Friday, July 18, 2008

7/18/08 - Why Writers?

My significant other read "Flight" by Sherman Alexie, and, while impressed, had a complaint that I often share - namely, the main character was obsessed with books. As she put it, it's not really realistic to think that this kid is obsessed with books, but it's eminently believable that the author is obsessed w/books and reading, because, well, he's an author. This is symptomatic of a widespread epidemic - literature obsessed characters in literature.

The truth is that most people are not book-obsessed, and the overt concerns about literature are reserved for a subset of self-selecting individuals. There are eight million stories in the naked city, as the saying goes, and surely 7,999,000 don't involve protagonists carrying around dog-eared copies of the Book That Changed Their Life. Stephen King is a good example of this - his stories are varied and his plots are remarkably diverse (much more so than reputed), but he has an abundance of writers as central characters. It's an insular world in which books are loved so fiercely, but the fact that belonging to this world is practically a requirement for a writer of literature gives the aggregate landscape of novel protagonists a protruding hump in the topographical category of "Writer/Book Lover".

Because writing is what writers do, the vagaries of the activity/profession often bear a greater weight of scrutiny than other professions and art forms. After all, communicating one's ideas through painting requires a specific set of skills involving brush and palette, but it is rare to find a painting that documents or critiques brush selection, or stroke technique, or what have you. In music, phrases are sampled and quoted, and lyrics can be used to critique other bands/artists (see Pavement, "Range Life", re:Smashing Pumpkins). It is not common for a band, in wanting to criticize or critique another band, to use certain chords as criticism. In hip-hop, maybe, when the form of attack is delivered in the form of that which attacks, but that's the closest to the solipsism of the writing profession.

Look no further than the overheated rhetoric accompanying season 5 of "The Wire", in which David Simon extended his critique of the modern city to journalism. All of the sudden, journalistic work on "The Wire" was everywhere, much of it delving into the question of the specific axe that Simon had to grind with his former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun. The consensus among journalists was that Simon's animus towards his former editors led him away from the shades-of-gray approach so evident in the first four seasons of the show, and that season 5's depiction of the newsroom storyline was too simplistic narratively.

Something about a lady and protesting? Oh, what was that quote...

The truth is that "The Wire" featured characters drawn in harder shades of gray approaching black or white in previous seasons (Officer Walker in S3, the Lester Freamon of S1), but where the hell was the impulse to devote the whole journalistic machine to analyzing Simon's treatment of cops (S1), union workers (S2), city government (S3), or schools (S4). Nowhere, because it wasn't their own being scrutinized. Cops, union workers, municipal employees, and teachers all have jobs that don't entail commenting on TV's views of their chosen profession, nor do they have a place to share those thoughts in a way that is looped into the public megaphone. Journalists do. So all of a sudden when Simon's acid vision was turned onto the fourth estate he's got all kinds of hidden biases in his way that hurt his narrative. A little too suspicious, methinks. "The Wire" has an axe to grind, and that's clear from the opening episode of the first season. To cry foul when it trains its harsh gaze on those with the loudest voice seems more than a little off.

Off it may be, but such is the power of written work - it priviledges and empowers the point of view of the person wielding the pen, for good or ill. So it may not be the worst thing in the world that writer's champion reading in the written word, but it does lend a little less credence to attempts at versimilitude, to the representing modern life's vast indifference to most literary endeavors.


Jon said...

interesting, but i'm not sure if i agree with other artistic communities not being self-referential in the same way. velazquez is a good example of the painting process, or the affect it has on its subjects, being projected into the work. or the whole genre of still life (how many apples and vases must we see).

even on tv/movies, we get a confluence of characters who are 'writers' or photographers. as these forms tend to have a larger group creating and editing them, i think it contributes to some diversity, but you definitely see some groups oversampled.

the interesting question is whether this phenomenon changes as the barriers to entry are lowered. but bloggers tend to be a largely insular community, and youtube videos are, for the most part, videos of self. it'll be fascinating to see how those develop...

Croz said...

I would agree that most artistic communities are self-reflective or have self-reflective elements - I guess the point that I left somewhat unclear is that I think writing has the closest 1:1 relationship between production & consumption of the form. Still lifes are apples and vases repeated ad infinitum, but why aren't they oils and canvases?