Four years ago, back in grad school in Boston, I spent a lot of time reading and drinking coffee at Espresso Royale, over on Commonwealth Ave. I read a lot of nonfiction: stuff by Joe Mitchell, Philip Gourevitch, John McPhee, Eric Schlosser — that kind of stuff — as well as every back issue of The New Yorker I could get my hands on. Espresso Royale is a pretty big coffee shop, and it was easy to bury my head and get lost in books for hours there; dozens of other students were busy doing the same thing. One afternoon I came across a piece of fiction by George Saunders — it was “Pastoralia” — and it made me laugh so hard I couldn’t keep reading. Actually (I remember this distinctly), it made me laugh so loud that the people around me couldn’t keep reading.
That turned me on to George Saunders. Since then, I’ve read all 5 of his books. *(I’ve also adopted a word he coined, goatless, as Zero Per Gallon’s corporate theme.) They’re all hilarious; his imagination and perspective are wry and slick and out-of-control-in-a-fantastic-way and somehow dead-on. (Acclaimed writers have compared him to Vonnegut and Twain, and said amazing things about him too, far more articulately than I can.)
Here’s one such funny thing, called “Ask the optimist”
Anyway, I read Saunders’ latest book, The Braindead Megaphone, on the beach in Mexico last month, and really dug the writerly essays within. There are essay on: a book, full of sharp sentences, that he read in 3rd grade and which changed his life; how his mind boggled when he first read Vonnegut, at age 23; some techniques to sustaining narrative action in storytelling (Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse); and a great review/interpretation/essay on Huck Finn. If you are a student of English or writing or fiction, these essays make the book worth it.
There are also a few “travel pieces” that are unlike any other “travel pieces.” They’re kind of like traditional journalism on crack, and I mean that in a good way. Saunders “reports” on Mexican immigration and the Minutemen patrolling the Texas/Mexico border; the commercial absurdity of Dubai; a 15-year-old boy in Nepal who supposedly spent 7 months meditating without food or water; and a curious land called Britain. If you are an armchair tourist/traveller (or if you enjoy reading Dave Barry), and, like me, you have grown somewhat weary of formulaic travel pieces, these essays will rekindle your imagination and leave you giggling in awe.
BUT, there is one essay above all of the rest — the very first essay, the eponymous essay — that stuck with me the most. It’s 19 pages long, and laser-friggin-sharp. it’s about us/our-brains/the-media/how-we-communicate/propaganda/commerce/writing/politics/democracy and a bunch of, uh, smaller, tangential themes. It is intensely relevant. I wish I could discuss it, in person, over a cup of coffee, with every one of my friends.
The video version sums it up decently.
The compressed written version goes like this:
So you’re at this great party, hangin’ out with smart, articulate, experienced people, and in walks a guy with a megaphone. He’s so loud that most guests can’t avoid hearing him and in some way or another responding to him, becoming “reactors-to-the-guy.” If megaphone guy starts using dumb phrases like “at the end of the day,” everyone else starts using such dumb phrases too. As Saunders puts it, “his rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.” In other words: megaphone guy ruins the party.
The sad/scary part: “responses are predicated not on his intelligence, his unique experience in the world, his powers of contemplation, or his ability with language, but on the volume and omnipotence of his narrating voice.”
But it’s worse that just that. Megaphone guy is not only dumb, inarticulate, and inexperienced; he’s also struggling to entertain people, so he yells, and jumps from topic to topic, “favoring the conceptual-general (‘We’re eating more cheese cubes — and loving it!’), the anxiety- or controversy-provoking (‘Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy?’), the gossipy (‘Quickie rumored in south bathroom!’), and the trivial (‘Which quadrant of the party room do YOU prefer?’).”
The result: the megaphone guy puts an intelligence-ceiling on the party. Hence a more accurate nickname for him: braindead megaphone guy.
From there, Saunders backs up, and asks: What’s the best way to accurately transmit information?
