Neil Postman on the built-in irrelevance of news

Yesterday, I wrote about wisdom only mattering if you can remember it in time. Today, I’d like to finish the thought in the context of my own work: journalism, advertising, and public relations.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asks why we should care about news if it goes so quickly out of date. If the newspapers and magazines we read are meant to be discarded, what’s to stop us from discarding them the moment they arrive or from ignoring them all together?

The answer is that the meaning of a message changes over time. Responding yes to a friend’s request for a same-day lunch date at 11 p.m. might represent your true feelings but it would be a useless expression.

Eternal truths should be carved in stone, but you can’t simply point to them every time something in the world needs to be understood and acted upon. You’ve got to explain their relevance to the moment. Even the Christian scriptures, which have been styled as the original good news, get a weekly sermon to help them stay relevant. We write and we speak without end because it is a form of understanding simply to do so. To make sense of the world we have to make sense with our words first, in our own minds. We have to keep talking to each other and to the future and looking to the past for context.

That said, most of what passes for language and sense online or in print is neither good language nor good sense. But we can’t stop the attempt to produce it because some people mangle or abuse the language.

If we’re going to be wise in time, we’ve got to understand the times we’re in and that takes a lot of talking. And that’s one thing that keeps me coming back to the keyboard every day, for myself and for my firm. The attempt keeps me thinking and keeps me sane.

Teddy Roosevelt on timing

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 5.02.37 PMThis is true and not something a literary education teaches you well. When you spend most of your time rightly reading books written long before you were born, you don’t see the point of a thought having value simply because it is recent. Compared to the great books, most things written recently aren’t very good, or won’t have relevance much past their date of publication. In the classroom, it doesn’t matter when something was said, just that it was said well.

In the battle of life outside the classroom, with wealth and reputation always on the line, the timing of a thought, phrase, or action is everything. We read the great books to remember them when we need to. And unless we speak up when we have to or act before its too late, having a wise thought becomes rather a curse than a blessing, because it becomes an occasion for regret. This is something Teddy Roosevelt likely knew from experience, both in regret and in victory.

Review: The magic spell of Hamilton on stage

I had the good fortune last night of sitting in the third row to see Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s crowning hip-hop opera detailing the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

I’d listened to the show a few times and enjoyed the virtuosity of the lyrics and the cleverness of casting complex issues of revolutionary history, like the foundation of the American banking system, into amusing, trash-talking, over-the-top rap battles.

But seeing the show captured what listening to it could not, the moving emotional arc of Hamilton’s story, from obscurity to an early grave, with all the prizes and penalties of life in between.

His life had that quality of drama and scope which seems so often to apply to figures from the long 19th Century. He knew poverty, wealth, fame, peace, war, love, sex, illness, health, ugliness, and beauty. He was an orphan, a soldier, a lawyer, banker, high government official, husband, father, rake, grandee, and, above all, a writer. At every moment in his life, he wrote his way forward, out, and up. His words, like the lyrics that Lin Manuel drew forth from the story of his life, were armor and incantation, a means of analysis and redemption. He made a career and a new nation from them.

The three hours of the show are like a Greek mass I once heard sung continuously from the light of dawn until well into the morning. At the end of the performance, the language and the power of language entranced me.

Love and thanks to Bevan Thomas and my parents for the tickets, and for finally getting me out of my office and into the room where it happens.

Why genre matters, some thoughts on some thoughts by Namwali Serpell

Give this piece on genre a read. It’s by the very talented Namwali Serpell, a writer who sat through the same sort’ve high literary education I did, and who says she has found liberation as a reader and writer in genre fiction.

The literary gripe against genre fiction is that it’s designed to fulfill a form or meet the expectations of a marketplace rather then be a true expression of the human spirit, unfettered by convention. A mystery novel, with its prescribed crime, perpetrator, detective, and solution can never aspire to the heights of a high modernist work like the novels of Virginia Woolf, for example, and is therefore not worth our serious attention as readers or our aspirations as writers.

The catch, as I discovered while secretly devouring Issac Asimov books between final exams in college and have never quite recovered from, is that genre can, because of its accessibility, take over your imagination in a way that free form works almost never can. The other catch is that much great art, from Homer to Dickens, is much closer to genre than we are taught. It uses familiar forms to give shape to thought and sensibility, and to pass them on to the reader, sometimes across centuries. What is enthralling is what is also so effective about genre pieces. They are why I tune in, turn the page, or pick up the next volume on my shelf — because I know I will feel welcome on the page. 

