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 Last weekend at a dinner party, I watched a guy bury his dreams.  I stood awkwardly, hands in my pockets, while he threw clods of dirt around, willy-nilly.

“I used to want to be a reporter,” he said, leaning into me, as if to forge intimacy with a stranger. Now he worked in a large, glass building in downtown Manhattan, doing something for someone attached to some company, the only requirement that he show up on time wearing professional clothes.  Triscuit crumbs flew from his wine stained lips. “But then, you know what?  I realized there’s not a fucking thing worth reporting.  On a local level, I mean.”

“Huh.”  He was from New York City.  When there’s a bomb threat on the subway, it’s local news.  When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to the U.N., it’s local news.  I figure the blessing and curse of living in the most famous city in the world is that your news is simultaneously local and global.  All you have to do is grab a camera and a notebook and show up.

“Anyway,” he continued.  “There’s really no point in being a journalist.  All of American journalism is worthless.  All of the good ones” – this being the journalists – “are dead.”  Together we watched the remnants of his aperitif take on a strange glow, a votive for the deceased.

I didn’t say anything.  It felt like an embarrassing admission, as if he’d been carrying the secret of it for years, like a rainy night hit and run.  Yet he was so secure in his assessment.  There was no equivocation to his time-of-death.  

I wanted to ask him what he meant by “American journalism.”  Meaning journalism by Americans, for Americans?  How does that work?  In a land of diversity, how does one isolate an American brand of journalism? Is that like when Project Runway celebrates “Classic American Sportswear”?  There was a sloppiness to the term, a lack of specificity.  A bullshit veneer. 

“You don’t believe me, I can tell from your face.”   

I shrugged.  “If journalism’s not your cup of tea…”

“I’m telling you, nobody’s doing anything worthwhile.”

I thought about a joke from some Hugh Grant movie whose name I can’t remember.  “You’re the most selfish person on the planet!” Sandra Bullock says, all righteous indignation.  Foppish Hugh shakes his swath of hair and earnestly replies: “Well, that’s just silly!  Have you met everyone on the planet?”  

I didn’t wonder aloud how he had managed to become familiar with the work of every American journalist in order to come to his conclusion.  I had come to the party for some semblance of friendship, for the free wine and the opportunity to snoop around people’s bookshelves.  I wasn’t there to debate the life of an institution.  

You could argue that the guy was given to hyperbole, that he was depressed, that he was lost in a thicket of unrealized dreams.  All of these things are probably true.  He was also expressing an opinion, to which he has every right.  But he could have said, “I think American journalism is worthless.”  How different would it have been if he mumbled, “Hey, journalism sucks”?  That’s not what he said.  Wine and questionable hummus aside, he was stone cold sober.  

It was a death certificate.

These days the bodies and dicta are piling up.  Right after the release of The Humbling, Philip Roth warned that the novel as we know it – as an object, as well as the reading public’s patience with the narrative form – is dead.   On 3 Quarks Daily, Evert Cilliers (who apparently really hates graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) took a scythe to nearly all of contemporary fiction, cinema, music, and art. Authentic human communication is dead.  The epistolary tradition is dead.  Patriotism, dead.  Erudition. Feminism. Democracy, capitalism. Compassion. We say things are dead and dying, left and right, and we’ve never been more certain of our certitude.  Why is that?

Fourteen years after high school philosophy class, one Socratic witticism still rattles around in my head.  “I know that I know nothing.” 

It was in college that the statement gained nuance.  Professors weren’t interested in answers but rather how you raised questions.  “Talk about…” “Discuss…” “Why might the author have chosen to do this?”  There was a sense that we existed in a greenhouse.  Dump too many answers on our delicate leaves and we’d fail to thrive. We left college knowing we didn’t know anything, our nescience preserved in an ivy wreath.  Everything around us seemed iffy, like it might reveal itself to be another of those illusory shapes on the cave wall.  When we returned to the small towns where we were born and raised, we recognized the intractable opinions of our parents as quaint and hopelessly dated, and we rejected them, knowing for sure that our parents, at least, did not know.

Somewhere in the process of growing up, we’re supposed to find a balance between conviction and doubt.  To accept a bitter mixture of both.  It’s how we learn to be realistic while still taking risks, to dig up questions without getting buried beneath them.   

