A Hack’s Catechism

September 24, 2007

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A Hack’s Catechism

The formula that I have long toyed with the notion of revealing is nowadays the intellectual property of Conde Nast, yet the kind of article discussed here would not look out of place in any of number of niche publications, from Plage and Piste to the more sombre Snort! and Anorexia Today. Still more encouraging for the canny sycophant considering journalism as a career is the fact that successful editors everywhere, including those on magazines believed to be serious and newspapers known as highbrow, will always respect a quality product manufactured according to the formula, in contrast to something thrown together higgledy-piggledy, with the author’s own idea as a guide. The pathetic originality of a Mark Twain and the amateur dramatics of a Dostoevsky are no longer among the models an aspiring writer should follow if he wants to see his name in print and be asked to nice people’s houses for after-dinner drinks.


  

The first step is to select, if possible on a tidy work surface adequately illuminated with artificial light, a few hundred words of the English language, dividing them into three groups, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. The key to the formula, as will be seen presently, is the last of the three, because serious journalistic writing, such as that found in the news pages of Gay Times or any other newspaper with Times in its title, is traditionally poor in adverbs. Conversely, the formula, which is versatile enough to cover everything with the exception of Brooklyn fires, presidential elections, and rumours of World War III, has been designed to yield writing that is luxuriant to the eye and melodious to the ear, an Old World simulacrum of leisure, liberty, and reflection. Counterfeiting the attitudes to life and society for which writers like Waugh and Powell were once famous, it feigns spontaneity, pretends to opinion, and seeks to co-opt the reader by bribing him with handouts of class complicity.


  

An American thesaurus is a good way of sourcing the necessary ingredients. Beginning with the entry for “Wealth” to stockpile such nouns as prince, baron, heir, tycoon, magnate, oligarch, and noting useful adjectives like billionaire, affluent, glittering, a writer can generate sentences on a variety of subjects, secure in his knowledge that gold is the thread of propinquity interweaving all nurture and much of nature in a world without gods or kings. Without adverbs, however, such knowledge must remain inert, lifeless, of no real use to any but the most high-minded editors and small-circulation journals. A description like Russian billionaire tycoon may be good enough for The Spectator or The Nation, for fuddy-duddies, for people who cling to the variously anachronistic conceptions of society and express them on matte, yellowish, inexpensive or even recycled paper. Yet in the dynamic world of novelty, fashion, and gloss, such a description will never pass muster, in the sense that it neither sounds sexy nor looks eccentric enough to satisfy the reader’s appetite for the truth and to involve him in its creation; a sexily eccentric Russian billionaire tycoon, on the other hand, sweeps him up into the social whirl, much as a nineteenth-century novel of aristocratic life might provide a vicarious bystander like Lenin with all the resentment he needed for a successful career in politics.


  

Thus Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, the sexily eccentric Russian tycoon. Engagingly blunt and charmingly enigmatic are on standby. Add with Royal connections, since, while the emendation is safely meaningless, the dynamic world of today’s journalism is Manichaean and likes to serve up its predicates in clusters, wherein royal, princely, aristocratic, powerful, palatial, exclusive, and on occasion even reclusive, can happily coexist with the lucrative manufacturing of rubber items and the recent innovations in cosmetic dentistry. To some extent, this is an old American tradition, which has thrown up the familiar notions of robber barons, merchant princes and safety-pin kings, though here its indiscriminate extrapolation is, if anything, more barbarous than any such essays in egalitarian shorthand, bringing to mind the Russian folk saying to the effect that you can never ruin porridge with more butter.


  

The round of festivities on Mr Ivanov’s, give length in feet, motor yacht, providing name of vessel and indicating its plausible location in South of France, may be described as unabashedly glittering to suggest that neither the sexily eccentric tycoon with Royal connections himself, nor the salaried hack sucking up to him in the article, is politically correct, that he is, indeed, a kindred soul, a daredevil of the pen as much as his subject is a swashbuckler of industry. Now is hardly the time to skimp on particulars, insinuating as many magnums of reassuringly vintage Krug and unmistakeably Valentino couture gowns as can fit into a single craven eulogy. Yet at some point the writer must pause, because an important strategic decision needs to be taken before proceeding.


