The Social Author #5: The Fearless Oratory of Christopher Hitchens Print E-mail

hitchens(Guernica February 6, 2014)

In Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ trenchant elegy to the vocal chords he was losing to esophageal cancer, he writes that, “To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation . . . were innate and essential to me.” At the Guardian, where, just out of Oxford, he got his journalistic start, his mentor told him that his prose was well argued but dull. Write “‘more like the way you talk.’” Life-launching advice. One swipe of the screen back in Mortality, he notes, “It may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.”

Gone in December 2011, Hitchens remains the apotheosis of the social author. Dead but, via YouTube and C-Span and rhetorical legend, still with us. Cameras, audiences, and radio hosts adored him and the drama of his intellect, especially when he nailed an opponent for desultory thinking. Among his many books, hundreds of columns, and war-wrung journalism, there are also videos of his speeches, debates, interviews, panels, book talks, and more, which can be found collected on a Kickass Torrent, totaling 93 Gigabytes. To study the whole Hitch, future critics must go through this trove as well as his print oeuvre.

Hitchens mined the multimedial: audiobooks read in his fulsome Brit; videos of debates with adversaries, who typically cower, on religion, U.S. atrocities in central and south America, the Iraq war; TV clips where he defends his atheism in which, after smoking brought on his cancer, he would still not relinquish to their “don’t-you-believe-now” theological abuse, (Hitchens said his haters claimed theistic justice when his throat was cursed, which he proudly labeled his “organ of blasphemy”); and the hundreds of deadline dispatches and pithy books the man effortlessly, it seemed, penned. As a magazine polemicist, he didn’t publish his first substantial tract, The Missionary Position, until age 46, which suggested he couldn’t wait to get back out on the hustings and, in front of an another capacity crowd (friend or foe), develop a contentious idea or launch a barbed thought—his speech studded with such spikes as “up with which we will not put,” “Sir, you’ve misled yourself,” and “is it not the case?”

Author as caduceus—talker entwined with scribbler. Unlike his friends and contemporaries, the socialphobic Martin Amis and the macabre Ian McEwan (novelists who don’t need, and were never inclined, to socialize their authorship), Hitchens lifted his audience to his level by the passion and gravity of his voice, the moral sting of his attacks, the rhythmic swagger of his sentences, popping out of him, on the spot, like spring jonquils. And by his writing gift.

By my tally, Hitchens’s oratorical fearlessness stems from three things: his Oxford education: it’s common for grads to be supercilious arguers, the best among them suit-coated for Parliament by the time they’re thirty; the masculinity of his righteousness, fueled unquenchably by whiskey; and his conviction that writers must bring the bad news as often as they do the good. His classic on Mother Teresa was, as one critic wrote, “a dirty job but someone had to do it.”

Hitchens neither wrote nor spoke with his latter-day swagger from the get-go. If we back up to his early columns for The New Statesmen in England and The Nation in America, his forums in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was an aggressive polemicist but not yet a mesmerizing speaker. Hitchens may have sounded his scoundrel best to friends and editors who loved his vulpine conversation. But it took time before we’d soaked up enough of him, and he had seasoned as a master manipulator of the heated moment: his pugilistics with “religious” leaders didn’t begin until 2006 after, alone on the Left, he’d championed Bush and Cheney’s war in Iraq. (Trained in the persuasive arts, Hitchens may have single-handedly returned the debate to its requisite perch, among intellectuals, at least.)

Many of us loved (I know I did) to hear Hitch showering contempt on theocracies or ridiculing the bloviators of mass TV. This “Hitchslap” on Sean Hannity’s rump must have smarted: “You give me the awful impression—I hate to have to say it—of someone who hasn’t read any of the arguments against your position, ever.” Note, in such moments, the hyena glare in Hitchens’ eye when he knows his opponent has fouled his own argument. My dream debate: Hitch vs. Dennis Rodman.

Indeed, read Ian Parker’s 2006 New Yorker profile, as brilliant a commentary as the man in the scope, to hear tales of Hitch’s talent. “Many guests can report,” Parker writes, “seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.” Or this: one day, for a book review, Hitchens wrote a thousand words in the morning, which he calls “my usual ambition,” then another thousand words with lunch his stopping point, after which, sure enough, the review was done and he sent it. Or these jarring descriptions by Parker of Hitchens’s facility: “He wrote God Is Not Great in four months”; “He almost never uses the backspace, delete, or cut-and-paste keys”; and “What emerges [from his pen] is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.”


