Monday, May 15, 2006

A passel of swoopers

In Timequake, the book by Kurt Vonnegut I’m just finishing up reading, Vonnegut says there are two kinds of writers.

Swoopers and bashers.

He’s a basher, he says.

"Swoopers write a story quickly," Vonnegut says, "higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done, they’re done."

"Writers who are swoopers," he says, "find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place.

"Bashers, while ostensibly making sentence after sentence as efficient as possible, may actually be breaking down seeming doors and fences, cutting their way through seeming barbed-wire entanglements, under fire and in an atmosphere of mustard gas, in search of answers to the eternal questions: ‘What in heck should we be doing? What in heck is really going on?’"

Vonnegut says that in his experience most bashers are men and most swoopers are women.

I like the words. They strike me as useful and apt. Vonnegut doesn’t explain their etymology, but it sounds to me as though swoopers are writers who like to get things done in one fell swoop, while bashers spend their working days bashing their heads against imaginary brick walls trying to shake loose one decent thought or one perfect word.

But as catch-all categories they don’t work for easy sorting of the writers of my acquaintance. For one thing, my swoopers and bashers don’t divide along gender lines. For another, the bashers I have known and loved have seemed more intent on bashing their way toward an ideal of poetic beauty than on discovering the answers to any eternal questions.

Vonnegut, of course, has known more writers, and more great writers than I have. He can talk off-handedly about a casual conversation he had with his old cronies and colleagues Nelson Algren and Jose Donoso.

I have known some talented writers, but I can’t claim that any of them are in a league with Algren and Donoso.


My old crony and once-upon-a-time colleague Tom Bailey has recently published a very fine novel called The Grace That Keeps This World.

I would say Tom is a basher.

My friend Steve Kuusisto, the poet and memoirist, has a new collection of essays coming out this fall. It’s called Eavesdropping. The cover photograph alone is going to sell a lot of copies.

Steve’s a swooper.

On the other hand, because he’s legally blind, Steve has to work very slowly, dictating his poems and essays to his computer, which gives him plenty of time to bash his head against imaginary brick walls.

Tom, however, is a human dynamo, and does everything at six times normal speed. I pity any brick walls he bashes up against, imaginary or solid. He must do a fair amount of swooping just because he can’t put the brakes on quick enough to give himself time to bash.

As Vonnegut himself might say, and does say, often, in Timequake, whatever.

The point is that if Vonnegut hadn’t told me what category he put himself into I’d have called him a swooper.

I’ve been a fan of Vonnegut’s writing since I graduated from the Hardy Boys. Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Allistair MacLean were my first grown-up writing heroes. Yes, Allistair MacLean. The Guns of Navarone Allistair MacLean. Come on. I was 14. So I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut since the dawn of time and I thought I knew my man.

Apparently not.

Timequake, though, however much bashing Vonnegut had been doing up until 1996 when he wrote it, strikes me very much as a swooper’s book. It is written higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way, except that Vonnegut doesn’t seem to have gone back over it quite as painstakingly as he might have. There’s a lot in it that is just plain awful and doesn’t work.

It’s not been dull or felt like a waste of time to read, I have to give it that.

Vonnegut calls Timequake his farewell to writing novels. It’s a strange confection, made up of pieces salvaged from what would have been his last novel if he could have forced himself to finish it, a book put out of its misery in mid-progress that Vonnegut refers to throughout Timequake as Timequake I, the pieces connected by snatches of autobiography, musings on contemporary events and art and culture, political opinionizings, brief sermons, jokes, summaries of imaginary stories by Vonnegut’s alter-ego the imaginary science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, bits of literary criticism, reminiscences about writers and normal people he has known, random observations about life, the universe, and everything, and the
occasional attempt to answer the eternal questions: What in heck
should we be doing? What in heck is really going on?

Thinking about this the other day, after suffering another case of intellectual whiplash brought on by Vonnegut’s suddenly dropping his pursuit of one idea and making a sharp turn around a corner in his brain to speed off after another new thought, I asked myself if I’d ever read anything so determinedly, maddeningly, and enjoyably higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum before.

And it hit me.

I read stuff like that every day. Online. They’re called blogs.