  

The writer is at a dangerous crossroads. The choice before him is whether to turn right or left, whether to keep on ingratiating himself with the milieu to which his subject ostensibly belongs or to throw in his lot with his own class, that of journalists, editors, authors, university graduates living on fixed incomes, of consumerism’s undeserved losers and society’s unfunny clowns, as he unconsciously yet unerringly regards them. Never mind that an old college buddy of his has been living in actual destitution, writing the great American novel for the last twenty years, and can now hold up his head with the best whether or not his book should ever find a publisher; never mind that the engagingly blunt Russian crook he is eulogising is a wife-beating ogre, who is also a moron (insofar as he believes that he will get to keep the money he has stolen from other crooks). To the Tatler or Vanity Fair mind, a class is a class, failure is the opposite of success, and fame is not as good as money but a great deal better than nothing. At this juncture, and thus reasoning, he is therefore likely to turn to the left, in the direction of the milieu where his own name has been established, and to butter the porridge accordingly.


  

Not something that I personally could ever afford is a good way to put some distance between oneself, one’s subject and this malevolent audience. Moreover, one can fill that distance with impenetrable coyness by claiming, for instance, that a Valentino couture gown costs an outrageous $5,000, whereas in reality it costs ten times that amount. Thus, every single item in the British press on the rise and fall of the charmingly enigmatic journalist Barbara Amiel — who, while married to the engagingly blunt Canadian press baron Conrad Black, bought dresses, handbags and shoes that her serious colleagues regarded as inappropriate to her station — made use at least one such smokescreen, behind which the virtue of the author of the item was safe from suspicion of any vicarious familiarity with material luxury.


  

Accuracy breeds resentment. It has been an egregious career error, I suspect, on the part of the ordinarily shrewd Tina Brown, to write with such perfect nonchalance — as she does in her recent biography of Princess Diana, the “maiden foray into long-form non-fiction” regarded by many as her one shot at a comeback to serious journalism – of her subject’s “£3,000-a-week grooming budget” and mobile telephone bills of "between five and ten thousand pounds a month." She had neglected to put in the adverbs. Straight away, in the Guardian, a colleague struck out at the deliciously exposed jugular, regretting that “really there’s only one blonde in this story and it’s not Diana.” Moreover, in a vicious reference to the charmingly enigmatic past of the erstwhile darling of Conde Nast, Sarah Bradford was able to conclude that “you can take the girl out of the magazine, but you can’t take the magazine out of the girl.”


  

This is all very well and thanks for the guidance, a newcomer to the profession may exclaim, but what of the actual idea animating the article? The idea, of course, is that there shouldn’t be one. The whole idea of ideas is that, like musical compositions in the tonal age, they are something worse than inept unless they are inherently consistent. In some very certain way, formal rather than formulaic, each must exhibit an introduction, a development, and a recapitulation. Yet, like much serious music, serious journalism has purposefully freed itself from these trammels, and the attempted imposition of a cogent idea upon the boilerplate dodecaphony of internal contradiction can only expose the charmingly enigmatic composer for the careerist lickspittle that he is.


  

Anybody who has ever made merry by leafing through an issue of Cosmopolitan knows that today’s successful young woman is happily married yet still happier single, that she stands by her man yet has many lovers, that she is virtuous yet possessed of a whole lot of outrageously expensive shoes, handbags, lipsticks and creams. It is in these same modal terms, calling to mind what musicians refer to as defunct harmonies, that the enterprising journalist must learn to describe everything from the conflict in Iraq to Hegel’s phenomenology, confident in the knowledge, I repeat, that in the end it is only money that matters.


  

If possession is nine-tenths of the content, qualification is nine-tenths of the form. So let us babble away as though civilisation were an episode of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous set someplace east of the Urals, yet with careful attention to the English adverbs without whose mediating influence even a hardened professional can find herself out in the cold in a country as temperate as Great Britain. They are a wonderful way to make an abstraction of even the most conventional narrative, weaving contradiction, absurdity, and irresponsibility into the fabric of modern journalism out of whose warm tartan folds, engagingly blunt, naked consumerism leers at the unwary in a presentiment of some greater obscenity in its gift.

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