Bloodbaths and Bubble Baths

Lewis Lapham argues that there’s a reason good writing is hard to find on the internet. What is good writing, anyway?

There’s the new school and then there’s the old school. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s and founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, is headmaster of the old school. I first met Lapham during my stint as an editorial intern at the Quarterly, where his vast, book-laden desk was conspicuously devoid of a computer, and where everything from disquisitions to email RSVPs were composed, exclusively, in ink.

When it comes to writing—a practice that is more and more being subsumed under the all-flattening, non-signifying umbrella of “content”—the man had an eloquent axe to grind about the direction in which publishing is going. Can great journalism, great literature, even great art be produced online? Or is there something in the very bones of the internet that dooms us to hot takes and cat gifs? Alas, for Lapham, Betteridge’s law of headlines applies.

AR— How do you define good writing?

LL— Cyril Connolly once said, “Literature is something that deserves to be read twice.” If you’re reading something, and it’s good enough or has enough force or enough meaning to you to want to read it again, that would be my only criterion.

But what’s good or what’s bad usually takes time to see. We look back over the literature that’s come down to us over the last however many thousands of years, and why is it that Shakespeare’s plays still have four of them on the stage in New York today? Why is that? Why is it that the writing of Thucydides is still vivid? It doesn’t matter how old the writing is, or the piece of art or the sculpture or the painting, but if it’s the first time that you read it, it’s new to you. So it doesn’t matter that Thucydides wrote it 2,000 years ago. My coming upon it for the first time, it’s new, and then I’ll want to read it again. And that’s why it survives. Writing, art, literature survives—the true measure of it is over time. And that means reading and rereading.

Why is it that you can look at the paintings of Goya or Vermeer and there’s still the shock of the new? That’s because of the quality, the thought, the imagination that is captured within the form. Most internet journalism is no good, because it’s not meant to be. It’s not something to keep. Its whole point is in being disposable, like Kleenex. It comes, it goes, and it leaves not a trace behind. Except maybe a cue for someone advertising a particular product. “Literature,” says Pound, “is news that stays news.” And it stays news because of the strength of the writing. The strength of the writing is in the power of the imagination. It’s palpable.

A work of art, it’s a joint effort. The painter tries to get it up on canvas and the writer tries to get it down on paper or in words, and where the excitement takes place is in the meeting of the mind between the artist, whether he’s dead or alive—his mind is alive on the page or in the painting—and then the mind that is alive in the reader or viewer. So it’s that transaction. It’s that happening between two living spirits. The power of the imagination of the artist engaging the power of the imagination of the person who’s looking at it or reading it.

That’s why you give books to people and say, “you’ve got to read this, it’s wonderful.” Because you’re trying to let them in on the possibility of that kind of excitement. There are poets that can do it in very few words. Lyric poets can do it in Twitter length. Shakespeare can do it in the length of a sonnet as well as in an exchange of dialogue in a play. But what is it trying to do? The person who is just aiming for data and a hit of an algorithm is not trying for meaning in that way. It has a different objective. The objective is not art. I think you have to use words like art and literature here.

I mean, really good journalism, high-end, long-form journalism, reaches literature. It’s wrong to think of literature as only fiction. Many of the great works of literature are non-fictional. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples. The Essays of Montaigne. It’s wrong to think that literature is simply fiction. It’s any form of writing that excites the mind and imagination of the reader. The reader’s mind and imagination can be awakened by a detective story, and I would argue that Le Carré at his best is easily something I would want to read twice if not three times. I think that is literature in the same way I think Dickens is.

But different people will have different ideas. You and I might think that Melville is a great writer and so is Mark Twain and other people may beg to differ. Henry James thought that Walt Whitman was a mediocre, unintelligent propagandist. [Laughs.] You can find all kinds of remarks like that. Teddy Roosevelt thought that Tolstoy was a terrible writer. There are differences of opinion, but the way those differences get resolved is over time.

It’s people—not man, but men—that tend to save over time the things that they find to be beautiful, useful, or true. That’s why we’re still going to Shakespeare’s plays. I reread something of Shakespeare every year and it’s always spectacular. I’m astonished. But that’s not what 24/7 breaking news is trying to do. They’re trying to hit an algorithm that will pick up on a key word. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be grapefruit or Monica Lewinski, Lindsay Lohan or Iraq or suicide bomb. It doesn’t make any difference. Television doesn’t give any value to literature at all. What television is after is a surge of emotion on the part of a large number of people simultaneously.

