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Review of Ron Powers’ “The Cruel Radiance: Notes of a Prosewriter in a Visual Age”

Newsday, January 19, 1995

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 journalism-as-storytelling.”

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.