This last is essential to the social author. There’s a kind of Muhammad Ali in some of us whose mind like a mouthy teen runs constantly. In the egregious cases of Ali and Hitchens, proximity to mic and assembly arouses the mind to open the mouth so the pearls or the parodies tumble out, prefigured from one chamber or newly uttered from another. This was endemic to Hitchens’ biology, sprung from his multimedial M.O.

Let me first suggest why Hitchens epitomizes the social author with a nod to the new authorship of the late 16th century. On the heels of the printing press, four oral forms saw their works first copied out as manuscripts, later published in very limited editions as books: the sermon, poetry, drama, and the Bible. These forms, studied prior via memorization and recitation in groups, became classics. Among the best were the plum sermons of John Donne and the Renaissance drama of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, et al. In our time, Hitchens reverses the oral-to-print revolution. His writing-speaking resurrects the drama of the soap-boxed, sermonizing, political pamphleteer; for example, in his polemic The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he charges Nixon’s secretary of state with war crimes. Post-pub, the charge became the subject of documentary films, media hounding of Kissinger, and Hitchens’ ceaseless calls for Henry’s head. He followed up his acerbic text with a passionate sales talk, which had an effect a book could not. Unlike most writers of the 20th century, Hitchens pushed his words into the public arena, insisting they be part of the rabble he roused. The one question I wanted to ask him was this: Did he write so he could speak, or speak about what he’d written?

Here’s the hillock I want to climb. Actually three of them, from which to see the new vistas of social authoring that Hitchens has wrought.


First, the writing-speaking author reanimates language as social exchange. From where do our words issue? Not only torturous concentration at the keyboard, but also tongue-thrust, aired (mind and mouth converge) via direct engagement. This is not a banal point. Hitchens writes in his memoir that one early insight about his future craft came when “I understood that words could function as weapons.” It was a childhood incident; a confidently launched retort kneecapped a bully. Speech slung at the ogre: David versus Goliath. Not always, but often such encounters force the other off his game—he must listen, punch back, think and reason on his feet. This is a good deal removed from the reader’s one-sided, silent, solipsistic contemplation of a written work.

To whom do we write? Those who have provoked us to answer a call, an accusation, a goading, a desire for banter or honest dialogue. But at some point, we are likely to be looped into a community of other speakers and conversers. Which underscores another of language’s purposes—to induce with language cooperative, expressive differences among its users.

In Hitchens’ case, his bond to the dialogic, especially those whom he needs to convince, was decided upon by that bully. From an early age Hitchens was marked by this directness, and knew he could direct his speaking-writing so his position (his purpose) was known: no purely literary form intruded—nature essay, encomium, lyric poem, short story of Beckett-like despair. No wonder Hitchens got so good, given his fixation on the rhetorical form. When I hear him speak (as is also the case with another master, a man Hitchens despised, Bill Clinton), each renders thought in winding yet full paragraphs: thesis, examples, endpoint or argument, counterargument, refutation. Not one “you know.” They, these speakers, may as well be writing.

Here you may say such live verbal dexterity is true only of polemicists who promulgate a cause and put a head on their pour with literary allusion. Not so. Consider poetry after modernism, that the metaphoric abstraction of Wallace Stevens has no counterpart in Allen Ginsberg. Allied with music and stubbornly topical, much written/spoken poetry since the Beats is performative—slam poets, hip-hop artists, singer-songwriters. Talk about heard language.

Second, the compulsion for authors to write and to speak carries with it, and is energized by, a desire to relight the darkened halls of intellectual debate, shrouded, as they have been, by our monastic “Internet communication.” Hitchens much preferred to clash with, as opposed to assault, organized ideologies and their apologists. When he compared eternal life in heaven under God to living in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il, well, that got noticed. College kids, and adults thirsty for such bracing waters, flocked to his God/no-God contests, as did Christian stalwarts who failed to best him. Such yolk-breaking discourse makes bestsellers. What’s more, gilded slogans like “religion poisons everything” and “no one left to lie to” summon big crowds to book signings.

