Friday, January 30, 2009

Drug Addicts, Con-Artists, Thieves and Liars: The Modern Writer

Essay I wrote for a composition class concerning the mass-media representations of writers-at-large. It got an A.

Drug Addicts, Con-Artists, Thieves and Liars: The Modern Writer

Every word an implement in a vicious, pitched battle, chosen carefully and placed optimally to ensure optimal effectiveness, I write not to establish concept but rather defend idea and notion. The front is ever-present and watchful – the mind and mentality of the audience, accepting for nothing as given, is a force that must be compelled in one direction over another. I find few things so engrossing and entertaining as the persuasion of other people through the written word, and it is by the road of the written word that I intend to make my career. There are multiple paths to achieve this end, and, with that in mind, I chose five films that I felt effectively demonstrated five separate branches of my chosen road.

Although Nick Naylor, the central character of Thank You for Smoking, spends little time either composing or delivering pre-written speeches, his career is entirely focused on the persuasion of targeted groups of people. As the Vice President and chief spokesperson of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a special interest group whose mission it is to determine whether or not a link exists between cigarette smoke and lung cancer and funded by large tobacco businesses, it is his job to ensure that the public gets the “correct” information that cigarettes are perfectly safe. Regardless of the quality of the information or the methods by which it's presented against him, Naylor is able to effectively spin the story so that it directly benefits the cause of his company instead of damaging it. Slick, crafty and clever, Naylor – and his job function – appear to be nearly as beloved as they are despised. That what appear to be one of the most gifted rhetoricians of the world in which Thank You for Smoking takes place works for a blatantly evil corporation speaks to common misconceptions that the real world has about those that can cleverly tell lies and twist words into distorted half-truths; slippery at best and morally bankrupt at worse, lawyers, politicians and charismatic businessmen are viewed with a healthy skepticism.

Thank You also tends to emphasize the masculinity of the position. Naylor's closest friends, both male and in the employment of equally evil companies, are chauvinistic. The female counterpart to the fast-talking Naylor is Heather Holloway, who plays a reporter that's actively working to achieve a fair story of the chief spokesperson. In order to manipulate her way into as much information as possible from Naylor, she begins to sleep with him, suggesting that she couldn't intellectually compel him to provide it – suggesting, even, that her most effective weapon, perhaps as a woman, was not how bloody clever she could be but rather that she had no issue with objectifying her body. Although the film doesn't otherwise actively suggest that women are inferior to men in this capacity, it's important to note that charismatic business people, politicians and lawyers are predominantly male.

While exhibiting his characteristic crazed and somehow ultra-lucid charisma, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was credited with the invention of gonzo journalism, which can best be described as entirely subjective, ground-level journalism. The biopic Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson tells the story of the development of his craft, and follows him through encounters with Hell's Angels, the infamous California-based biker gang, the lead up to the 1972 election, and a series of sports reporting for Rolling Stone. Abandoning objectivity long before he began being published, Thompson wrote with clear intention in mind, tailoring his word choices and structure to convey specific ideas and influence his audience. Although his credibility as a reporter was questionable at best, his ability to persuade, argue and write his way into the minds of his readers was and is striking. Thompson, however, did little to allay a common conception of the writer; drug-addled, anti-authoritative, and only occasionally coherent, he displayed to the world the raving voice of a lunatic. This, coupled with other Beatnik-era writers from the previous decades like William S. Burroughs, created the popular image of the ink-stained and half-crazed author.

Jack Torrance of The Shining amplified the level of madness portrayed by Thompson tenfold; not content to merely be eclectic and outspoken, Jack Nicholson's character instead becomes completely delusional and, by film's end, filled with an incredible and murderous rage. Trapped inside of what seems to be a haunted luxury hotel for an extended winter with no company aside from his (boring and whiny) family and nothing to do but work on his novel, Jack Torrance goes completely batshit insane. His madness culminates in the last segment of the film, as his wife, Wendy, finds the manuscript that he's been slaving over for months. Instead of words, she finds a mantra, repeated in various formats throughout the manuscript, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Following this is the infamous scene in which Nicholson hacks down the bedroom door with his axe and growls, “Heeeeere's Johnny!”

