I’ve been buying books of essays lately, on the theory that the best way to improve one’s writing is to read the best stuff in the genre you’re working in. Not–as some might imagine–because it gives you something to aspire to. There are limits to even my presumptuousness, and it’s transparent enough to me that a direct attempt to mimic, say, Orwell, would be only a recipe for a pratfall. I’d come off like little Timmy strutting around in dad’s oversized dress shirt, sleeves flopping over the hands. But getting steeped in the good stuff does tend to make your own worst bits of hackery glare out from the page a bit more garishly, until finally you wince even before you’ve struck the first key of a wretched sentence. There, pace Nussbaum, are the merits of shame and disgust–you can back yourself into a half decent paragraph under their influence.
On the train to New York, I’m thumbing through a collection of Martin Amis’ journalism and happen upon “Phantom of the Opera,” his account of the 1988 Republican convention. What’s striking is that it already sounds pretty much like contemporary convention coverage 4 cycles later: Amis complains that the whole affair isn’t intrinsically newsworthy, that it’s essentially a junket for journalists, a media affair so carefully crafted that one might as well join Lewis Lapham and write the coverage in advance. He even quotes John Steinbeck to similar effect about the 1956 convention, an era when there actually was some modicum of action at the conventions.
Now, far be it from me to complain too much about this. Even if it’s a pseudo-event, I’m a recent enough entrant in the Real Journalism game to be at least a bit excited about the prospect of covering a convention. If nothing else, the protesters should provide some colorful reportage fodder, and in the worst case I’m told there’ll at least be a fair amount of free booze to be had. Still, one wonders: With ratings for convention coverage pretty much in the toilet anyway, could the media get away with just ignoring these things? Maybe not completely—run a couple page 12 stories, maybe air some “greatest hits” from the speeches when it’s done—but none of this “gavel to gavel” coverage of what, for the most part, is an orgy of journalists interviewing other journalists and vacuous, heavily focus-grouped speeches introducing the canned phrases we’ll all be gagging on in the coming months. What if they threw a political convention and nobody came?