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May 12, 2006

Break Rules


Lead. Nut graf. Kicker. Trained in literature and having taken a career turn that thrust me first into alternative journalism, I learned this trade lingo relatively late in life. For those who ever studied what used to be called “expository writing” and even earlier “the essay,” these terms simply mean: introduction, thesis (graf being journalese for paragraph), and conclusion.

Not a bad way to approach writing that means to convey information clearly, directly and quickly. No beating around the bush: what in the Latin (in all senses of the word) tradition is called circumlocution. No ellipsis, either: also from that tradition. Nor hyperbole – the horror! Nor other rhetorical devices patented, though not necessarily invented, in Ancient Rome and distributed through the cultural channels of its empire, taking deep root in those parts of the world we still call Latin and where Romance language are spoken. In other words, where I come from.

Trouble with the writing of what was called in the 60s “mainstream journalism”, however, is that though it does a bang-up job of delivering just the facts, ma’am, it’s neither very engaging nor does it reflect the changes that have been roiling the world of culture in the past, oh, century or two.

Modernism? Forget it. Postmodernism? It isn’t even in the horizon.

To simplify – and I am being a good boy, here, following the directness of my trade – modernism, a movement most noticeable in the arts but equally powerful in all aspects of culture high and low, focused on and reflected the fragmentation of experience and the supremacy of the unconscious. Or if one wants to attach proper names: Picasso and Freud.

Postmodernism, for which there are convincing arguments that it is not a break with modernism but merely its latest phase, is imbued with what is called de-centering (the proper name to connect with it would be Lacan). The self – Freud’s ego – is a center that cannot hold. But, if in modernism things fall apart, postmodernist art and thought care less about such fragmentation as about the edges of that no longer existent center. This has a political corollary of enormous importance.

If there is no ego, how can one be egocentric? And if there is no center, how can we pretend that what matters is the West, the imperial metropolis? Enter postmodernist fascination with and attention paid to the postcolonial world, and postmodernist critiques of accepted metropolitan (in the political sense) assumptions. One such assumption, I propose, is those good rules of American journalistic writing.

Rules, as the saying goes, are meant to be broken, and a recent example of journalistic arts criticism, The New Yorker’s review (11/7/05) of Gabriel García Márquez’s latest novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, dispenses with them in a way that would throw most editors into urgent calls for “the top” – journalese not for sexual role playing but for what those rules demand should be “the lead” of a review.

The piece does not even address Gabo’s new novel until the ninth “graf” – and each paragraph is quite long and some include paragraph-long quotes from the Colombian’s earlier fiction. Roughly, that means that a third of the review has gone by without the reviewer deigning to tell the reader what book he’s reviewing. That’s a lot of beating around the bush.

That the publication is The New Yorker and not a daily newspaper is a partial explanation of such stylistic license. And that the reviewer is John Updike, arguably America’s senior statesman of letters, is another: like García Márquez himself, Updike is a brand name, i.e., his byline grants him freedom to write any damn way he pleases.

But, most importantly, because Updike is, indeed, such a serious writer, he is not bothering with what in our trade is called a “service piece”, i.e. a reader’s guide to whether the book’s twenty bucks are worth spending. Most of my colleagues would deny that their book reviews are such pieces – in fact, they’ll be horrified by my suggestion. But the rules of American journalism make them so. Get to the point – that “nut graf” – quickly. Weigh what’s good and bad about the book before I walk into Barnes & Noble or email Amazon and buy it.

Updike is writing an essay not a consumer’s guide. An essay about the intersection of mortality and Eros illustrated by the ageing and distinguished Colombian novelist’s fiction, a matter of concern and reflection to the equally ageing and distinguished American novelist writing the review. To move through this reflective essay, Updike has circumnavigated – moved around the edges, not the center – his colleague’s previous narratives. He has landed on the new novel but still has kept moving, as if through one island in an archipelago of narratives. What he has done is, to use an oft-quoted modernist use of Hamlet’s phrase, “by indirections find directions out.”

Do such indirections lead Updike to a center? Impossible, because the intersection of mortality and Eros has no center, only an end: death. And the writer – Updike, Gabo, any writer worth his or her salt – is a jokester cheating death, cheating God himself. Not only is there no center, but also the jokester’s craft does not allow an end. No lead. No nut graf. No kicker – even of the bucket.

