Wednesday, January 24, 2018

`Asservation Is Today the Rage'

Three of the five newspapers I worked for are dead. The other two, owned by Gannett and Hearst, have survived only by no longer resembling newspapers. I stopped grieving a long time ago, though I’m amazed at the speed with which an essential piece of culture for centuries, a way of life for writers and readers alike, went moribund. I started work as a reporter just in time to learn how to write, before editors (and readers, and most reporters) stopped caring. In the seventies, symptoms of morbidity were already undeniable (not that I’m suggesting there was ever a Golden Age), but I sure had a lot of fun. I think of newspapers as my graduate school, just as Ishmael declared “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” We were certainly kept as poor as grad students. One year we got canned hams as Christmas bonuses, and were grateful.

The only newspaper I continue to read with any regularity – in hard copy, I mean – is our folksy neighborhood weekly. It survives by pretending it’s 1962, complete with what we used to call “chicken-dinner” news. I mean no condescension. I read it faithfully every Thursday, even the ads. They publish a neighborhood police blotter. The Mencken-esque photo of the columnist on the editorial page shows him with a cigar in his mouth. They run a pet column called “Dear Tabby.” The writing can be clunky and leans toward earnestness, but is never slick or trendy. A recent front-page story documented the swarms of grackles, starlings and cowbirds that congregate at twilight at a nearby intersection and shit on cars.

In his introduction to The Dog’s Last Walk (Bloomsbury, 2017), Howard Jacobson composes an epitaph for defunct newspapers: “The shutting down of any serious newspaper is a small catastrophe.” He should know. For eighteen years, the novelist wrote a column for The Independent, the British newspaper that folded in 2016 after thirty years of publication. His latest book collects ninety-three of his columns, which are unlike anything I’ve read in an American newspaper – learned, bookish, clever, enormously funny and opinionated while remaining politically non-aligned. Jacobson calls them “feuilletonistic,” referring to a form that has never caught on in the U.S. His columns,  composed with “ambitions to be impartial and non-assertive,” are, he writes:

“. . . at once popular and literary, serious without solemnity. Perhaps intimate in tone, sometimes taking the form of fiction, eschewing dogma, at all times assuming a shared disinterestedness in matters intellectual and stylistic, and therefore a patient leisureliness – an absence of any hunger to have their own views confirmed – on the part of readers.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like the better blogs. I used to think blogs could supplant what some journalists used to do, but I was young and foolish. The demise of the Independent, Jacobson says, represents “one more proof that we no longer read in the expansive, altruistically curious manner we once did.” Jacobson is simply good company. He’s not out to change your mind and he never panders:

“Asseveration is today the rage: a passion to pronounce with certainty, to aver or declare if you’re the writer; an impatience with discourse of any other sort if you’re the reader. Irony, whose methodology is often slow and covert, finds little favour in those channels of conversation which the social media have made possible. The writer, literal-mindedly meaning what he says, stands and delivers, whereupon the respondent, literal-mindedly believing him, gives the thumbs up or thumbs down. If you happen to believe that most judgements worth making occupy a hazy, indeterminate space somewhere between `like’ or `dislike,’ and are in a perpetual state of being formed and reconsidered, you will find there are few symbols on the Internet you can make use of.”

The least interesting thing I can know about a writer or reader – about anyone, really – are his or her opinions. There’s a pandemic of strident didacticism out there. Jacobson’s columns are a nice quarantine away from all that, and I haven’t even read past his introduction.

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