The Social Author #6: Rachel Maddow, Isocrates, and the Power of Speech Print

Rachel-Maddow-013014-MSNBC(Guernica May 22, 2014)

Strange as it seems, writers and their work used to be welcome on TV. Via YouTube we can find, from 1959, the very cool, Boston-inflected Jack Kerouac, reading from On the Road to a jazz trio improv on The Steve Allen Show, and, from 1968, a very inebriated, belligerent Jack on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. There’s Jerzy Kosinski, William Saroyan, and Gore Vidal on Johnny Carson, as well as (my favorite non-author) the foresty-eyebrowed Ed Begley Sr., reciting Robert Service’s “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” Mike Wallace probing Aldous Huxley. Edward R. Murrow person-to-person with John Steinbeck.

In its infancy, TV was subservient to book culture. The idea was to legitimize itself by letting writers extemporize: the long-tongued Truman Capote, whether dishing about murderers or Jackie Kennedy, was enthralling; millions knew the fiction and nonfiction of Norman Mailer and tuned in to see who the whiskey-soaked gladiator mauled on Dick Cavett. The popularity of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee grew, in part, because they conspicuously refused to appear on the boob tube.

These days, TV neither showcases nor ignores the writer. Instead, TV elevates personalities into authors. Mass media activates in its most voluble and personable live hosts and frequent guests their book potential, usually with a memoir or a political analysis. An outsized TV presence turns talking talent (and visual appeal) into commodities, among them, books, often to an embarrassing degree. (See my essay, “Awash in Celebrity Authors,” in which I discuss and lament why nearly everyone with a TV show gets a book deal.)

Rachel Maddow is the epitome of the social or public author as live-TV construction. The Rhodes Scholar, PhD, and former Air America radio host has been, during the five years of her MSNBC show, contagiously reconfigured—wonk became anchor, anchor became performer, performer became writer, writer became documentarian (her film about the Iraq war, “Why We Did It,” premiered March 6.).

Where is Maddow the author in all this? Primarily in her multidisciplinary ability to deliver language via voice and body, not unlike the dynamic professor or the country preacher. On TV she sits, but she’s in a pulpit, and we are her congregation. The degree to which she writes her soliloquies prior, or extemporizes them on-air, matters less than her rhetorical skill.

To contextualize Maddow’s unprecedented turn, think of the 50-year male mold wrought by the CBS Evening News’ anchors, among them, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Scott Pelley. Yes there’s Connie Chung and Katie Couric, but their addition merely confirmed that they could read the teleprompter just as men did. What did these middle-age broadcasters have in common? Inanimation. I’m reminded of Maurice Ravel’s line about his beloved Bolero: “a piece for orchestra without music.” It’s predictably dramatic sameness is key: the long-arced pattern of slow additive sonorities, brightening and getting louder with each repetition of the melody.

In the same way, from Cronkite to Pelley, we get no music. No gesture, no lip, no look; the hands stay stationary; they are folded or hold the script. Authority comes from the drone-tone seriousness. It’s uncouth to enlist the body in the presentation (see all local anchors). Only the facts. The one time Pelley emotes is when his 22 minutes are nearly over and he issues a faintly jocular comment at the end of a feel-good story. All that for $5 million a year.

A much harder worker, Maddow is also a true rogue, and a bargain at $7 million a year. What’s so special about her? After all, in cable-news land, nearly every anchor—such evening stalwarts as Chris Matthews, Megyn Kelly, and Al Sharpton—are aflutter with bloviation. Maddow, however, has something they don’t: an actor’s sensibility. Her primetime competition is politically strident and loquacious, and so is she—but she’s also theatrically extra-dimensional.

I’ve heard Maddow read/improvise summary-filled relative clauses—and and and and and (one recent example, a string of common-folk hurt caused by the George Washington Bridge lane closures), daubed with raised eyebrows and arms-in-the-air and rolled eyes and pen taps and mock-shock—who pauses to let the hook sink in (Really?) before she nails the main clause with smart-bomb accuracy. Maddow pumps the on-air space full of you-can’t-make-this-shit-up incredulity, her tessitura rising with exclamatory swathes of feigned outrage. Where does this act come from? Who knows? Still, she leans into the camera with a kind of innate pleasure at being watched at the same time that in every segment she ditches the drollery to end on a morally serious note.

Maddow may develop her lead story for 15 to 18 minutes, at times, with evangelical ardor. Among her many expressive attributes:

---her dark eyebrows, lifting to signal a judicious, hold-that-thought pause, her face aglow with saucer-eyed surprise;

---her sportscaster Italianate hand gestures (she’s right-handed but flails with her left);

---her often over-stimulating questions to interviewees, longer and more complex than the guest can answer (Dan Rather wilts at her probing and repeats himself; Bob Herbert buzzes around the same wordy flower);

---her smile, upper-teeth-revealing, an open-mouthed, open-faced Midwestern-ness that says she knows most viewers (we’re viewers, not listeners) agree with her, but how in hell’s half-acre do others manage not to?

