I can’t remember how, but George Packer’s “The Enemies of Writing” piece from The Atlantic (January 2020) came across my path last week. The essay is a re-write of an acceptance speech given upon Packer’s winning of the Hitchens Prize. While I don’t know much about Christopher Hitchens, his name has popped up frequently over the last couple of years. Packer starts the piece with some remembrance of Hitchens, who became his something of a friend and sparring partner to him as they wrote back and forth in disagreement. He then wonders if the world of January 2020 (which feels like a lifetime ago already) could even handle another career like Hitchens’. Thus the topic: the enemies of writing.
He starts with belonging, acknowledging that
. . . writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to . . . Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.\
Then he mentions fear he feels “pervading” his professional world:
The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
The last “move” in the piece involves his recent experience teaching a journalism class at Yale. He finds their approach to journalism different from his own experience.
My students have come of age during a decade when public discourse means taking a position and sticking with it. The most influential writers are those who create a dazzling moral clarity. Its light is meant to overpower subjects, not illuminate them. The glare is so strong that readers stop seeing the little flaws and contradictions of actual life, and stop wanting to—they have only to bask in the warmth of a blinding glow.
Which, on some level, sounds very attractive. Until you get to the “overpowering” and “blinding” part. But maybe that’s because I relate more with another place in the timeline:
Between my generation and that of my students is an entire cohort of writers in their 30s and 40s. I think they’ve suffered most from the climate I’m describing. They prepared for their trade in the traditional way, by reading literature, learning something about history or foreign countries, training as reporters, and developing the habit of thinking in complexity. And now that they’ve reached their prime, these writers must wonder: Who’s the audience for all this? Where did the broad and persuadable public that I always had in mind go? What’s the point of preparation and knowledge and painstaking craft, when what the internet wants is volume and speed and the loudest voices? Who still reads books?
I how true that is in general of these age groups, especially when considering the “middle” segment that avoids extremes in most circumstances. (Although “avoiding extremes” might be a big part of our current problem, really). And how do you move forward when groups of people, be they writers or teachers, have such different approaches to something so vital?
There’s a lot more in the piece that makes it worth a good read. He says a good bit about certainty, which is always an interesting tension for the Christian writing from a place of confident faith. And that’s also where “settled convictions” come into play. The piece is also a good reminder of the events that have shaped journalism over the last twenty years, especially in the context of fear and belonging. You can read the whole thing here. I like how he ends things, with a clear reminder of what writing should be:
Meanwhile, whatever the vagaries of our moment, the writer’s job will always remain the same: to master the rigors of the craft; to embrace complexity while holding fast to simple principles; to stand alone if need be; to tell the truth.