Reading and writing
I have been thinking about writing styles and content yesterday and today. Part of the reason was that I finished Walter Mosley's short story collection, Walking the Dog. It is not Mosley's use of language that makes him such a good writer. In fact, his literary fiction is somewhat marred by awkward phrasing and repetitious use of descriptions. These shortcomings may occur because he did not start out as a writer of literary fiction, but as a mystery writer. He has gradually graduated to speculative fiction and domestic realism.
What makes Mosley's work memorable is the characterization. The hero of Walking the Dog, Socrates Fortlow, is a killer and a philosopher. This daunting combination would frighten most writers away. Mosley revels in it. Fortlow is both Everyman and the Other. He must attempt to make a living in contemporary Los Angeles while battling an array of domestic difficulties, poverty and racism every day. And, he must learn to do so without killing. Since the crime of passion double murder that sent him to prison for 27 years, Fortlow has killed other people and murders an assailant during the course of the book, which consists of interrelated short stories. His life embodies all three of the conflicts fiction writers mine -- man against society, man against man, and man against himself.
An intriguing aspect of this is the contrast between Mosley's life and those of many of the characters he writes about, including Socrates Fortlow. The writer has been a middle-class African-American more familiar with writers conferences and film sets than ghetto diners and jail cells for most of his life. Yet, he is still able to write about the lives of people deprived of such options without making them caricatures. That is a welcome relief in a time when so many writers of literary fiction write only about themselves and other people just like them.
Another reason I'm thinking of reading and writing is blogger Patrick Ruffini and his recent pronouncement about the superiority of bloggers of the Right in regard to writing ability, content and independent thinking.
Part of the disparity also seems to lie in subject matter. The four top lefty bloggers focus pretty exclusively on political or Administration (sic) news. The six top "righties" ? InstaPundit (France, nanotech, "crushing of dissent"), Sullivan (The New York Times, gay rights), Volokh (law), LGF (Arafat), Lileks (life), and Den Beste (general global strategy) are all beautiful prose stylists but tend to be more over-the-board and are sometimes lacking in the hardcore political coverage we all crave from time to time.
I don't know enough about Ruffini to say whether he is too ignorant of good writing to recognize it when he sees it, though that is my suspicion. How else could someone believe the puerile reportage of Andrew Sullivan or the shameful to a gifted six grader verbal grappling of Steven Den Beste are exquisite? As for the InstaPundit, he mainly produces a list of links, hardly something subject to the devices of good writing at all.
After reading Ruffini's false and self-serving critique of writers in the blogosphere, I immediately sought the counsel of writer and editor Joseph Duemer, who named his blog Reading and Writing. Alas, Duemer has not fisked Ruffini yet. But, perhaps he can be persuaded. (He can be reached at: email@example.com)
Of course Ruffini's claim that Right Wing bloggers are independent is equally fatuous.
But going down the line, it's probably true that, advocacy-wise, lefty bloggers make the most of their limited traffic by being very party line on Bush and most domestic issues. The "righties" aren't. About the only things they've been consistent on is France and Saddam, and both issues are declining in importance. While the liberal bloggers tend to be good liberals, the conservative bloggers don't tend to be good conservatives [That's because they're libertarians! -ed.]. Tacitus always seems somehow apologetic about linking to FR; the Left isn't similarly concerned about linking to DU or quoting it authoritatively.
How can someone who calls himself a political theorist not know the 'issue' of France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq was a non-issue to any thinking person all along?
Often, Right Wing bloggers seem to be writing from Karl Rove's latest talking points memo, which they have placed right next to their computers. In fact, if anything, many of them, especially the Southerners, are even more steeped in backward thinking than other conservatives. Where else online would one find people who regularly declare the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, insist the Second Amendment applies to the individual's right to own weaponry and long for the gold standard? FreeRepublic, you say. And, you're right. Most of the Right blogosphere is FreeRepublic for people who read blogs. Anyone who believes FreeRepublic represents the best in thinking or writing is either unlearned or out of touch with reality. Ruffini may be both.
Calpundit Kevin Drum, a post-Agonist scandal Higher Being himself and thus one of the people being disrespected, goes easy on the vacuous looking and thinking Ruffini.
This kind of stuff is always a bit silly, I suppose, but when you include Little Green Footballs and Steven Den Beste as examples of cosmopolitan flexibility, haven't you gone beyond silly and entered some kind of parallel universe?
Now, we can argue about whether or not Atrios is a beautiful prose stylist, but the idea that the famously fractious left is some kind of disciplined monolith well, we can only dream about such things, can't we? So if you want some entertainment, click on the link to Patrick's post above, read the hilarious, almost self-parodic procession of comments, and then leave one of your own. You'll feel better after you do.
Since that required spending extended time at Ruffini's extremely creative to a Young Republican red, white and blue site, I didn't.
Did I say Walter Mosley's writing isn't as smooth as that of some other contemporary writers of literary fiction? Well, Mosley could teach the Patrick Ruffinis of the world a thing or a thousand about both writing and thinking. It is unfortunate they would not read Mosley, even if they read literature, because his works humanize black people, something folks like that avoid like the plague. And, therein, is part of their problem in my opinion. They are so busy congratulating themselves on a presumed superiority to everyone else, they live, as Kevin said, in a parallel universe. In their world, people like Mosley don't exist.
There are bloggers who are fine thinkers and writers. An excellent specimen from among the Higher Beings is Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Though his prose style is more journalistic than literary, he writes the occasional essay as well as anyone who has appeared in the yearly Best American Essays collection. Jeanne d'arc of Body and Soul, Bb at Burningbird, Avedon Carol of The Sideshow and Digby of Hullaboo are among bloggers who give words and analysis their just do.
What of the other liberal Higher Beings? Kevin strives to be clear and concise about an array of topics while eschewing the short-cuts of Glenn Reynolds and succeeds. Atrios' main interest is in being timely and prolific. He likes to be the first blogger to write about a topic. Sometimes, that means being quick and dirty, as we say in journalism. One then goes back and explains the material more thoroughly in a subsequent entry or entries. The follow-up is usually better written, too. DailyKos' subject matter determines his style most of the time. He is a purveyor of political information and of analysis of that material. Kos, who has been a print journalist, has a good nose for news and the ability to make the complexities of the electoral systems in the states and nationally comprehendible by regular folks. None of these bloggers strike me as inferior to the Right Wing bloggers they were compared to in The Truth Laid Bear's ecosystem at all. Au contraire. I believe they are better, if one has a standard for blog writing that is above FreeRepublic.
The Real Majority
Another writer I've been thinking about is James Joyce. Specificaly, I was musing about one of my favorite short stories, "The Dead." In the story, we are reminded they are the real majority because dead people far outnumber the living. I was wondering by how much. Have researchers come up with a reliable estimate of how many people have lived and died in the world? If so, how did they reach their conclusions? An inquiring mind wants to know.