In his opening to a review of the essays of Max Beerbohm, Dwight Garner remarks that today’s essays have lost some of the verve and gusto that yesterday’s essays had.
Writing in the New York Times Garner notes that over the past three decades we have lost a certain type of essay writing, the kind that is tough-minded, unabashedly offensive and brimming with wit, if not humor. The quality of the national debate has also declined, but that is for another time and place.
This is not to say that the writing that Garner (and I) miss does not exist. In the dark corners of the publishing world a precious few essayists are still writing the kind of prose that Garner—and yours truly—misses.
Consider a very recent James Wolcott review of what he calls the "underappreciated" television series, Ray Donovan.
Ray Donovan—its antihero a charcoal etching in a sun-bleached world, a man (and what a man) of many moods, all of them monochrome—returns for a third season on Showtime for another bout of muscular angst amid the posh squalor and Charles Bukowski fleapits of Los Angeles. Played by Liev Schreiber with the sullen dispatch of a highly paid pro on permanent shit detail, Ray Donovan is a law-unabiding fixer, like Jonathan Banks’s Mike onBreaking Bad and Better Call Saul—the guy you call when you need a hostage rescued, an angry husband ice-bucketed, incriminating photos retrieved, a troublemaker forcibly dissuaded, or, as happens in the season premiere Sunday night, a celebrity has-been extricated from a glory hole where his penis is being held captive until he pays up. That the glory-hole stuckee, once we’re able to see his face, is portrayed by Bronson Pinchot, former star of the hit sitcom Perfect Strangers, is indicative of the quirky, grubby biosphere of Ray Donovan, its terrarium view of once-hot fame and success now scrounging around in the weeds.
You may or may not like that kind of gritty, muscular prose, but the world has been seeing much less of it lately. Garner is correct to say that we have lost something. For all I know it’s a symptom of a world that has so systematically devalued manliness that its cruder manifestations are barely even tolerated.
In Garner’s words:
It’s only in retrospect that we can recognize the 1980s as a great decade for contrarians and curmudgeons, for cheerful and sophisticated loathers of every sort of vanity and humbug.
Paul Fussell and Robert Hughes were publishing their best cultural and social criticism; P. J. O’Rourke had not yet become predictable; Florence King (at National Review) and Henry Fairlie (at The New Republic) were reliable dispensers of whirligig contumely; Spy magazine made its debut; Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott were dashing freshmen on campus; and Clive James, at the Observer in London, was searing on his griddle the crispiest television criticism the world had ever seen.
Each of these humans seems to have been guided by the principle articulated by Kingsley Amis: “If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.”
Nowadays we have many writers who can rise to the occasion when called upon and, like volunteer firefighters in reverse, burn a stupid thing to the ground. But we have far fewer essayists of the sort you can point in almost any direction and be certain they’d return merrily gnawing on the bones of the topic as if it were a tub of fried chicken.
What killed the dinosaurs? Was it the Internet? Global warming? Gluten? There’s been a journalistic version of Dutch elm disease.
As for the question, who killed the dinosaurs, I am surprised that Garner does not answer it. Clearly, political correctness and the Age of Obama killed it. More especially, a media and academic world filled with people who know little more about reading than how to find evidence of thought crimes has stifled and repressed these more manly writers.
Kingsley Amis thought that good essays should annoy people. Well, in our age where everyone is so thin-skinned that they can barely suffer the least suggestion of criticism, writers need to be careful, lest they be assaulted in the media for one or another thought crimes.
If writers are worrying about who they must never offend, they are going to constrain themselves. You will feel it in constipated prose where whiny platitudes and self-righteous banalities have taken the place of corrosive wit.
If the general public and the general reader are thin-skinned, that implies, incidentally, a heightened sense of insecurity, a lack of confidence, a demoralized state that is akin to depression.
We live in the age of Prozac where everyone is acting like they are depressed.
In the Age of Obama all criticism of our manifestly thin-skinned president, in particular, always gets attacked as racism. Between the trolls and the thought police every column of prose, no matter how well written, is scoured for signs of thought crimes, whether of the racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic variety.
Use the wrong word, the wrong figure of speech or the wrong image and you will be exiled to the darker reaches of the media firmament. You will be accused and condemned as a hater, as a perpetrator of the worst crimes the world has ever known.
The thought police do not hesitate to use the most bloated superlatives.
Many of them learned how to do it in college where they perfected the art of what is called deconstruction. They do not know, any more than their teachers do, that this technique was born of the mind of a Nazi philosopher and amounts to little more than performing a pogrom on a text.
It’s not quite the same thing as running a pogrom through a village, but it is certainly destructive—the word deconstruction is a translation of the original German word, Destruktion—and it has damaged the quality of public discourse and debate… as well as the quality of writing.
In practice, deconstruction involves seeking out, isolating and destroying any hints of a cultural contaminant to be found in a text. In the past these contaminants were associated with Judaism and Christianity, but the technique can be used on whatever offends a supreme leader—witness the uber pogrom that Mao Zedong called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
To engage in the kind of annoying rhetoric that Amis and Garner admired you have to be shielded by the heft of Vanity Fair or you should have grown some very thick skin.
Returning to Ray Donovan, we note that the central character—created by a woman, incidentally-- is a man’s man, a rarity on television these days. And yet, however popular the show is, the critical community has tried to ignore it. The show is so flagrantly manly that it is very difficult to accuse it of hidden or disguised sexism.
In his inimitable way Wolcott explains:
A big ratings slugger for Showtime, Ray Donovan doesn’t appear to have the fanatical hold on Talmudic students of every microfilament of narrative nuance, sexual politics, symbolic resonance, ominous portent, and Zeitgeist relevance that True Detective (its first season anyway), Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, and Louie command….
It’s a tough show to recommend to virgins, and not just because of its head-whomping violence and considerable backstory. Its Raymond Chandler–in-reverse approach to crime and depravity beneath the billboards and palm trees, with Ray Donovan as Philip Marlowe divested of all illusion, often turns masochistic and stilted in its posturings….
Basically, though, everything rides on Liev Schreiber’s shoulders, who manages to avoid monotony despite the narrow slit of affect and emotion permitted his persona through sheer force of concentration and imposing presence. He could do with a shave, but that might leave his face overexposed to signs of normal expression, which he can’t afford in his line of work. It’d be like removing Batman’s mask, and that’s what Ray Donovan is—the Dark Knight on retainer.