More and more, though, I’m surrounded by friends who say they do know.  They know exactly  why they can’t go after what they want, why they are destined to be unhappy.  Most of the time the reasons are so terribly insurmountable that I want to shy away from them.  These children, for whom I sacrificed everything.  This mortgage to which I’m shackled. This mountain of debt.  This illness. This man or woman I love.  I want, for a second, to say, “You’re right.  How can we argue with a mountain?”  But then I realize that to not argue means that I am saying farewell to my friends, to the dreams that made me want to know and understand them.  That I, in my silence, am escorting them by the arm to a large, glass building from which they won’t return.

When someone argues that something isn’t worth doing or experiencing because it’s dead, it is not cynicism. It’s fear.  If literature is dead, why worry about writing something as good as your literary idols?  You could blog, you could talk to someone on the street, but what’s the point?   

There’s no news.

The truth is I’d like to grab a shovel and go after my friends, buried under those unrealized dreams.  I want to dig a grave instead for premature proclamations and pronouncements.  I’d like to tell that guy that American journalism is not dead; that’s just about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.  There’s not a finger big enough to put on the pulse of that creature.

But I won’t because, of course, I still know that I don’t know.  I want these people to be brave and relentless in going after what they want, but maybe they know something I don’t.

After all, I’m never sure of anything, really, except that I’m not yet ready to write an obituary.

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Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

23 responses to “Everything That Scares Us Is Dead”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    This is an interesting piece, Elizabeth.

    I think a lot of people think that ‘real’ journalism is dead because of the sheer amount of dross that is piled in our newspapers and on our screens every day.

    I was a journalist for many years and I have to say that there is a large part of me that despairs over the quality of the news that is reported. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dead, but I think it’s fair to say, and it’s no secret, that there is very little journalism that is completely without bias or agenda.

    We journalists live by the oath to be ‘fair and balanced’ and we wear it like a badge of honour, but in all truth – we are as biased as anyone else. I remember once pulling myself off a story because I knew that because of my own personal opinions relating to this particular story -there was no way I could report it fairly.

    There are still good journalists around. In my opinion, the BBC has the best. American journalism (broadcast) has had a major influence on newsrooms around the world and I don’t know whether that has been a good thing – given its taste for easily digestible soundbites. But good journalism can still be found there, you just have to look for it.

    Accuracy however, is a totally different thing.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Zara,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I especially appreciate having a journalist’s point-of-view on the matter. I totally agree with you that there is much to despair about the quality of some news being reported. I suppose one could argue that this has much to do with the public appetite for certain kinds of stories being told in a certain way. Or one could suggest it has something to do with the quality of the journalists themselves, or even the fact that blogging has infiltrated the news media. I don’t know. I guess it’s a glass half full thing for me, though, because I see so many opportunities out there now for people to tell the smaller, untold stories, precisely because of the democritization of news. There are no longer a chosen few on the front lines reporting. Maybe it’s a little Pollyanna of me, but I like to think that fresh perspective ensures a healthy future for journalism.

    As for the bias, kudos to you for taking yourself off the story. I can’t imagine many people would do the same. That’s exactly why that guy couldn’t convince me journalism is dead. 🙂

    • Elizabeth & Friends,

      What an intriguing presentation of an important topic!

      Early in 2011 I finished reading R. W. McChesney & J. Nichols, The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books, 2010). Here is extolled the sweeping trend of independent news aggregators, from which established journalists draw an increasing number of articles.

      The need to fund public broadcasting is also addressed. Senator Cardin (D-Md) sponsored a comprehensive bill in 2009 but I was unable to track it out of committee.

      After reading the book, I discussed it with one of my old college buds, who was a DJ at the campus radio station, and who expressed the opinion that public funding of journalism made no sense. I was disheartened that a person, whom I thought should be enlightened about this, was still under the influence of the old mindset of commercial advertisement-supported journalism.

      Our congressment, Rep. Blumenauer (D- Or) helped to maintain public funding for two more years, after which the wheel will need to be re-invented.

      Thank you for the great blog!

