. It's rare that these disagreements aren't essentially pleasant things, the rewarding tingling of stimulating disagreement; it's rare that I'm confronted with things that are flat-out wrong.

But I was cursing over my kimchi bokkeumbap this time around, and of course things started to go wrong at the mention of the ten-year 9-11 anniversary. Every periodical in the Western world has latched onto that anniversary and used it as an occasion to unleash some threat-matrix-level amounts of pretentious bloviation onto an innocent reading public, and The New Yorker is at the front of the pack (in defense of the concept, New York magazine's dedicated issue last week was superb). The heart of the problem is the seeming inability of pretentious people to understand the difference between a momentous event happening and a momentous event happening to them. Unless you were one of the survivors or one of the victims, the 9-11 attacks didn't happen to you - as impossible as it may be for you to believe, considering your SAT scores, you were only a bystander to the events that tragic morning.

As these commemorative editions continue to flow off the newsstands, the pretentious young writers providing the copy are reacting to that bystander status in two ways: by ignoring it ("I was on my stoop in Dumbo playing educational games with my two kids, Castorp and Always Question, when we were hit") or exalting it ("I was in a tiny village 200 miles upland from Puerto Mayo, just about to file the story that would take down a local drug kingpin, when I happened to glance at the bar's little TV and saw grainy footage that would very nearly make me miss my deadline ..."). Neither of these two approaches is exactly preferable to respectful silence, but then, editors don't a dollar a word for respectful silence.

If anything, though, the commentaries are worse than the commemorations, and that brings me to George Packer writing in the 12 September issue of The New Yorker. Specifically, to this paragraph (although the piece he writes contains many like it):

A great many counterfactual histories could be written about those [George W. Bush] years. If Al Gore had been allowed to take office, if bin Laden had been captured at Tora Bora, if the focus had stayed on Al Qaeda, if real nation-building had been tried in Afghanistan, if America hadn't gone to war in Iraq. All these alternative paths would have been helpful, but none of them would have been decisive, because the deeper problem lay in an ongoing decline that was greater than any single event or policy.

This isn't a question of shading - this is just plain wrong. That extremely even-handed 'we-musn't-be-seen-to-judge' non-committal might be de rigeur in the Whole Foods aisles in Cambridge, but it smacks of craven equivocation out in the rest of the world. In reality, every single one of those 'alternative paths' Packer writes about would indeed have been utterly 'decisive,' and it's borderline delusional to say otherwise. Not decisive, if George W. Bush hadn't stolen the election? Not decisive, if we'd had a thinking individual (with extensive experience of both government and foreign policy) in the White House instead of a biddable idiot? Not decisive, if the leader of Al-Qaeda had been caught and Al-Qaeda itself destroyed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11? This is serene historical contextualization run absolutely amok, and it chaffed me to read it. The real way to desecrate the memory of 9-11 isn't to forget the anniversary - it's to affect to being blithe about the moral imperatives at play on that day.

Naturally, I turned to the mighty TLS for some relief, but alas - none was forthcoming. Not only was the provocation on the cover in pretty poor taste (in case you're wondering - and you're not, because you were never meant to - the 'them' refers to 'canonical authors' not gays), and not only was the rotting fraud Michel Houellebecq given serious attention by a writer who ought to know better, but even in the issue's hindquarters, in the little 'In Brief' reviews that are usually such a joy, there were nettles. Specifically, somebody named Jacques Testard reviews Alan Jacobs' well-intentioned but soporific book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, plays with it a bit like a bored kitten, and then finishes up his 200 words with this little doozy:
Readers of this review, however, will be well connected to the world of books, if not to a Kindle. The Pleasures of Reading in the [sic] Age of Distraction is an informed piece of democratic didacticism, but those confirmed readers of literature have no need to look here. Just remember that it's OK to read anything, anything at all, so long as it gives you pleasure.

Well, yes, I muttered over my zeeuwse bolus, but that kind of dictum is also mindlessly blithe. Granted, in a free country without censorship, it's OK to read anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure - but if you stop there, your reading life will be pretty damn cramped. 'OK' here is clearly meant to shield serial readers of romances or Star Trek novels from the criticism of their betters, but it gets a little too definitive for its own good. I often premise my own book-recommendations to strangers along the same initial lines - what sorts of things do you like? - but my end goal is to move them a bit beyond their comfort zones, not to keep them happily penned in their back yards forever. After all, pleasure is a complex thing, and (especially when it comes to reading) parts of it have to be learned. Yes, you should feel OK reading anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure - condescending readers are missing the big picture - but if you blithely stop there, as this Testard person implies you should, you'll miss the big picture too.

Turning from the TLS, I had scant hope of finding relief anywhere else, especially in the customarily-infuriating pages of Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair. This is the venue where I often find the very best long-form freelance writing anywhere on the newsstand, but it's also the place to find some of the most arrogant, shoddy workmen in the business, and my nerves were already frayed.  And at first, this current issue boded poorly. True, it was a relief that the editors decided to forego a 9-11 cover-theme, favoring us instead with what I presume is a CGI close-up of some forthcoming Hollywood space alien (or is it abstract art? Could it be a rendition of the scar-pits of lower Manhattan on 9-12?). But once you're done being frightened by whatever that is on the cover, you're forced to wade through the first 100 pages before you get to any actual content. Those initial pages are wholly given over to fashion ads, which in and of themselves are invitations to incomprehension. True to form, this current batch has some high points

... and very, very low points

But miraculously, relief did indeed arrive, and from the place I least expected it. Right in the middle of a long, almost physically excruciating piece recounting debut novelist Chad Harbach's rise to glory, there's a simple and utterly restorative little paragraph about the much-maligned publishing industry:
And yet every single person I met while writing this article - the publishers, the editors, the marketing and sales people - genuinely loved books. That's why they were working in a business that, in the end, wasn't particularly lucrative. They liked reading books and cared enough about them to devote their lives to making them. For every company or editor or agent who no longer cared, there were a number of younger people who did.

I've been connected with that industry in one way or another for many, many years, and I can attest to the truth of every word of that paragraph - well, except for the one four words from the end. In the publishing world as everywhere else, 'younger' is still mostly a well-deserved pejorative term: it's the older reps and publicists and editors and publishers and even novelists who tend to have long-cultivated enthusiasm for the written word (I know of roughly 150 young novelists currently working in the field, and if you handed each of them a check for $1,000,000 and told them it was valid only on condition they never write another word of fiction, 147 of them would instantly agree). A one-word quibble is hardly significant, on such a grim Penny Press day as this.

I'll have to hope for better luck with the London Review of Books, in due time.


1 comment:

Sam said...

I'm glad you mentioned the issue of New York, which I thought was riveting (and I've liked almost nothing ever written about 9-11); the basic encyclopedic, mostly-factual format of it came close to capturing how enormous and multi-faceted the event was. Only Terry Castle's nauseating entry about Terry Castle got in the way.