Once you’re in a genre as a reader (or even as a writer, I imagine) then you’re free to ironize and problematize and play with convention as much as you like. Artists have been doing that almost since the forms they work in were invented. Shakespeare makes fun of plays. Spenser and Milton, the great English epic poets, make fun of or get really self-conscious about epic pretty much from the get go. Irony is nothing new. But we can read old genre books, even the really ironic ones, because, like an old master who has taken the time to paint the world as it really looks, they express themselves in forms we instantly recognize. 

Genre, as Serpell suggests, can be petty. But I’d say rather in the sense that to be small (petit) is also to be humble and homely. It’s only by starting out where people are that you can lead them to wonders. 

On writing: Lyric copywriting v. long-form

To be a bore, one merely has to say everything.

-Voltaire

I’m not the kind of copywriter who tends to write short. I write business-to-business pieces, mostly, which are meant to draw you in, explain the world, and then explain why my clients make something or deliver a service that will make the world better, starting with you, the reader. I want you to read what I’ve written and sound smarter in the next meeting with your boss or client, and that takes time to do. 

When you’re about to spend $8 on a burger, shorter copy is better (“I’m lovin’ it”).

When you’re about to spend $2 million on a piece of industrial machinery, a three-word slogan just doesn’t cut it. The longer and more informative the copy, the better it tends to boost sales or reputation.

But even then, an economy of words is necessary. Every sentence has to balance on a knife’s edge of being informative or soporific. After all, the next sentence might be the one where you stop reading. 

It takes talent to write a short slogan, akin to singing a song or shooting a perfect basket from across the court. But it takes endurance and discipline to write long and not falter.

In the copywriting world, writers of short copy are the rockstars, poets, and abstract expressionist painters. But us long-form copywriters are the novelists, symphony writers, teachers, and genre painters. We are (and I say this affectionately) what Samuel Johnson called the lexicographer: “A harmless drudge.” Our superpower is endurance. Our spells take longer to cast, but are, in my opinion, more powerful for it. 

That said, I have this cartoon pinned where I can see it from my keyboard, to remind me never to overstay my welcome. 

The creative power of saying no

The writer Aldous Huxley said somewhere that it was not hope of heaven that kept him living the simple life, but rather that he found a life of pleasure intensely boring. For Huxley, who relished even the loss of his personal library to fire (He said he felt “very clean” after it burned), there may have been a connection between abstention and creativity. The less he had to distract him, the more he could focus on his art.


I can’t lay even a ghost of a claim to Huxley’s output, but I can confirm that the less I am distracted by others or my own passing needs for food and amusement, the more quickly I can produce a piece of writing and the more perceptive my mind becomes. With fewer distractions, I gain sufficient temporal bandwidth (to steal a phrase from Thomas Pynchon) to know who I am and what I want or need to say, the freer I am to be haunted by the ghosts of ideas unrealized or feelings unarticulated.


This is one of the arguments behind Wyatt Mason’s latest piece for The New York Times, which severs the link between hedonism and great art. Just because some great artists were drunkards and wildings doesn’t mean that being either is the only path to artistic greatness. To the arguments in Wyatt’s piece I’d add the idea that ours in age uniquely prone to dissipation and distraction. You don’t have to walk from the country to the city anymore to access food, visual variety, entertainment, and sex. You just have to pull out the little screen in your pocket. 


And it isn’t always sex or drugs that can distract you. Most of the time it’s Candy Crush or twenty-four hour new coverage or ambient Internet rage, but it’s all still dissipation, at least for me.


Art, for me, is what happens on the other side of boredom and silence, and asceticism is a path to unusual ways of thinking as sure as any substance. Try fasting for 24-hours and sipping some high grade matcha and you’ll see what I mean. 


Susannah Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell wrote long sections of her book in darkness behind drawn curtains on sunny days, listening to the sound of the thunderstorms from stereo speakers. Magic, for her characters and perhaps herself, is what happens “on the other side of the rain.” 


May we all quiet down enough to hear it.  

The commodification of everything

Including commodification, it seems, in the form of Andy Warhol’s personal brand. From “Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy” in this issue of The Atlantic:

Maybe it’s never been easier to make the case for his powers of influence because his afterlife has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism—the attempt to turn over all human activity, no matter how sacred, to the marketplace. Neoliberalism is simply Warholism as a theory of governance.

Christmas is everybody’s favorite fable of commercialization, a once sacred holiday turned first into an excuse for excess consumption and then into a dull obligation to engage in it. Leave it up to artists to form the dreams that one day become the creed of nations, as Goethe put it, I think. Except that in Warhol’s case they were airless, ironic dreams. I prefer his sensibility as art, not a daily way of life.

What do you think?