For better or worse, the vast majority of writers don't go insane. At least, not homicidally insane – some, like Steven King, might write about killing people a great deal, but it's rare that they actually start doing so. Just the same, the notion of a writer dealing with cabin fever and severe writer's block tends to be slightly creepy and being around a writer in this state is understandably off-putting to just about anybody. Writer's block has become nearly synonymous with the creative writer, especially in film and television. It's a bizarre occurrence when an author found in the media is actually producing something, and this tends to be flatly contradictory to people in that field in real life. Writer's block can be a terrible thing, but the majority of novelists and poets have long-since established methods of breaking blocks and even avoiding them entirely.

A young Will Shakespeare, working on the comedy-turned-tragedy that will soon by Romeo and Juliet, begins Shakespeare in Love in a similar situation to Jack Torrance. It is not so much the crazy-murdering-psychopath aspect, but very much the writer's-block – at least, until he meets the cleverly named Viola de Lesseps, whom he quickly falls in love with. As a result of this love, the young Shakespeare is overcome with inspiration and begins to work feverishly on what will become one of his most widely-known works. The young Shakespeare, characterized by idle daydreaming and easily overcome by idealism, represents another key aspect of the craft - the poet - the writer dedicated to ensuring that not only should language convey ideas and sway minds, but also that it should be beautiful.

Although Will fits the mold of the archetypal poet, actual generalizations of poets tend to be somewhat inaccurate due to their wildly varying nature in real life. From personal experience alone, I've encountered the typical melancholy, somber-always-serious sorts, the happy-go-lucky and painfully chipper ones, and the professional, pretentious and ever-sort-of-smiling folks. The universal truth to media representations of writers, particularly creative ones, is the universal fun made of them; irrelevant and antiquated relics of a dead age, they often bear the brunt of jokes directed at English majors. Except for the now-clich├ęd question asked of all English majors: “What in the world are you going to do with an English degree, lol?” The greatest inaccuracy of Shakespeare in Love's presentation of this archetype is that it actually gets an audience.

While poets in popular culture have the tendency to be seen as pointless, another field of writing receives nearly as much mocking; that of the critic. The possibly-unfortunate truth of the role of the critic, however, is that of audience; typically reaching, in a modern setting, far more people than the poets, critics often end up being outright despised by far greater numbers than creative types. As it turns out, people generally don't like being told that their work, whether it be in film, music, theater or gaming, sucks, and fans of those works don't particularly enjoy being told that their beloved Twilight sucks. In the animated television show The Critic, Jon Lovitz provides the voice – and more than a little personality – for Jay Sherman, “New York's third most popular early-morning cable-TV film critic." 1 Jay represents the film/art-elitist critic that people read even though they despise; even his physical bearing, diminutive and unattractive, is unpleasant. Unfortunately, Jay also demonstrates that terrible aspect of criticism in which nothing is analyzed and gut reaction is his only guide; “It stinks!” is not a criticism of the movie, it's a bland statement of opinion with no support structure behind it – it's worthless. Although there are certainly critics that fall into the oversimplification camp, there are yet still many that will spend five hundred words examining the peculiarities of the cinematography of the film. While some people enjoy archaic and off-kilter references, ivory-tower elitism, and the evisceration of works of poor quality, others tend to absolutely despise these.

