By Scott London
George Orwell once observed that, at bottom, every writer is driven by vanity — the "desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc." He went on to say that "serious writers" are on the whole more vain and self- centered than journalists.
But I wonder. Looking over a number of new journalism collections I'm inclined to think the opposite. When writers try to give new life to old newspaper and magazine pieces by reprinting them in book form, there is always a certain immodesty at work.
In the case of Christopher Hitchens, the word immodest seems especially apt. He is an English journalist living in the States who is known variously for his decidedly radical political views, his acerbic wit, his celebrated prose, his fine literary criticism, and, on occasion, his talent for debating Washington insiders on TV talk shows like "Crossfire" and "The McLaughlin Group." Regular readers of The Nation, Harper's and Vanity Fair will no doubt recognize his byline.
His latest collection of occasional pieces, For the Sake of Argument: Selected Essays and Minority Reports, (Verso, $27.95, 353 pp.) is, as the title suggests, a long and sustained quarrel with the cliches and false consolations of our time. For Hitchens that covers just about everything, from the "decaffeinated hedonism" of modern Los Angeles, to the "billionaire populism" of Ross Perot, to the political correctness movement ("the culture of euphemism"), to the hazards of opinion polling ("a search for and a confirmation of consensus").
This is innocent enough, but when his invective is turned against individuals it can be quite lethal. The trail of casualties he leaves in his wake reads like a who's who of the cultural and political elite. In these essays, everyone is fair game. Bill Clinton is described as "cheap and small-time, a shakedown artist on an Arkansan scale." Columnist George Will is brushed off as "the idol of the half-educated." "Poor, stupid Clarence" Thomas is mocked as a "houseboy." Ronald Reagan, "an unashamed, vulgar fraud." Diane Sawyer, an "airhead television presenter." The New Republic proprietor Martin Peretz, "one of those tiresome, unctuous types who thinks he's a wit and is half right." In a 1992 piece about Mother Teresa reprinted from The Nation, he even accuses the "leathery old saint" of "prostituting herself" to the "worst of neocolonialism and ... capitalism."
Perot is summed up as "a man who proudly and unoriginally shouts for the United States to be run like a private corporation without having the wit to appreciate that, as his own mediocre career testifies, it is run like one already."
Hitchens's pen is, as these quotes suggest, mightier than a sword. As one reviewer mused, "Only a voodoo doll would enjoy the attention of Christopher Hitchens."
But, the cocktail-party rant notwithstanding, his political journalism is, by all accounts, in a league of its own. Whether debunking the "realpolitik" of the Gulf War, roaming the cafes of Prague on the eve of the revolution, dodging bullets in Sarajevo, or "siding with Rushdie" (one of the most striking polemics I've read in a long time), his perceptions are consistently thought-provoking and original. He's like a street-smart reporter, urbane critic, dogged investigator, and exiled Oxford dandy all rolled into one.
The cover of the book features a black and white Annie Leibovitz photo of Hitchens nonchalantly smoking a Rothmans in some cafe, empty glasses and coffee cups all around. Loosened tie, rumpled shirt and greasy hair are all part of the look. His folded arms and blank stare seem to say, "I'm a rebel and I don't give a shit." This snapshot says more about the Hitchens mystique than all the words contained between the covers of this book combined. Quarrelsome, defiant, cynical and always the outsider, the book's title sums him up perfectly. "For the sake of argument, one must never let a euphemism or a false consolation pass uncontested," he writes. "The truth seldom lies, but when it does it lies somewhere in between."
(He said something like that once before, incidentally. Only, then it had the opposite meaning: in contemporary politics, he wrote, "the truth lies, and is often found to lie somewhere in between." But never mind — for the sake of argument, there's nothing wrong with a little inconsistency now and then.)
Hitchens has been accused of being just another pissed-off Leftist, but that doesn't come close to describing him. It does seem rather fitting, however, in the case of media watchdogs Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). They write a syndicated weekly column that appears in a dozen or so papers across the country. Adventures in Medialand: Behind the News, Beyond the Pundits (Common Courage, $11.95, 261 pp.) is a collection of their greatest hits, along with cartoons, photos, and an introduction by columnist Molly Ivins.
Call it a press-bashing extravaganza. Cohen and Solomon take on the media establishment with a vengeance, complaining about everything from the "play-it-safe-press" to the "pro-corporate tilt" of the media, to the sleaze of local TV news coverage ("if it bleeds, it leads"). They usually make good points and a few of these pieces really stand out. Their columns on the nefarious advertising schemes of the tobacco industry, for instance, are both provocative and eye-opening. So is their attention to the link between "Super Sunday" and domestic violence.
But, on the whole, there's something fussy and amateurish about this collection. The authors gripe about the "ideological blinders" worn by so many in the press corps, but they are no better. If anything, they are far worse. Their stance is so predictable after the first ten pages that the rest withers into a prolonged yawn. "It all may be a bit bewildering," they note vapidly, "but TV news is not about making sense — it's about making money. Lots of it." Sentences — even whole paragraphs — like this figure in almost every essay.
Having Molly Ivins write the introduction to the book was an inspired, if daring, choice. Sadly, it didn't pay off. Her piece outshines almost everything else in this book.
Adventures in Medialand perfectly exemplifies one of the great dangers of journalism collections: On their own these pieces hold up, but together they lose their fizz. I have been reading Cohen and Solomon regularly for the better part of a year and when their column turns up at the back of the paper, it's always a welcome relief. But when compiled one after another in book form, these pieces seem lackluster at best.
This criticism also goes for Ellen Goodman's new book Value Judgments (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $22.00, 354 pp.). This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist's fifth collection, and it hardly differs a bit from its predecessors.
The sheer range of subject matter contained here is remarkable. She seems equally at home writing about politics, people, family, and ethics. Among the topics touched on here: the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings which has left a "gender gap that looks more like a crater"; the squalor of Brazil's homeless children; the abortion wars ("an argument painted in black and white when most people see shades of gray"); and Ross Perot ("the thinking man's Rambo").
The search for values is the unifying theme of the essays. "Judgment," she writes, "needn't be the opposite of understanding or even compassion. To be valueless is not a compliment. We all make decisions and choices. We use our own judgment, and base that judgment on our values."
Fair enough, but that makes for a lot of value judgments, especially in a collection of over 120 pieces. To quote one of her own columns (not reprinted here): "In today's amphetamine world of news junkies, speed trumps thoughtfulness too often. The rush is always on to judgment." After reading along for awhile, one wishes that she would just suspend judgment and trust the reader to make up his or her own mind.
Goodman is an excellent columnist and no doubt one of the saner people in print today. All the same, this collection seems a bit world-weary and aloof compared to her others. Perhaps writing a column for as long as she has — she's been with the Boston Globe almost 25 years — "producing sentences in a building constructed for people who make and sell sentences in return for paychecks," partly explains the lassitude between these lines. One can even see it in the cover photo — her expression seems more pensive and mellow than ever.
Perhaps one is able to judge a book by its cover after all.
This column appeared in the Dayton Voice, December 9, 1993
Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.