The point? All that look and lure and long-windedness is the author. Sean Hannity rarely styles with language, gesture, subtlety. (His pen, laced-in-his-fingers, is a mere “writerly” affectation.) His audience is less comfortable with irony or conflicted thinking or donnish wit, all kegs which Maddow taps. Instead, Hannity’s engagement with his enemy, “the left,” is only unwavering disdain.

Maddow also works by design and selection. Her text is written to report on certain scandals and to comment on the havoc such reporting belabors. But, still, I find her shift away from the anchorman model unheralded and new-wave.

With TV, we have a fully wired, socializing media that reveals our sensorial selves more roundly than ever. However, in keeping the medium cool and the anchors’ careers safe, most pundits and their producers censor that participatory self. The traditional news anchor, examples of which occupy most of the airtime, mimes the newspeak of CEOs and other shills. Maddow is the new news anchor, pushing out of or playing with the persona.

So what happens when she writes? Propelled by her popularity, Maddow’s 2012 Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power shot to nonfiction number one on the perfectly timed idea that, post-9/11, with the hazards of unchecked executive power, an all-volunteer military, and the privatization of the military industry, especially companies with their own mercenary armies for hire like Blackwater, it is way too easy for America to go to war.

The prose in Drift moves slowly, in a classic analytical, info-packed way. For example, she describes where a young person, who volunteers for the military, might not want to be stationed:

Probably not in a missile silo in Minot, North Dakota. In the post-9/11 era, who’d want the job of sitting through the nuclear winter on the high plains, running maintenance on the thirty-five B-52s, guarding the “silos” that housed 150 giant and largely untested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), babysitting the hundreds of smaller nuclear warheads stored in sod-topped bunkers like canned fruit shelved in a tornado shelter?

This, obviously, is writing: strong participials, telling detail, a bracing simile, all of it crafted to include as much as the reader’s eye-mind meld can hold. Gone is the individual voice; the generic writer has replaced it. Because she’s on TV, you may hear Maddow’s vocal inflections in the prose. You may pick up her personality, gestures, and tonal modulations, and imagine that the page-text carries a heightened drama. Words on the page may be jealous of the intensity the body brings to speech. When the face and arms and eyes exploit dubiety or dead-on despair, which takes time for a reader of published text to download, why wouldn’t there be some envy?

The same scene transferred to TV would maintain that trademark Maddow probity, but with simpler lines, less chockablock, more intimate. Something like this. “You don’t want to be stuck guarding a silo somewhere in North Dakota, keeping watch with others on an arsenal of B-52s, and ICBMs, and warheads, half of it buried in bunkers. No. You wouldn’t want that.” Pen-tap pause. “No, you would not.”

TV text drains the sheer volume of info out of the writing and, at least with Maddow, ramps up the emotionally charged direct address. Emotion—the key one being caring—replaces analysis. The TV viewer cannot take in a lot of info; the medium won’t support it. The TV viewer is taken when the anchor cares about the info, personalizes it, and augments it with video: info personalized and illustrated is much less literate. I think of the televangelist Joel Osteen smiling his way through a discourse on the Book of Job, simplifying it into a twenty-minute audio-enhanced lesson about Job’s goodness, stripping it of complicating narrative and masochistic psychology.

Drift is calm, reasoning, chaptered, and convincing in a different way than Maddow’s quick-to-rile TV tack. Reading her thoughts about the military feels a world apart from her televised, often wisenheimer, shtick about the Chris Christie scandal. While Drift, a five-hour read, the equivalent of one week of shows, advances the policy discussion of whither the American military in the post-9/11 world, the book has none of the urgency Maddow brings to her nightly program, where “breaking news” and exposes, often couched as civics lessons, rule. How can Drift compete with quotidian commentary as news? The answer is, it can’t.

Maddow’s performative, opinion-fired journalism (it’s so much more than reporting) returns us to the codes of Athenian democracy. Consider Isocrates, a Greek rhetorician, writing in the mid-fourth century B.C.E.: “We have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts; and, generally speaking, there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.” Law, education, theater, epic, poetry, politics, augury, weddings/funerals, all established by the “power of speech.”

Rhetoric is the art; speech enacts the art most persuasively. Speech is valuable to the health of the polis because speech is dialogic, exciting one’s troops and one’s enemies; it is free (at least, temporarily) from the altercations of time and memory; and, unlike print, it brings contentious citizens physically together—chambers and classrooms and halls—where they, their bodies and their voices and their claims, debate with expressive and rhetorical glee. Indeed, it’s in the live marketplace where authors express their facts and fictions, are heard and are countered, that such exchange fosters the day-to-day livelihood of the community.

While ideas and their speakers have always butted heads in public squares and village circles, it’s disturbing nowadays how little combat there is. In an age of personalized commentary and op-ed TV, we have little of the healthy competition the Greeks had. Athenian democracy and Socratic philosophy grew out of argument, not agreement. So powerful are the production values and the bully pulpit of our hour-long opinion shows that the anchor-audience bond eschews live debate and, instead, seeks to affirm the host’s mindset endlessly. A fact Maddow may or may not revel in.

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.