Timequake is a blog.

A decade ago, back when even the pioneers of the wide-open cyberspaces hadn’t heard the word---they called what they were doing e-journals or, simply, webpages---Vonnegut had come up with a blog that he had mistakenly written with a typewriter on paper instead of on a computer keyboard with bytes of code.

Yep, I decided, it’s a blog.

I thought about this a little more.

Wait a minute.

It’s my blog!

In his going-away post last week, in which he announced his upcoming holiday from blogging and warned you that Amanda Marcotte and I would be taking over this space for the couple weeks he plans to be away re-charging his batteries, Michael wrote about the hostility some toilers in the traditional media feel toward blogs and bloggers. He speculated that their ill-will and spite are motivated by fear. They see bloggers doing what they do, faster and in many cases smarter than they do it, stealing their readers while subjecting them to a kind of criticism they’ve never had to face in their careers.

Michael listed some bloggers he thought could do, and in fact are doing, a better job of political writing than many of the celebrity pundits and journalists bobbing their heads on the Sunday morning talk shows and wasting ink and paper for the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post.

Graciously and too generously Michael put me on the list.

While it is true that I am smarter about politics than, say, Joe Klein or Richard Cohen, I am smarter the way I am smarter about baseball than some particularly boneheaded managers. But that doesn’t mean the Yankees should put me in the dugout and let me run the team day in and day out.

But even if I was smart enough to write for the Times or the Post day in and day out, that wouldn’t be what I’d want to do, and it isn’t something I try to pretend I’m doing on my page.

One of the mistakes critics of blogs in the traditional media make is that they judge blogs as if they were all one type of thing, and that one thing is what they themselves do in print and on the tube.

Some bloggers are trying to be pundits and journalists, and doing an excellent job of it. Ezra Klein and Josh Marshall, to name two of the obvious and best examples.

But most of the bloggers I like and admire are doing something else, something more along the lines of what Vonnegut is up to in Timequake.

In A Scream Goes Through the House, Arnold Weinstein writes, "My view of art is quite at odds also with the electronic network that stamps our age, because the Internet culture, however capacious it might be, is also largely soulless and solipsistic---informational rathar than experiential---when contrastred with our engagement with art."

Weinstein, being a professor of literature, recommends literature, and the arts in general, as the antidote to the soullessness and solipsism of the Internet culture. But I think that the bloggers I read most often are the ones who use their blogs to write their way through the informational to the experiential, who try to turn what is impersonal and overwhelming in the constant wave of information that comes to us through our computer screens into something intimate, coherent, comphrehensible, human. It sounds too high-flying to call them artists. But it is accurate to call them writers.

Judged as strings of editorials and op-ed pieces, a great many blogs make absolutely no sense, and it’s no wonder traditional media types are contemptuous. But judged as works in progress akin to what’s happening in Timequake, it’s easy to see what bloggers like Shakespeare Sister, Nancy Nall, Neddie Jingo, Amanda, The Heretik, and Michael are up to. They’re writing.

Most bloggers are swoopers because they have to be. The demands of the space and time and their readers’ limited opportunities for paying attention make them have to write short and write quick, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way, but without much chance to go back and take out what is just plain awful or doesn’t work.

They all have to do some bashing along the way, though, because while it’s wonderful how funny or tragic or whatever---worth reporting---the doings of our fellow human beings are, everybody has to ask from time to time, just what in heck is really going on. But some bloggers among the passel of us swoopers are more basher-like than others.

I’m kind of a swooper’s swooper. This means that I tend to move from one subject to the next, higgledy-piggledy, etc. I don’t often know what I’m going to post about when I sit down to write. I write a lot about politics, but I write as often, or more often, about movies or what I just watched on TV or what happened to me when I went to get a cup of coffee the other morning.

At any rate, I’m very grateful to Michael for asking me to sub for him, but I can’t make you any promises about what you’re going to find here from day to day.

I can warn you about a couple of things though.

I have a bad habit of multiple-part postings. In fact, I’ve already got a follow up to this one in mind, although I’ll try to keep the meta-blogging down to a minimum.

And---and I know this is going to come as a big disappointment to a lot of you---there will be no hockey blogging.


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