      Mike Petticord

  3. Wow. I’m so the opposite of your friends. Your friends would probably hate me. One of my favorite lines of poetry, of all time, is by Marty McConnell:

    “The terrifying fear of what’s in front of you is the surest sign you’re going in the right direction.”

    I mean, all the reasons you list for can’t do something? Debt?

    Like here’s a thing: my parents always told me that I should seek security. Benefits. Stable employment. I did, for a while, until I just couldn’t anymore. I paid down debts. I was a responsible adult.

    And then I was like, wait. This just–no. I bought an apartment, got in my car, and drove to California and USC. Debt be damned.

    Fuck it. Do it. This is all we’ve got, and it’s precisely what we make it.

    I like the idea that arguing something’s not worth doing is fear more than cynicism. Because I know fear, and you know what?

    Fear is just a big pussy.

    (“All men fear. Only a coward lets it stop him.” Christopher Stasheff? Probably not, but that’s where I heard it.)

    Finally, my grandfather wrote obituaries all his life. He used to joke it was an interesting job if only because every day, everyone always died in alphabetical order.

    When he passed away, my father’s family got the newspaper to shuffle the order.

    Because we can laugh at death, too.

    Nice piece.

    • I forgot to mention (and meant to): my parents, who were so encouraging of me to seek stable employment with good benefits and a decent retirement package?

      My mother works per diem. My father was laid off last December.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Sorry to hear that your dad was laid off, but glad to know fearlessness is alive and well.

      I totally agree with you. That said, I often get a look from people when I advocate taking those chances, going without a safety net. It’s difficult to know sometimes whether being a friend means being sympathetic or pushing someone to do what scares them. How you can tell a person to ignore the fact that they are sick, when you’re not sick? Or to find the time to go back to school when they have children, when you yourself don’t have children? I’m never sure what being a good friend means in those situations. Tell someone what they want to hear or what they need to hear?

      Thanks for sharing, Will.

  4. Matt says:

    I’m so damned tired of all the “_________ is dead” posturing. It’s a disengenous, blanket statement designed to make the speaker sound intellectual while they just spout tripe. It’s posturing, and it’s dull, and it pisses me off because it completely downplays the humanities ability to innovate, imagine, and achieve. Every time I hear it I’m reminded about how Victorian English society was convinced they’d achieved the pinnacle of human civilization…oh, how they’re minds would be blown if they could see what we’ve done since then.

    Anyone who believes there isn’t anything new or interesting to write about is either not trying or not looking hard enough. Take this site, for instance, and what it’s grown to in only four years. Not every essay or post succeeds on the same level, obviously, but there’s still a wealth of good, good reads here for anyone who bothers to look for it. Hell, click away randomly and the odds are you’ll land on something worth your time.

    Speaking for myself, I’d rather fail spectacularly at something I love than be a mediocre success at something I’ve settled for. I’ve have no idea what’ll happen whenever I put pen to paper (likely, it’ll be crap, at least initially) but if being unable to predict the final outcome was a valid reason for not doing something, we wouldn’t have centuries’ worth of art, literature, science, philosophy, etc. Human cultures have been shaped by those who in some form or another said, “Fuck it, let’s do this!”, not by the apathetic and their cultural ennui.

    OK. Coming down off my soapbox now. Good essay, Elizabeth. As you can see, it provoked a response in me.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Matt,

    Wow. “It completely downplays the humanities ability to innovate, imagine, and achieve.” I think you just said in one sentence what I couldn’t say in 1,400 words. Bravo!

    And this is brilliant: “If being unable to predict the final outcome was a valid reason for not doing something, we wouldn’t have centuries’ worth of art, literature, science, philosophy, etc. Human cultures have been shaped by those who in some form or another said, “Fuck it, let’s do this!”, not by the apathetic and their cultural ennui.”

    Hell yeah.

  6. Really enjoyed this, Elizabeth. I share your impatience w/ those who’d rather whine than try. Certain horror’s in life might be insurmountable: a fistula acquired during a gang-rape in Congo’s seemingly war, for instance. Some people get dealt an unfathomably awful hand. The guy at the party, though, as you note, is obviously depressed. For that I’m sorry and hope he gets help or climbs his way out. That said, if all American journalism were awash in brilliance tomorrow, it sounds like he’d find something else to complain about. And while I know Christianne Amanpour and Christopher Hitchens weren’t born here, their work is American-based and each remains among the best in the field. Also, of course, Henrik Hertzberg and Rachel Maddow are consistently excellent. After his depression passes, party guy needs to start paying attention.

    Look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Litsa! I might be making excuses for him, but I wonder if it’s not so much the dearth of what he considers “good American journalists,” as it is people just like Amanpour, Hitchens, etc and stories of the magnitude of gang rape in Congo that have simply overwhelmed him. I know that feeling, looking around at all the outstanding work other writers are doing and wondering if you’ll ever be that good. Still, there’s a way to look at that work and be inspired by it, even if you’re not quite there yet. I hope that’s how he’ll start looking at things, anyway.

      Pay attention is a great mantra, btw. 🙂

      • dwoz says:

        I have to wonder if it’s a matter of being overwhelmed by the enormity of atrocity…if today’s atrocity is all that much more enormitous than yesterday’s?

        Also, is today’s “bread and circuses” nature of journalism more pervasive than yesterday’s?

        I think it certainly is. My favorite new aphorism is that yesterday, your competition was against the “good,” today, the competition is against “noise.”

  7. Note: that should read “…Congo’s seemingly endless war…”

  8. Bob Herbert, Gail Collins Chuck Todd are exemplary, too. Party guy is deliberately ducking his head in the sand.

  9. I think is a part of the long-living trope of not doing something simply because you don’t want to fail. So many people do shitty work that they don’t really want to do and don’t find fulfilling because it’s hard to become a writer/artist/racecar driver.

    The idea that something is dead is pronounced by people who have no faith in art or originality. David Shields created an uproar this summer when he released Reality Hunger. He tried to say that the modern novel is dead, that modern novelists are writing trite, overused narratives (this is paraphrasing). This isn’t to say that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he also proclaims something as truth which he cannot possibly know. And, he doesn’t know it. It’s not true. Readers are reading less, sure. There are less readers. People want Facebook and Michael Bay movies and new cop dramas on ABC. But, as long as there are people like us, reading and thinking/writing about writing, proclamations like David Shields’ will remain only as true as we allow them to be.

    I agree with Matt. People need to stop making these wide assertions about the world that hold little to no actual substance. Get out there and do what you want to do or sit back and shut up.

    Soapbox, off.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Justin,

      You won’t believe it but I actually mentioned Shields, his book, and his novel-is-dead anthem in an earlier draft of this piece! (I took it out at the last minute because I wanted to use it in something else I’m writing, and I didn’t want to make him my go-to punching bag.) You make such a key point when you say that he “can’t possibly know” what he asserts. Like Matt said, the novel, like just about every art form, is evolving, so I really can’t understand the confidence that some people have when they make such claims.

      The cynical side of me wonders if it’s really just about the pleasure certain writers get in stirring the pot.

      • Yeah, I wrote a piece about Shields’ book when it first came out. His claims are infuriating.

        I know quite a few people who take contrary positions on everything that most critics/educated people/people with excellent taste deem to be good or worthy of debate.

  10. dwoz says:

    I guess Sisyphus has purchased an iPod and is hanging out on a topless beach in Cyprus.

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    This piece was really powerful. Particularly the paragraph beginning, “More and more, though, I’m surrounded by friends who say they do know…” I fear I’m one of those people.

    A side note: the movie is “Two Weeks Notice.” You’re welcome.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Marni. But I doubt you’re one of those people. As long as you’re writing and putting your stuff out there, you are a part of the conversation. The people I’m talking about tell themselves there’s nothing worth discussing in the first place.

      And thanks for “Two Weeks Notice.” I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on several occasions, but I can only seem to remember the Hugh Grant joke, which I thought was pretty funny, and a very, very long scene involving Sandra Bullock having a bathroom emergency. Which really should be a part of every Sandra Bullock movie, if you ask me.

  12. […] The Novel Is Dead: So is Everything Else that Scares Us. Just do it. […]

  13. Gloria says:

    This is so inspirational, Elizabeth. I know those people, too. The fear people. I vacillate between that and the brave, hands on my hips, cape flying behind me “don’t go gently into the good night” kind of person. I’m really glad you’re out here preaching this.

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