Third, Hitchens’ most devilish peroration featured a kind of vilifying free speech—necessarily assaultive because, he felt, it must confront the pious, unbroken metanarratives of our culture. In his orb, true free speech is as much heard as it is provoked: its unspokenness, typically self-censored, is what it’s freed from. In our time, write a book about a vicious, immoral God and few read it. But debate former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject, as Hitchens did, and the world turns out. Such unscripted intercourse is vitalizing for both positions. The book about one’s position just doesn’t cut it. That position needs to be aired.

Hitchens trained his sights on Paine and Jefferson, who trumpeted free speech, or on Kissinger and Clinton, who gamed its protections. Would we have questioned Mother Teresa and her abortion politics or Kissinger’s role in Allende’s assassination without Hitch’s fomenting us? We all shrink from the astringency of such multimedial loudness: vide today’s radio and TV opinion-mongering, choir-preaching, or the latest turn, “affirmative journalism.” I volume down the noise and put up with broadcasters’ gaffes and Chris Christie’s apologies because our New Media echo chamber is quite good at inciting dissent. Hitchens, case in point.

Of course, rampant speech can be shrill, egoistic, ad hominem. An example is how 9/11, hooked to the growth of cable TV and YouTube, unloosed a shower of bloviation. Post-attack, with Hitchens piloting, media talking heads were often as obstreperous as the anti-Vietnam jihadists of the 1960s. A good thing. Yes, there is always too much talking, writing, tweeting. But one tolerable result of New Media is that free speech and social authorship—writing to and speaking in the mediated moment—begets millions of forums and blog posts. There, with Phil Robertson a metaphor for the rights of idiots and Edward Snowden for the rights of citizens, the chatter crosses the shifting line between what should and shouldn’t be said. As I say, a good thing.


There is a sameness to Hitchens’ style which is absorbingly authorial in print and impassionedly tornadic in speech. Both are served by Hitchens’ merging (though I believe it was unconscious) his erudition and his avoidance of literariness. By that I mean Hitchens did not invent forms or take imaginative gambles with writing genres. He prized the column, the tract, the debate, established molds he exceled at while young and which carried his fire.

In his chatty autobiography, Hitch-22, the fact bulge of his learning and his friendships goes long, taking in a politically evolved and self-satisfied half-century. His audio reading lacks the verve of his speeches, and it seems that getting down just a tenth of the anecdotes and the erudition was enough, damn a compendious revision. (One drawback for the social author: so accustomed are we to a public writer’s voice, accent, gestures, and personality—those live, improvisatory surprises—that any leggy text without a commanding style may fall flat. I’ll examine this more next time with Rachel Maddow.)

Like a war correspondent, Hitchens favored the dispatch, a bell-ringing tract done for topical publication or to publicize the topic. This applied to book assignments as well. Why Orwell Matters, Letters to a Contrarian, and Thomas Jefferson: Author of America were each part of a series, snugly decamped around an editor’s wishes and a book-length quarrel. Indeed, these series allowed him to be what he prized: a writer paid, then hired anew to speak on what he’d just written. And all this without a website.

This first head on the Mount Rushmore of the social author changes nothing of the writer’s art, the toil of say, Joyce Carol Oates, who, I sense, tunnels her way in her room twelve hours a day. Writing teaches us how we think. Writing teaches us that we can think better than we do. And writing well, whether read aloud or read by others or anchored as a text for a speech, remains a primary goal. But a writer’s freed speech—that deep-set, arena-ringing wish and commandment to disclose self and social truths and have them heard live, pre- or post-page—revivifies a core need most authors share: the attention of a reader. (This is harder and harder to get when 25,000 books are published by U.S. publishers alone every month, and there are fewer outlets to see them than ever.) Hitchens set the writing-speaking bar so high that in our lifetimes I doubt any author may clear it.