Jay Sherman, as is typical with media representations of critics, is a male – so too are the journalist, novelist, playwriter, and PR-thug - and it's little wonder; in a world that is dominated by male figures, it comes as little surprise that the general idea of a writer in American culture is almost ever-masculine, particularly when that writing is conducted on the public and/or professional level. Films like Thank You for Smoking do little to alter this stereotype, placing women almost entirely in either subordinate or sexually subversive positions, reinforcing the illusion that men are best suited towards that line of work, and even suggesting that in order for women to attain positions of power and prestige as writers of any kind they must sacrifice their dignity. Although Viola de Lesseps from Shakespeare in Love was absolutely integral to the formation of Will's masterwork, she finds herself in a position approximating that of Heather Halloway in Thank You for Smoking – inspirational and critical to the creation of the work, but never directly involved in the final project and entirely subordinate to Will and his whims. Wendy Torrance plays essentially the same part in The Shining – although her subordinate/inspirational position is labeled as mother/caretaker/loving wife, it serves the same purpose as that of the other leading females mentioned.

Unfortunately, the trend in film to favor the creative prowess of men over women seems to be at least partially reflected in aspects of real-life writing and rhetoric. As mentioned earlier, the majority of publically seen politicians and lawyers are male. Certain genres of literature, particularly that of science fiction, tend to be the near-exclusive domain of men, and although there appear to be more male than female authors in general when perusing the shelves of a local bookstore, the disparity between the two is perhaps not as extreme as tends to be suggested in the media. According to the Borders website, of the 10 best books of 2008 according to “The New York Times Book Review,” three were published by women.2

Representations of writers and speakers in the media tend to be both damned and praised. Will in Shakespeare in Love is a heavily-romanticized image of a playwright/poet; dark, tall, and irresistibly attractive to the women present in the film, he approaches, appropriately, the archetypal bard, able to enchant and delight audiences with little more than the words of his mouth and a sly smile. The slick and clever character of Nick Naylor is impossibly quick on his mind, able to deflect the harshest and most damning criticism of his organization and cite obscure studies without breaking his roguish grin. The true-to-life picture of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson painted by Gonzo is often anything but glamorous, and often seems to be making a caricature of the writer and dissident – the heavy drug use and rampant alcoholism would suggest, to most people, an incapacity to function on any workable level, but Thompson manages with a gritty and half-delirious determination.

Writers tend to be a pretty varied group of people – and only seldomly do they meet the standards of the media. Many of them, particularly the creative types, tend to be tortured sorts, seeming to thrive on misery and trouble. Even on the campus of this school there are dramatically controversial and outspoken members of the press, exhibiting (if they weren't arguing in favor of the status quo) an anti-authoritarian and independent attitude in both writing and personality.

Due to what seems to be an inherent, random quirkiness of personality that comes from the capacity to write well, it’s fairly easy to satirize writers. Due to the broad spectrum, racially and economically, of poets, novelists, essayists and academics, they tend to be a fairly diverse crowd – it's a pretty safe bet that if you throw a knife into the crowd, you're fairly likely to hit somebody with a joke. NPR shows, particularly those on the weekends, seem to delight in poking fun at the field, presumably because a great many of the broadcasters and radio personalities went to school for English and inexplicably found themselves working in public radio. My personal favorite comes from Prairie Home Companion in a recurring skit called P.O.E.M. (Professional Organization of English Majors), where Garrison Kiellor pokes fun at various aspects of the field and all of the futility contained therein.

In personal experience, the writer/rhetorician position as portrayed in the media tends to be more romanticized than anything else. Due to a conflict of interest – that being that pretty much everything seen via the mass media was written by writers – it's difficult to determine if the field gets the same sort of treatment, whether positive or negative, as other fields. Over the next decade, we're likely to see a spat of films with villainous Wall Street executives cruelly gambling away pensions and football players running illegal dogfighting rings. But writing a series of controversial plays, pissing off the royalty, contracting syphilis and engaging in a spectacularly hedonistic lifestyle? Fairly likely, even if it was already done in Libertine. Are we likely to see a film that actively damns a writer, painting him in realistic and negative terms and not fetishizing his drug use and disregard for authority? Citing artificial sources in the New York Times? As unlikely as Hunter Thompson dying a natural death.

No comments: