THE CRUEL RADIANCE: Notes of a Prose writer in a Visual Age, by Ron Powers.
University Press of New England, 250 pp., $ 25.
I ONCE HAD AN EDITOR who, whenever anyone asked him what kind of magazine he
wanted to start (the desire to create one's own magazine being practically a
prerequisite for ambitious New York editors), would say: "Something like Esquire
in the '60s." When pressed to expand on this delphic response, he harkened back
to a time when such writers as Joan Didion, James Agee, John Hersey and Gay
Talese had actually been encouraged to tell stories - long, passionate, detailed
detailed narratives composed in a distinct voice that forever left an imprint on
the subject at hand. Later, when my editor's dream magazine failed after only
one issue, I sensed that its demise was emblematic of a larger loss to our
culture; not merely that of a fast-fading literary genre, but perhaps of a
manner of perceiving the world.
This loss is the subject of "The Cruel Radiance," Ron Powers' collection of
lectures, essays, fiction, profiles and criticism from the past decade. Without
ever surrendering to the easy cynicism that has marred much recent writing about
writing, Powers explores the perils of prose in a visual age with the
thoughtfulness and subtlety one rarely sees in contemporary cultural criticism.
A rough and ready midwestern journalist with a Pulitzer and an Emmy under his
belt, Powers occupies an intellectual position somewhere between the bar stool
and the lectern. The loss of community, the homogenization of culture, the
destruction of genuine variety, our inability to appreciate "the cruel radiance
of what is" (in James Agee's phrase) - all these dilemmas, Powers argues, are
intimately linked to the decline of what he calls "expansive, narrative
With the concepts of community and narrative journalism as twin points on his
moral compass, Powers shows the complex ways in which one creates the conditions
for the other. "In telling the people of a certain place the elemental tales
about themselves and their place, the teller creates the common consciousness
necessary for community," he writes. "Likewise, the common consciousness of a
community at once enhances the need for a teller - an honest broker of local
history, ritual and myth - and serves as a sort of moral regulator; it assures
by the critical attention it pays, that the broker remains honest."
The problem with television - as well as other electronic distractions Powers
doesn't deal with here - isn't that they have engendered a country of
illiterates so much as that they have effectively devalued such journalistic
virtues as intuition, spontaneity and personal insight, while overvaluing the
kind of writing that is produced by market research. This wouldn't be so tragic
if it weren't for the fact that the above characteristics also are classic
democratic virtues, making their decline a de facto political problem.
"Gannettspeak is advancing the paralysis of people's capacity to analyze, to
make distinctions, and finally to intervene in a life beyond the personal," he
writes. When Powers mourns the death of narrative journalism he simultaneously
laments the impoverishment of American public life.
Although Powers has lofty concerns on his mind, he manages to treat them in
an appealingly unlofty way. One might think that there is something odd about a
book that intersperses serious cultural criticism with profiles of MTV
wunderkind Robert Pittman and defunct talk-show monster Morton Downey Jr. But
Powers is not content to pronounce from on high and insists on showing the
reader exactly the toll television has taken.
A N AWARD-WINNING TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Powers understands that
the real threat of television is not so much its retrograde politics but its
very lack of any value system at all. Driven more by marketresearch than moral
imagination, television's icons are "false proletarians" who have traded a
dedication to truth for a talent for distraction. Describing MTV as "the LSD of
the Reagan Revolution," Powers draws attention to its truly dangerous cultural
influence in a profile of its creator. "There is no beginning, middle and
end," Pittman confides casually, "it's all ebb and flow."
Despite his generally pessimistic tone, Powers sees a few bright spots on the
cultural landscape. The Camera Age is in decline, he notes. Having lost its
capacity to move people by the force of its iconographic images, it now merely
anesthetizes. In addition, independent documentary makers like Fred Wiseman and
Helen DeMichiel have shown what narrative journalism can do when artists work
outside the corporate constraints of the entertainment industry.
In their passion and talent for innovation, Powers argues, these "sons and
daughters of Agee" may represent something like a second flowering of literary
journalism, complete with the moral discontent and political concerns of the
first. Even if we children of the visual age will never again see anything
resembling the mythic Esquire of the '60s, perhaps the fragile links between
community and journalism will survive after all.
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