Features Archive - Respond to this Article

Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1 & 2

Special 30th Anniversary Section - JUST THE FACTS
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Suzannah Lessard:

is the author of The Architect of Desire:
Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family
.

The problem with the more subjective elements in journalism today, in my view, is not inventiveness per se but cynicism. During the '80s it became extremely unfashionable to believe in anything or anyone who had anything to do with political life. It was as if the slightest taint of hope or admiration, or of in any way taking seriously what transpired on the political stage, would automatically brand a journalist as credulous. And credulousness, in the atmosphere of those times, held the horror of terminal disease. This came about, perhaps, because the Reagan propaganda about America was so patently and dangerously delusory and yet pervasive that any positive note might automatically seem to join the Pollyanna chorus.

Whatever the reason, this legacy is destructive. One H. L. Mencken is probably enough for all time. Imitations are really a kind of comedy act that are more about the writer than they are reflections on current affairs. The value of inventiveness in journalism is that it brings to reflection the full spectrum of responsiveness and the variety of the ways in which we see things. Faith, hope, and charity are elemental ingredients in that mix.

But this is not to say that we must have writers who are positive about what is going on. The distinction has to do with a richness of tone. One can excoriate in a tone that implies that things could not be any other way, and one can excoriate in a way that admits, implicitly, the possibilities of what could be. It's the latter tone that is capable of grief, of authentic outrage, of compassion, all of which "betray" belief of a kind.

Idealism - one could call it an underlying tone of love, as opposed to scorn or contempt - is always risky and exposing. We see it still appearing calmly but courageously in the writings of older commentators who do not, on the whole, avail themselves of creative devices. Among the more inventive generations it's almost obsolete, and we are all impoverished for it. It can't be true that inventiveness necessarily leads in this direction: Great fiction is always work that arises out of love, however ghastly the events and characters depicted. The argument that the cynicism only reflects the debasement of the political world is arrant nonsense. It's a rule of thumb that where humanity is gathered in significant numbers the full Shakespearean panoply is present.


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