There is nothing writers love to write about more than writers. We are an extraordinarily self-important breed. Find a group of plumbers, office workers or electricians and they will talk about anything except their line of work. When writers come together, though, the subject of conversation is invariably their peers and themselves.
But I can hardly talk. Here I am, coming to you today not just to write about writers and writing but to write about a writer writing about writers and writing. (Did you make it through that sentence OK? I’m sorry for inflicting it on you. Have a drink or something. You deserve one.)
What have we done to deserve this kind of self-absorption? Writing, at its best, adds a little truth and a little beauty to the world. Granted, most of us fall short of this ideal, at least most of the time, but the ideal exists. Through analyzing each other’s work, we hope to chip away at the unshapely edges of our prose and fashion it into something impressive — either that, or bludgeon it into a thousand pieces.
George Packer, the American essayist and author — whose The Assassins’ Gate was a valuable account of the Iraq catastrophe — won the ‘Hitchens Prize’ in January. Naturally, I assumed this was awarded to the winner of some kind of drinking game, but apparently it is awarded to someone whose work ‘reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.’ In accepting this award, Packer took the chance to reflect on why a writer such as Hitchens would struggle to be published in the present day.
Packer identifies two faults in mainstream publishing and mainstream journalism: identity politics and political correctness. Writers, he argues, are ‘expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives,’ when they should be ‘individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another.’ Is it? I agree with Packer that writers are not mere representatives of causes and communities, but writing interestingly, truthfully, beautifully and wittily can divide people as well as uniting them.
Packer argues that the fear of outrage has also had a stifling effect on intellectual inquiry and artistic expression. He asks:
‘If an editorial assistant points out that a line in a draft article will probably detonate an explosion on social media, what is her supervisor going to do — risk the blowup, or kill the sentence? Probably the latter. The notion of keeping the sentence because of the risk, to defy the risk, to push the boundaries of free expression just a few millimeters further out — that notion now seems quaint. So the mob has the final edit.’
This is true to some extent, of course. We have all seen social media mobs beat terrified apologies from people. But I wonder if censoriousness is always coming from outside institutions or if it can come from within them. When Kevin Williamson was fired from the Atlantic, for example, pressure came at least as much from the magazine’s staffers as from its critics.
I also wonder if there is something a little self-regarding about the way we perceive ‘the mob’. Our writing might look mediocre, we tell ourselves, but really we have outrageous opinions and devastating, provocative wit that — like the blade a master swordsman might hesitate to use when surrounded by a crowd of angry villagers — we have kept in its sheath.
But some writers just are mediocre. Reading the New York Times or Washington Post opinion pages — or, in the UK, those of the Guardian or the Times — is like sinking back into a bath and realizing, far too late, that the water is cold. The ideas are secondhand. The prose is lifeless. The subject matter is too often bounded by parochial obsessions of the media class. Perhaps someone might argue that commentators are bursting with provocative arguments and stylish turns of phrase that the fear of social media mobs has forced them to restrain. But somehow commentators can be provocative and mediocre at the same time.
Take poor old Bret Stephens. Time and again, Stephens waged a lonely war in his New York Times column against people who called him mean things on Twitter. Finally, he decided to grapple with a major theme: ‘Jewish genius‘. Stephens outraged journalists and social media personalities with an idle mention of a controversial study of Jewish intelligence. Claims that Stephens was ‘using the same genetics arguments that informed Nazism and white supremacist thinking’ were obviously preposterous, not only because Nazis have no real desire to emphasize the fact that the average Ashkenazi Jew has a higher IQ score than the average Aryan, but because Stephens immediately dismissed the idea that a cognitive gap explains the ‘Jewish genius’ that intrigues him. Instead, he rattled off a bunch of aimless cultural explanations without exploring any of them in depth. Where does the alleged tendency to ‘question the premise and rethink the concept’ come from, and what are its limitations? Why have Jewish minds been affected by ‘repeated exile’ in a manner that, say, Romani people tend not to have been? I understand that these are sensitive and complicated questions, but questions are all that Stephens left the reader with. His column was not outrageous but mediocre.
Limp and lazy prose is as offensive as limp and lazy ideas. Let’s face it: opinion commentary is a form of entertainment as much as a form of education. That doesn’t give somebody an excuse for being dishonest or intellectually idle, but it does mean there should be energy on the page. Force yourself to read this extract from a Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, which I chose almost at random:
‘The story of this impeachment is the story of American politics today — polarization. It affects almost every aspect of American political life and has now been studied by scholars from many different angles, with dozens of good historical and experimental approaches. Wouldn’t it be great if someone would digest all these studies, synthesize them and produce a readable book that makes sense of it all? Ezra Klein has done just that with his compelling new work, Why We’re Polarized.’
It reads like a depressed telemarketer. ‘Are you tired of boiling and frying in different pans? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could boil and fry in the same pan? If you said “yes”, check out our new Froiling Pan™. Truly, this is prose to fall asleep with.
Packer is correct to be concerned about the cultural emphasis on ‘belonging’ to particular ethnic, gender and sexual demographics, but another kind of ‘belonging’ can constrain creativity, which is belonging to an educated, urban, insular media class. You can be too conspiratorial about such classes, and you should accept that such a class will almost inevitably exist, but ‘belonging’ still diverts its members towards complacence and self-congratulation. Writers should be wary of the censors beyond and within our doors, but also of the dullards within ourselves.