Marshall McLuhan, in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, explored how electronic media, especially television (a prototype of the computer), would push literature away from the linearity of print and return it to spoken and interactive forms. His famous line—“We shape the tools and the tools, in turn, shape us”—noted that any language is dependent on the medium of its expression, a medium that, invariably, the message must adapt to. In the age of digital authorship, this reads like a prophecy.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

Technology is transforming the writer into an author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags. They target niches of the public and cultivate venues where they might speak their work aloud. Nowadays, writers search for stages where their voices can first be heard so they can then link audiences to their writing.

Pushing the writer to be “out” with his work are the readers—active, immediate participants in, and sometimes co-creators of, an author’s material. Writing is expanding to include broadcasting the writer’s speaking voice or using video to enhance his text, while reading is expanding to include hearing that voice or seeing text counterpointed by images and hyperlinks. Increasingly, readers are presented with the writer’s physical being, accompanying her page-bound words with the author’s sensory actuality.

The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

Here’s an example: the book trailer for Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. It’s a classic soft sell in which we see pastoral images, hear New Age music, and feel the author’s self-presentation. Shapiro is sharing herself with us, making eye contact, projecting the persona of the thoughtful writer. (I’m not suggesting she’s faking it; on the contrary, the relational hominess is the point.) The goal, I think, is to warm her place beside the communal campfire, so we feel invited to cozy up with her book’s emotion.

With this self-offering, Shapiro hopes to involve herself in the reader’s experience in a new way. To experience her, prior to reading the text, is to smooth the way for what may be a distressing or painful endeavor. In addition, the author’s sociability is heightened. The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

In book trailers, some writers are oilier, others softer, still others more mysterious than Shapiro. Most employ this video-audio presence to induce potential readers. A few may even do so as an antidote to the text. If an author’s style is “too” literary, academic, or experimental, making the writer likable may thwart her work’s stuffiness or difficulty so that its demand on a reader’s emotion and time becomes easier for that reader to bear.

Alongside book trailers are other spoken-text media—video book reviews, lectures and readings as podcasts, and the living author, like Dan Brown, who gets to discuss his new novel for twelve minutes on Charlie Rose. Many authors can articulately discuss their books; but those other photogenic qualities—youth, vitality, good looks—that accompany the media spotlight are often as important, in our celebrity culture, as the writing’s immersive appeal.

The personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

There’s something about the author’s actual presence that makes him authentic to readers, and more readable because of it. I think of my attraction to Sam Harris in 2005. His Book-TV lectures on atheism, featuring his distrust of Muslim fundamentalism, brought a huge audience, myself included, to his book, The End of Faith. I wanted to read him because I first heard him speak. It was the passionate evenness of his voice that led Americans, skittish about being overtly anti-religious, to access his message. His reasoning voice encouraged others to write, to speak out, and to read him.

Even texting, which seems quiet and internal, the reverse of public speaking, is closer to (or a simple recording of) written speech than it is to writing. It’s almost dialogic speech: the personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

Whether we engage in this dialogue or not, much of digital culture is already charged with the unique spokenness of an “I” who is telling a story, reporting, confessing. News, documentaries, video blogs, poem-image-music collaborations, podcasts, and much short fiction and nonfiction emphasize the delivery of the “I,” the voice of the speaker. Christopher Hitchens’s syntactic command with improvised speech pulled us in. We expected its provocation and wit, which his writing possessed but his speech seemed to risk far more often.

Multimedial books, for example, those created by Vook, build off of the author’s voice. The audible book is no longer an adjunct to printed texts, but rather a new beast of its own. Audible books—read by authors or actors—engage a busy public of subway riders and bicyclists who live in earbud space. Text read aloud captured the attention of the editors of The New York Times Book Review: in May the Review devoted much of one issue to critiquing audiobooks as performance, books that had already demonstrated, via prior reviews, high quality as prose.

I note the popularity of Byliner and Atavist where short and long literary works, fiction and nonfiction, are available as audio, text, and more. Each piece avails itself of a garden of technological options, as the illustration below shows.

The Atavist has many more ways than Kindle or Nook for consumers to interact with a story: read, listen, musically adorn, hyperlink, comment, resize, share, review, etc. What’s the point? In part, it’s to displace the notion that there’s only one way, reading, to imbibe a text. When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are. The presentation of the writing begins to resemble our various personas, which shift and adapt depending on with whom and how we’re communicating.

