Sunday, December 09, 2018

still writing
Journalism at its best is art without the label, because art is not the thing you set out to do. It’s never great and doesn’t try to be. It’s a genre. Sportswriters were famous as the best writers on newspapers because they were the last to become self-important. For Americans it also helps to get out of town. Below is A.J. Liebling on  the irregulars, French, Muslim, Jewish,  and anyone else, fighting in North Africa in 1945.

…in a hospital tent at the clearing station I came across a man with a French flag wrapped around his waist; the medics discovered it when they cut his shirt away. He was a hard-looking, blondish chap with a mouthful of gold teeth and a face adorned by a cross-shaped knife scar—the croix de vache with which procurers sometimes mark business rivals. An interesting collection of obscene tattooing showed on the parts of him that the flag did not cover. Outwardly he was not a sentimental type. 
"Where are you from?" I asked him. 
"Belleville," he said. Belleville is a part of Paris not distinguished for its elegance. 
"What did you do in civilian life?" I inquired. 
That made him grin. "I lived on my income," he said. 
"Why did you choose the Corps Franc?" 
"Because I understood," he said. [i]            

You can sense that writing has devolved into the labeling of facts by a professional. Worldliness in America is street-smarts, so Liebling is still an observer of the street, engaged with whatever comes his way, including a career criminal who knows that fascism is beyond the pale. There are bits that read like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, on Vietnam twenty years later. Liebling wrote for the New Yorker; Herr wrote for Esquire; he ended up writing for Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick; reportage turned into romanticism. The famous passage quoting the photographer Tim Page after Page had been approached by a publisher to write a book, “whose purpose would be to once and for all ‘take the glamour out of war.’”

“Take the glamour out of war! I mean how the bloody hell can you do that? Go take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan … Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra, or getting stoned on China Beach? It’s like taking the glamour out of an M-79, taking the glamour out of Flynn … you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones.” [ii]

At about the same time as Dispatches came out, Phillip Knightley published The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam. I’ve always remembered one sentence from the dust-jacket of my parents’ copy, and the reviewer for the CIA noted it as well. 
Before going into any further detail it should be noted that Knightley’s competence on the subject of both war correspondents and the horrors or war is qualified by the dust-jacket statement that “He has never heard a shot fired in anger, and hopes he never will.” [iii]
Worldly observation split into sensibilities too close and too far. But both books are important. Knightley was an Australian writing in England, following a model the New Yorker writers copied. Tom Wolfe credited Liebling with the beginnings of his style.[iv], but Liebling wasn’t a fop. “New Journalism” was a way to turn writing for a deadline into a self-consciously American art, adding a label to what could have more simply been a conscious effort to write well. Whatever will last of it will outlast the name, or already has.  And it seems to go unnoticed that the bitterest attack on Wolfe came not from straight journalists but Dwight MacDonald, defending The New Yorker, (which he wrote for while famously calling it “midcult”). It’s a war between fathers and sons. But it would be unfair to MacDonald to say it was only the narcissism of minor differences; for all his indulgences MacDonald was a serious critic. But as the author of an early, and brilliant,  attack on what’s now called “data culture” , The Triumph of the Fact, in 1957,  he might have done better only 8 years later than simply call out “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction”.[v] All of this documents the struggle for the individual and community, for communication, in the world of rising instrumentalism and atomization. The best of the writers of new journalism were writers who wrote for money, not journalists who wanted to be writers and to call what they wrote art. 
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.[vi]
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.[vii]
There’s no line in mimetic form between focus on self or object. The distinction between art and illustration is the perception in the audience that the world common to craftsman and audience is given or allowed a weight and depth outside the craftsman’s imagination, but not so much as to render craft superfluous.  Journalism is illustration by name and trade, but good journalists are writers within its limitations. Leibling wrote about others, trying to do justice to them and to  himself. Gay Talese writing about Sinatra is giving himself and his readers the opportunity to indulge their shared sense of superiority towards the object of their jealousy and worship.  Joan Didion in her first published piece begins with herself. Reading it you can spend a lot of time talking about nothing but cadence, phrasing and timing, style not as stylishness but as inseparable from what my mother disparaged rightfully as “content”. It’s bright clear, cold stuff. It belongs with Pinter. With Talese and Wolfe the style comes and goes with the suit; with Didion it’s in her bones. But again, Herr and Wolfe and Talese all wrote for Esquire. “On Self-Respect” was published in Vogue. The question is not high, low and middle, except for the obvious and forgotten sense that it’s all the bourgeoisie talking to itself, about itself and its relations to the world. 

[i] A.J. Liebling. “A Quest for Mollie”,  The New Yorker, May-26th-June 2nd, 1945, reprinted in  Just Enough LIebling, North Point Press, 2005
[ii] Michael Herr, Dispatches, Vintage Reprint Edition, 1991
[iv] Allen Berra, “Not Quite Enough A.J Liebling”, Salon, September 23, 2004
[v] Dwight MacDonald, “Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine”, New York Review of Books,  August 26th1965
[vi] Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, EsquireApril 1966, 
in The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, Bloomsbury 2003
[vii] Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”, Vogue, June 1961, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990 

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