I’ve already said that most – if any – daily newspaper editors would not tolerate such license. Would readers? In spite of having shown my hand, my Latin hand, in my references to rhetoric, this is no rhetorical question but one that can only be answered by another question. What readers? The dying – quite literally and even faster than García Márquez’s nonagenarian protagonist, who is, after all, a fiction, a product of the Colombian’s feverish imagination – readers of daily newspapers? No, probably they wouldn’t like that any more than the editors.

But the corporations that own newspapers must know those dying readers are irrelevant; or relevant only in the short run, while they’re still hale enough to consume what our advertising departments rope in. Yet, as revenues drop and circulation projections turn into an actuary nightmare, those very corporations fail to see a disconnect between esthetics and profits, something that would be apparent to, say, a hip hop CEO. Most certainly editors fail to, except perhaps those who work in eccentric areas, like the selection of comic strips.

Realism rules journalism. And why shouldn’t it? The realist novel and the newspaper fed and matured each other. If we shift our lens from ethics to esthetics, we can see the current wave of exposes of bad faith in news-gathering and the hand-wringing that has followed as a stubborn clinging to realism. I am not arguing for an unethical journalism, but for daring to dig into the depths where ethics and esthetics converge. Except for extreme forms of estheticism, which now strike us as curios, modernism followed the path of what Auerbach called mimesis. It just followed it deeper, into the subconscious, into the realities of texture and shape, into the nuances of perception and reflection. The intellectual and moral limitations of a Faulkner narrator give us a more real realism than the naïve omniscience of the journalistic voice.

The now old New Journalists broke with that voice, and even if they defended realism, as Tom Wolfe famously did, they dipped freely into the modernist palette. There is as much Joyce in Wolfe as Balzac, as much Faulkner as Dreiser. How can arts journalism succeed if it ignores the changes wrought and reflected by the very subject matter it reports?

I have a colleague who wears a green eyeshade, which looks about as natural as Wolfe’s white suits and spats. There is no irony in the wearing – he is not a young man. But there is eccentricity. And an inevitable self-consciousness. Eccentricity and self-consciousness are modernist and postmodernist traits and they seldom translate into what we publish. All the while, the culture around us prizes these traits, in art and in life. From reality TV to raves, surrealism, once belonging to tiny cosmopolitan elites, is coin of the realm, as the lines between hipness and conformity, out and in, the center and its edges, all become blurred.

Not in the dying newspaper business, which, for all its quest for diversity remains white, straight, male – even when some of its personnel is of color, gay, female. With all its synergies with new media remains pre-modern. With all its worship of truth, barely scratches truth’s surface.

At a news meeting in which one of Haiti’s recurring crises was discussed, I asked if there was a spiritual dimension to the crisis, in a culture where what one might call magical thinking is so dominant. A seasoned colleague, a true Caribbean hand, said no, that unlike the voudou days of the Duvaliers there was no magic present in the current crisis. And then he turned to me and said, not in a whisper, yes, there always is. Schizophrenia? No, merely the disconnect between what one knows to be true and all the news that’s fit to print.

In arts journalism the disconnect is in your face, as the very subjects we cover are flush with in-your-faceness. We report cultural changes but remain immune to them. We take the exciting and extreme and make it dull and limited. A magic trick, in its way, but not a very appealing one. Is it any wonder we are losing readers?

Perhaps we lose them for other vast demographic reasons over which our trade has about as much control as over hurricanes. I am willing to entertain the thought that all is lost. But isn’t the time when you have nothing to lose the time when, well, you have nothing to lose. Alas, human, or at least journalistic nature works in the opposite direction. The more hopeless the situation, the less we are willing to change.

So we will die, newspaper readers and editors and writers and newspapers alike, with our boots on, insisting on our pre-modernist, never mind pre-postmodernist worldview. We will link our publications with television and the Internet in vain attempts to be, as Rimbaud challenged us 132 years ago, absolutement moderne. And when we fail, for fail we will, we will blame the new illiteracy of the new generations, or merely the irrelevance of print technology.

But there are ways of cheating death, hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère. And they are there for the taking, for the sampling, to borrow a term from our own pop postmoderns. They have been there for a good long time. On the edges, on the margins, eccentric, offbeat. Seize them.

Posted by at May 12, 2006 10:06 AM


So, should the "piece" itself -its grammar, structure, wording- be an ambassador of the topic it's covering? Should it possess the same nature, essence? I wonder what would be best...to stick with "safe" journalism so that the general/average masses understand? Or should we deposit more faith in our readers and hope whatever we throw out there they'll get?
Is there such thing as avant-garde journalism?

Posted by: Gretel at May 16, 2006 2:09 PM

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