… and this is one of the good days. Take a gander at some of the Real Clear Books headlines I cooked up for today’s update:
“What We Write About When We Can’t Write About Anything Else,” was the title of a very meta take on the James Holmes shootings in the Atlantic. Author Jen Doll claims to speak for “writers on the Internet” and their need — our need, I suppose — to find something to say in the wake of the latest real life horror story.
Doll marches us through most of the ways writers mine stories like this one for content, and package their takes for public consumption. Throughout, she assumes an almost irresistible urge for writers to have Something to Say about the shootings. The weight of it is just too much to resist. She signs off with an unintentionally comic ending, “There will be a day for writing about semi-colons again. It just won’t be today.”
I thought the piece well done for what it is and thus linked to it on Real Clear Books. It does a good job of showing how the great mass of working writers out there is moved to type out vast oceans of characters, highlights some of the strengths and pitfalls of crowd source analysis and exposes the real tension between journalistic concern and opportunism.
But she overreaches as well. Many American writers will be so moved. No doubt about it. But a lot of us — likely a growing number — just won’t anymore because we’re all Columbined and 9/11-ed and Oklahoma City-ed out. There may be a deeper lesson there, but we’re not looking for it anymore.
To wit, I went to Dark Knight Rises at the first midnight showing. Had I been Aurora rather than Bellingham, that might have been me and my friends Holmes was shooting at. Perhaps my Viking helmet would have deflected a bullet but I’m happy not to find that out.
One friend I talked to used to work in Colorado and had seen movies at that very theater. Another friend went to Seattle for a whole Batman-based extended weekend. Before the first showing, they staged fights between people in Batman and Bane costumes. At later showings the theater understandably asked them to go lighter on the costumes and the antics.
At no point have I felt an overwhelming urge to write something about… any of this. I did venture to a few people that gosh, it would have been nice if the police hadn’t taken that lunatic alive. But I didn’t feel strongly enough about the point to argue for it. Now that we learn that Holmes told police his place was booby trapped, I’m glad I didn’t. The last thing we needed was a higher body count.
Moreover, my sense is that the shootings may mark the time when Americans had officially had enough of freaking out. Obama received some criticism for his handling of it but not much and, really, I think we get what an impossible thing this is for any president to deal with The Right Way. Mitt Romney said some very nice words about God and grief that should be well taken.
Calls for censorship or gun control went mostly ignored, and most of us just went about our business. Dark Knight Rises took a box office hit, yet it still beat Dark Knight‘s opening weekend. Also it deservedly set the record for highest opening of all time for a 2D movie.
Hollywood was glad of this but probably did the right thing in holding back early box office reports in deference to the dead and generally keeping it buttoned up. Reuters tells us, “A spokeswoman for Warner Brothers, which produced Dark Knight [Rises], had no comment.” That’s a nice departure, isn’t it? Sometimes the best thing to say in awful circumstances is absolutely nothing at all.
I’m seriously contemplating making a regular thing out of the New Republic‘s suspicious silence on Paul Fussell. Granted, events can and do catch editors flatfooted and unprepared. But at this point I fear something worse must be at work.
Fussell died Wednesday. Slate took its time and published a decent essay of Fussell’s literary impact on Friday. There, Fussell admirer Stephen Metcalf wrote that Fussell “was at his best, was most himself, when writing about organized killing,” but judged his influence to be portable to peacetime settings as well. It was a good essay leading up to Memorial Day. I led with it on Real Clear Books this weekend (along with this stinging dissent about Fussell’s book Class). So, eventually, did Arts & Letters Daily.
But from the New Republic, still, crickets.
TNR‘s The Book page reposted this “classic” piece by George Kennan on Americans and Russians rather than repost the very famous essay that became the basis for Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and other Essays. The front page called out a review by scholar and failed Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff on a book of hand-wringing about free markets with the headline “The Skyboxification of American Life.” TNR’s aggregator The Reader, which at this point specializes in warmed over Arts & Letters Daily links, can’t even bring itself to reheat the Slate link.
Again, as I have said, this is extra odd, because the New Republic published one of Fussell’s most important essays. Now, in the wake of his death, it is proceeding as if that essay never existed at a time when its republication would get actual traffic. Why wouldn’t it want those hits? A few friends have speculated to me that TNR is staffed with a bunch of younger staffers who don’t remember such things, but that can’t be it. Grand culture editor Leon Wieseltier has weathered several regime changes at the magazine, including a recent handover in ownership. The Fussell essay appeared two years before his appointment in 1983 but he must remember it.
So why ignore it? Embarrassment? It’s possible. In the famous essay, Fussell set himself up as the sworn enemy of moral reasoning that is too abstract, too removed from what, these days, we would call the “boots on the ground.”
Fussell responded to liberal moral hand-wringing about Hiroshima on one of its many anniversaries by saying, OK, let’s see what the troops who would have invaded Japan have to say on the subject. He consulted the writings of the grunts and found in them a plausible argument for why one might say “Thank God for the atom bomb.” They argued Japanese society had been driven collectively so war mad that the distinctions we normally make between soldiers and civilians no longer made sense.
Soldiers in the Pacific theater (Fussell got his “ass shot off” in Europe) viewed the entire island chain as one long meat grinder that would kill at least American soldiers who were already pretty chewed up on the eve an armed invasion that didn’t have to happen because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You don’t have to agree with their point of view but it might be worth considering at greater length. You can find that here on this day of memorial, but not on the website of the New Republic.