“The best case scenario….information arrives in the form of prose written and revised over a long period of time, in the interest of finding truth, by a disinterested person with real-world experience in the subject area. The report can be as long, dense, nuanced, and complex as is necessary to portray the complexity of the situation.”
“The worst case scenario might be: information arrives in the form of prose written by a person with little or no firsthand experience in the subject area, who hasn’t had much time to revise what he’s written, working within narrow time constraints, in the service of an agenda that may be subtly or overtly distorting his ability to tell the truth.”
But wait, there’s more. “Could we make this worst-case scenario even worse? Sure. Let it be understood that the Informant’s main job is to entertain and that, if he fails in this, he’s gone. Also, the man being informed? Make him too busy, ill-prepared, and distracted to properly assess what the informant’s shouting at him…. Welcome to America…”
Saunders suggests that the decline accelerated sharply back in the O.J. Simpson era, and continued through the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He traces the development (or evolution) of a “new style of presentation” and a “new rhetorical strategy” that bolstered obviously-unimportant “stories.”
His take on coverage of the Lewinsky scandal: “More at five about The Stain! Have you ever caused a Stain? Which color do you think would most effectively hide a Stain? See what our experts predicted you would say!”
As he puts it, “if someone has to lecture ten hours a day on a piece of dog crap in a bowl, adjustments will need to be made. To say the ridiculous things that will need to be said to sustain the illusion that the dog-crap story is serious news (‘dog-crap expert Jesse Toville provides his assessment of the probable size of the dog and its psychological state at time-of-crappage’), distortions of voice, face, and format will be required.” Often, such “information” comes in banal language, all revved-up: (“cold WEATHer leads SOME motorISTS to drive less, CARrie!”)
So it all seems kinda harmless, until something like 9/11 comes along, and “our national discourse had been so degraded — our national language so dumbed-down,” that while deciding to invade another country, we let Megaphone Guy, with his “crude, hyperbolic tools” (“countdown to slapdown in the desert!” and “twilight for the evil one: america comes calling!”), lead the way.
As a result, instead of morality, or debate, or curiosity, or any sort of intellectual/ethical examination, we got “news” bits on tactics and strategy, because that was quick and easy to digest, and more-than-moderately entertaining.
“Why aggressive, anxiety-provoking, maudlin, polarizing discourse should prove more profitable than its opposite is a mystery… In any event, the people who used to ask, ‘Is it news?’ now seem to be asking, ‘Will it stimulate?’” Saunders allows that profit and economic incentives are fine, but adds, “if these trump every other consideration, we will be rendered perma-children, having denied ourselves use of our higher faculties. (He also explores how it is that many well-educated, bright reporters get stuck producing such content.)
And that’s the larger cost of dopey communication, Saunders says. It degrades “our ability to make bold, meaningful sentences, or laugh at stupid, ill-considered ones.” It makes “us dumber and more accepting of slop.” It’s an oversimplification, Saunders admits, but “is some of our media very stupid? Hoo boy. Does stupid, near omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general? It would be surprising if it didn’t.”
“Next time we hear someone saying something like, ‘We are pursuing this strategy because other strategies, when we had considered them, we concluded that, in terms of overall effectiveness, they were not sound strategies, which is why we enacted the one we are now embarked upon, which our enemies would like to see us fail, due to they hate freedom,’ we will wait to see if the anchorperson cracks up, or chokes back a sob of disgust, and if he or she does not, we’ll feel a bit insane, and therefore less confident, and therefore more passive.”
Or, take this example, from Saunders’ essay on Huck Finn: “In a culture that is becoming ever more story-stupid, in which a representative of the Coca-Cola company can, with a straight face, pronounce, as he donates a collection of archival Coca-Cola commercials to the Library of Congress, that “Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people’s lives by helping to tell these stories,” it is perhaps not surprising that people have trouble teaching and receiving a novel as complex and flawed as Huck Finn, but it is even more urgent that we learn to look passionately and technically at stories, if only to protect ourselves from the false and manipulative ones being circulated among us.”
Is there an antidote? There is, Saunders says.
“Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.” The battle will be won “with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.”
“Turn that megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.”