I have toggled back and forth from audio to text and to other modes with several Atavist pieces. I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side.

Though stand-alone works of long-form journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still being published, these pieces have grown shorter than their predecessors, in the ten-thousand-word range. This shrinkage displaces some text for the spatial and sound enhancement of photos, audio, and video. Last year, at the San Diego Reader, where I’ve been a staff writer for 14 years, we got the editor’s memo telling us to beef up our stories with audio-taped interviews, photographs, and voice-over video—without upping our pay. (I note the Chicago Sun-Times has just laid off its entire photographic department; they’re asking reporters and the occasional freelance photographer to take the pictures.)

There are a couple of ways to think about these changes. Is writing becoming an adjunct to the creation of products begun in and emphasized by other media? Is writing integrating its voice with other media to accentuate and redefine the purely textual?

At random, I found online The Five Love Languages: book, e-book, audio, DVD, free study guide, and mobile app. The author, Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian, offers the product on an all-things-to-all-consumers website. One dropdown menu says, “Interact”—blog, podcast, videos, stories, links. Why the multiplicity? My sense is that he and his production team designed a lifestyle worthy of electronic proselytizing—and the book is just one part of that sell. If you want to read about these “love languages” in-depth, here’s the book. But these other tacks are just as valid. (As of late August, 2013, Chapman’s book is number one on The New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” print bestseller list.)

The writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded.

This broadening of text and voice and image is indicative of the social author (who works in any media) who is encouraging social reading (by any social media available) with an audience (ears as wide as eyes) who may be interested in the author’s writing, but is probably more drawn to the multi-channels of the author’s delivery.

It’s not that the writer writes less—or less passionately. It’s that the writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded. We now expect the writer/producer to include such admixtures.

I watched the recent HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, about the embattled love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Such a biopic dramatizes the summarizing voice of the biographer, and a TV series, like House of Cards, challenges the singular voice of the novelist. Both are spectacularly economic narratives. In Candelabra, I marveled at the filmic use of the actual cars, costumes, homes, and jewelry of the real Liberace, which, in turn, carries the description for the screenwriter and for the audience. And does it instantly.

What has this done to the novelist’s placing of a character into a descriptive milieu, of having her interact with that milieu for the sake of verisimilitude? It’s unsettled the visual authority of the writer and driven the author inward.

I don’t mean that a writer can’t elaborate details of place and era; of course, she can. But because of the all-at-onceness of film, the capacity to move and detail objects, the author seldom feels the need for such depiction. The fact that rival forms today accomplish what narrative writers once had to do—the arduous job of scene-painting and context-creation, erecting such epic stages as Sister Carrie’s Chicago or the Joads’ trek from Oklahoma to California—is pushing them to plumb other wells of literary art: the inner world, the meditative, the analytical, the linguistic. And the collage. Each of which is scenically and sensorially magnified with video and image.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “the whole enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” While many writers still work this way, others use audio and video to highlight the inner, the meditative, the analytic elements to which writing is uniquely prone.

Kristen Radtke is an intriguing—and young—video essayist. In “That Kind of Daughter,” she reads a fragmentary prose poem, in three parts, while the video slowly assembles recognizable images, in herky-jerky silhouette, the whole taking six minutes. She builds her images by constant addition or subtraction—fingers one by one form a hand on which a bird appears and is held and then disassembles.

The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Watching and listening, I experience the spoken words and the erected images in counterpoint. Words and images merge and resist merging, the ensuing structure a kind of “visual voice.” On occasion, text and video fuse and harmonize. But it’s never simple. The spoken words push the visual puzzle into known images that do and do not illustrate the text. Once those images suggest a meaning for the words, they begin to dissolve. Radtke achieves a kind of levitating effect: the video defers to and buoys the voice, the unchanging tone of which, in turn, keeps the jittery images anchored.

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

It’s important to remember that I am not implying the abolition of print-exclusive prose, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. What I am suggesting is that the vast sea writing has filled for five centuries is, with our eyes and ears, swelling anew, becoming multimedial and multidimensional—its practitioners, in a word, transliterate. The writer better find his oars, for his dinghy is small, and the waves are splashing over the gunnels.