McLuhan is wonderful on this. If you read his Understanding Media, that will have all kinds of answers for you. He was an extraordinarily prescient mind. Television doesn’t make any distinction between a bloodbath in Afghanistan and a bubble bath in Paris. It’s what draws the emotion out of large numbers of people. It’s not trying for art. By and large, people who are writing for the internet or for Twitter are not interested. Art is not what they’re about. They’re about data or gossip or a sound bite.

Do you think that the internet or television can ever be artistic?

Yeah it can be. I mean, sure. Take the form of the Japanese haiku or the form of a sonnet. It can be done. It’s not the length—it’s what’s invested in it. The thought or the imagination that is invested in the medium. The thing about the internet and the thing about television is that it’s not what the medium is really about. You can make a truly fine movie just the way you can write a fine play, but there are very few of them. Most of what comes out is just junk, because people are trying to make entertainment or trying to make money.

I mean, thought takes time to make. Conrad would spend an entire morning trying to get a paragraph. So would Flaubert. But what goes into it will have a bearing on what people can take out of it. You’re not apt to take much out of an advertisement, despite what it says on Mad Men. [Laughs.] I mean, the great American art form is advertising.

Just the same way we don’t put any thought or imagination into our political speech. There used to be a day when Senators on the floor of congress would come across with real eloquence. Speeches one would want to hear. Lincoln’s second inaugural and so on. Today our politicians don’t even write their own speeches. And even if they did, they couldn’t afford to say anything that had any real meaning in it, because that would harm their Q rating. They can’t afford to tell the truth.

It comes down to this: the writer, the painter, the musician, the artist, is trying to tell the truth about something that he or she has seen or felt or thought or glimpsed, and that is very hard to do. But if the reader can feel that that’s what the writer is trying to do, it will mean something. If it’s just a facile cliché, it won’t mean anything. Just like a sound bite doesn’t mean anything and most of our political speeches don’t mean anything.

Hollywood movies are filled with chases and explosions and special effects, and most of them are made by computers. And that’s what’s happening to our political elections. We’re going to spend God knows how much money this year. Hillary’s trying to raise a billion dollars. We’ll end up spending 5 billion dollars on a presidential election and it will end up saying absolutely nothing. It’s almost a truism that the more expensive the machinery, the less the meaning. What did it cost for Lincoln and Douglas to stage the Lincoln–Douglas debates? What did it cost to write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or the speeches of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster? Money wasn’t a question. Now the only question they ask is the money question. What is the cost of the manufacture of the candidate? And his value is the cost of the manufacture. It’s how much money he can raise, or achieve. Because the less meaning there is in democracy anymore, the more it has to go into the production value. To pretend that something’s still happening.

I first came to New York in 1960, there was such a thing as the lively arts. The word media hadn’t been invented yet. And they were distinct. They were called the seven lively arts and there was the theater and there was literature and there was music and jazz and dance, and they were all different. They each had their different rules and audiences and expectations and objectives. By the end of the decade, by 1970, everything had been fused together into media. How many platforms could the same thing be fitted to? And once you start doing that, then you’re just talking about money. Which is a beautiful subject, don’t get me wrong. [Laughs.] But it’s not poetry. Although some people think it is. Matter of fact many people think it is, now that I think of it.

The short answer Eli is when you’re writing for a 24-hour deadline and essentially writing in sound bite, and when you’re writing for something to be disposable, the odds are it’s not going to be very meaningful. People don’t expect it to be. And that’s why there’s always going to be an audience for books. I don’t know how big it’s going to be, but it’s certainly going to be there. It’s just a different medium… I don’t think the audience for literature has ever been a big one. It’s not a mass market.

I once talked to Leonard Riggio—Leonard Riggio’s the guy that runs Barnes & Nobel—and he put a hundred grand into the early days of the Quarterly. He likes the classics. Barnes & Nobel actually has its own line of classics, sort of the same way Penguin does. But he said “Look Lewis, they never sell, they’re always loss-leaders.” That was true in the nineteenth century and it’s been true forever in American letters. What most people want to read is self-improvement, stock market tips, golf swing, how to make millions, what’s the newest gossip, and so on. And that’s been true since the early days of the republic. The audience for literature tends to be a small one.

The bestseller list, it’s an opening night crowd. People want sensation, what’s new. I can never figure it out. I never knew what the hell to put on the cover of Harper’s Magazine. [Laughs.] Most people don’t want to hear the truth. On first hearing, the truth is un-American. [Laughs.] Anyway, none of this is of any help to you I’m sure Eli…

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