About Now

I never did get around to a post about Hunter S. Thompson's death. I've read thousands of words about it, from more or less the moment it hit the wires, and the depth of passion that writers far more skilled than I have levelled at the good Doctor's passing has left me feeling like I have nothing to add. If you haven't already, go read Wolcott's short appreciation, Digby's and Steve Gilliard. Gilliard was the most affecting for me, as it tied Thompson's death into the state of writing today in a way that I had felt but not articulated:
What Thompson and his peers did in the 60's and 70's, we do today. But free of the constraints of editors and publishers and the need to hustle up work.


Because of two different trends in writing.

One is the coopting of journalists. The insiders beat back the challenges from the Sheehans, Halberstams and Arnetts. Those who played the game won, those who didn't became heroes and authors, and exiled from the newsroom. Arnett hung on longer than most, but most were gone from the daily papers by 1975. Or they became enamored of celebrity, like Bob Woodward. Some like Sydney Schamberg and Ray Bonner, following in their tradition, were booted from newsrooms the minute their bosses felt uncomfortable. Or exiled to "alternative" papers. The newsroom became the home of the tame dissident and the complient office holder. Carl Hiaasen saves his most brutal critques of Florida life for his crime fiction. Bob Greene wrote drivel for years, finally canned, not for a lack of talent, but an excess of hunting teenaged trim. The best writing in the Washington Post is Tom Boswell's sports columns.

If people are disheartened by this, they shouldn't be. Ernie Pyle died 60 years ago this week, because he loved soldiers and the stories of their lives. Edward R. Murrow was forced out of CBS. Thompson was lucky in that since he was never inside the tent, they could never kick him out. But most of the great heroes of journalism were and will be forced from the newsroom, because that is not a place for uncomfortable truths. There has never been a national columnist like Jack Newfield or Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin, and never will be. Because they will never play the game, or even recognize it.

The other is the irrevelant nature of modern fiction writing. The worst thing to ever happen to writing was the writing program. Because it allowed people to focus on the trivia in their lives. The greatness of Heller and Mailer escapes these mindless twits nattering about their cheating dads and pill popping moms. It's not even a world of clever craftsmen like Thomas Pynchon, but of navel gazers like Dave Eggers. Eggers, a silly, irrelevant man in a serious time, draws only my contempt and scorn. I mean, his idea of struggle was living off inherentences. Not that his personal story wasn't tragic, but it's not Sophie's Choice. The problem is that Eggers and his little group of confederates are trivial people in a not trivial time.
Their self-absorption and lack of interest in the wider world. It is masturbation in print for the most part, and irrelevant. You would hardly know that men are hunting men in the mountains of Afghanistan and dodging roadside bombs in Iraq. The world of the vital has escaped our fiction, to be replaced by the world of the trivial and self-involved. Why? Because that is what drives the writing program, those who write well about themselves, but without the real introspection needed to be honest. The Naked and the Dead is a savage tale of men at war, Catch 22 lacking in any kind of larger heroism. These were not tales which made the authors heroic, but exposed their foibles and their fears. What is usually missing from the description of these modern novels is the condescension the authors feel for their subjects. These books are about revenge on imperfect lives, the failures of their parents and those around them. There is no honesty in them, because the honesty is bred out of them.

Their template is the Catcher in the Rye, but lacks the brutal self-analysis JD Salinger brought to it. But then, like his peers, his anger was driven by the war he had fought. These program-raised authors are angry because their lives were imperfect. They have never missed a meal, felt fear at seeing the police, much less rode in a truck past a bomb. They are angry at the safety and comfort of their lives.

So when you need a brutal, honest fiction to deal with lives in Bush's America, and it's contradictions, you get bitter drivel.
The outcasts are more unwelcome now than ever in newsrooms battered by greedy owners and vindictive politics, fiction created to explain the anger at middle class suburbia. Honesty and truth have no place in either forum.

Which is why Hunter Thompson was a hero. He was honest to a fault and mean to a fault. In a world where journalism has become about asking questions politely and fiction about settling grudges with parents and schoolmates, he was about something far more important.
Thompson understood the danger of objective journalism, which was a creature of the post-war period, Roosevelt would have laughed at the concept, battered by Father Coughlin and the Chicago Tribune, which is that the dishonest and the disingenious can have their way with the honest and decent. He called for subjective journalism long ago and our temporary experiment of objective journalism is ending, because it only serves the status quo, which is not most of us. [emphases mine]
This is exactly it. It hit me cold, wet upside the head, because I am not innocent in this matter - this school of irrelevance cuts very close into the writers I read and, consciously or no, emulate. I do loath and cannot abide Eggers, and David Foster Wallace, but I have enjoyed reading Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, Hanif Kurieshi, because they are clever writers with real insight into human identity, and I do believe that there is something to be gained from their perspectives. But I do not attempt to gain any higher ground, morally or intellectually, in my choices of reading list. Gilliard is right - for the most part, today's writers are trivial people in a non-trivial time.

There are some who understand the name of the game: William Gibson, for one, understands the way the world really works, the paths of awful possibility we are going down, and concerns himself with these issues in his writing (Pattern Recognition is the first great novel of our new age). But mostly, contemporary American fiction concerns itself with individual depression and personal struggle at a time when it ought to be giving voice to the feedback loop of societal anxiety.

I take it as a challenge, and will do what I can with what I have.

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