I admire Roxane Gay and Steve Almond. Both are talented writers who are stylists of the first order. Their work is conversational, straightforward, and topical. I’ve been a fan of Almond’s since his first book, and Gay’s for years. It’s important to me to point out that what I am writing now is not a personal attack on either person. To be sure, maybe it’s because I read everything they write that I recently noticed a similarity in some recent pieces, both of which have published in The Rumpus, another publication I read all the time. I am talking about a variation of an essay, one that I read all the time, that makes the easiest of points, obvious ones, in the framework of a writer who is looking on a bad thing that happened in the world.
The essays, by and large, are successful, in the way an essay can be successful in standing for what Other People Want To Say But Are Glad Someone Else Said It. But each time I read such a piece, I feel something is missing, and it’s not for lack of reflection on the writer’s part. It might be something wrong with me. Almond’s is much less successful than Gay’s, however. Perhaps it has to do with what’s been described by William Zinsser calls the problem of nonfiction writers having a “definitiveness complex,” of coming off as being so sure about one’s point that no one is really allowed to dissent or think otherwise. Still, something else, I suspect, is going on.
Published last September, Steve Almond’s “Let Us Now Raze Famous Men” takes its title as a pun on the James Agee/Walker Evans collaborative book on sharecroppers. It’s unfair to compare the scope and gravitas of the latter to the former, but it seems to me the tone of Almond’s strives for the same highfalutin ends, which is to uplift and make a larger story from much smaller or less significant ones, in his case the death of Virginia Quarterly Review‘s managing editor Kevin Morrissey and VQR editor Ted Genoways’ purported accountability of that and what happened. The fallout of Morrissey’s death, you might remember, led to some mainstream coverage about “workplace bullying,” since it was reported Genoways was bully-ish in the lead-up to Morrissey’s death.
That this kind of coverage or discussion even happened is reason enough for Almond to make his larger points, which, again, are really small ones. Writers are co-dependent and solipsistic, Almond points out, and this can lead to bad behavior and even, we suppose, the blame for someone’s death. And there, there’s the stretch, the leap we make from obvious point to an audacious and wrong-headed one. Since we are all in this culture of literary co-dependents together–agents, editors, writers–his reasoning goes, we’re all to blame for Kevin Morrissey going outside Charlottesville and shooting himself in his car, and also the fact that Ted Genoways couldn’t get to get down to the important work of editing a journal with a six-figure budget and university support.
Divided into 33 numbered sections, a faux philosophical style I love and use myself, ‘Raze’ loses its way somewhere, but where exactly is the question I have returned to over and over. Is it when he writes that we all “become, in effect, a figure of transference to thousands of angry dependents”? Or is it another section near the end, one my old teacher Philip Levine calls the “ratfuck ending,” where he writes that “I am talking to myself mostly”?
One answer is that the essay is an illogical essay dressed up as a logical one. I also think it’s an irresponsible one–not an uncommon one, mind you, but an irresponsible one nonetheless. A man killed himself; his old friend and boss had a falling out; one was mentally ill; another was an awful boss; both worked in a high-profile workplace. It was a human drama, one we can all relate to; people will write about it and make larger points from it. When those larger points implicate the reader so cheaply, however, and in such a way that aggrandizes the both writer and writers, well, that when my bullshit detector goes off. In the months since the incident and the essay was published, reports have confirmed that the truth is somewhere in between, and belonging to the tribe of writers, however exceptional they may be, had nothing much to do with it. Yes, Genoways was irresponsible and kind of a tool in his job, and yes, Morrissey had mental problems and experienced mistreatment, and that affected him in a way people may or may not have predicted his suicide.
Almond’s piece essentially had the effect of stating the obvious–a variation of the phrase “it is sad” runs six times in as many sentences, as if by saying it over and over again, such tautology will lead us sucker punch-style, to find common ground on such sadness and we will stop thinking about it and start blaming ourselves.
A second essay, “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response.” by Roxane Gay, is more successful but no less obvious. The sad things discussed in this essay are the recent massacres in Norway and the death of singer Amy Winehouse.
Every day, terrible things happen in the world. It is overwhelming to try and make sense of any of it, to know how to feel about any of it, to be able to articulate those feelings, to express compassion when there is such a gaping, desperate need for it.
Gay isn’t saying we’re all to blame for these things happening. The problem addressed or discussed is how to calibrate our grief or compassion for what seems, at least through mass media, equally important events. Tens of people died in Norway as a result of a shooting. The man who did this was white with blue eyes, which is an opportunity to say people who kill on large scales are not all brown-skinned and Muslim.
And just when Gay seems on her way to Obviousnessville, just when we are about to be implicated somehow in the cruelty in the human condition, she brings up her empathy for the irredeemable characters in the HBO prison drama Oz. This brings in more obvious factors as race, of course, as well as the fact that Oz’s world is a fictional one, edited and scripted to produce exactly the same mimetic effect Gay describes, which is empathy for a man about to be executed. But still: could we feel just as empathetic for Anders Behring Breivik, the killer behind the Norway massacre?
That’s an interesting question, and that, too seems an obvious one, one that perhaps needs to be pointed out in a forum such as The Rumpus, which is a general interest website for writers or people who are interested in writing or interested, in particular, how to make one’s way as a writer and fast-tracked into learning the lingua franca of Getting Along With Writers. All of those are skills, as is the skill of writing an essay that makes drum-tight, obvious points: people turn to online fora and platforms to express rage, solidarity, surprise, ironic distance, gallows humor, and find a community in that. Such pronouncements lend themselves to short, punchy sentences, ones used in the obvious prose style of our time. Killing is bad. We feel bad. We are sad. Gay sends up the zero-degree style pretty brilliantly (“Tragedy. Call. Heart. Response. Tragedy. Call. Mind.”).
But it doesn’t make the points about our reactions to our reactions any less reductive or less obvious. The key words for Gay, “righteousness” on the one end of the spectrum and “compassion” on the other, seemingly mutually exclusive, come right at the point that an essayist needs to Call in The Cavalry, as I call it, which is to summon other people’s thoughts or words. Such a rhetorical move or gesture, even if unsuccessful, shows the reader that the essayist made some attempt to go outside the self, to find out what other people think. To not do so, I would say, leads to pieces such as these as turning into a polemic, which Almond’s most certainly turns into and Gay’s just misses being.
“We fret about words, we writers,” Susan Sontag writes. “Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide or reality. And the more portentous, more general the word, the more they can resemble rooms or tunnels. They can expand, or cave in.” Both of these essays begin in portentous generality and only one ends in a kind of wisdom. Writing this kind of an essay, one that attempts to speak on behalf of others at a time when we are dealing with death, requires a special kind of responsibility, one that requires us to avoid the obvious and easy point and embrace the specific–sometimes universal, but often divisive, sometimes even hateful–that makes us human beings in the first place.
I hope someday I can write such an essay. Until then, I hope we keep trying.