The Atlantic, while a storied magazine that hires talented writers, seems to have adopted an editorial policy that can be summed up in three words: “Provoke, provoke, provoke.” It’s like they lopped off the top of the BuzzFeed hourglass, the smiley half of the “what kind of shit do people forward?” equation, the part with cute kittens and dancing giraffes. They kept only the bottom part. In that bottom half, alongside conspiracy theories about how Dubya blew up the towers with nuclear secrets he bought from Chinese prostitutes trained by Hillary Clinton, sit top ten lists from the front lines of the gender wars. That and 90% of the Atlantic’s editorial content.
This was my reaction to the story they just published about Joan Didion. On the one hand, it is, as is usually the case for the Atlantic, well written and contains some kernels of truth. On the other hand, it basically says: Hunter S. Thompson showed us how to be a Man by shooting things and drinking whiskey. Joan Didion showed us how to be a Woman by writing pretty words about curtains and fancy flower leis. That is what Male Writing and Female Writing should do. Muscular prose. Pretty things. As soon as Joan Didion tried to be feminine and personal and political all at the same time, this article basically posits, she lost it. How dare she get old and continue to expect us to listen to her! How dare she share her personal life and still demand that we take her seriously as a writer! Being old and female and having emotions in public? That makes you ridiculous.
I am being reductive. But I’m so tired. Today, I’m just so effing tired of the gender wars. I have had some firsthand experience with young people who think Hunter S. Thompson showed them how to be a man by talking about whiskey and peyote. These are the same people who think they’re Hunter S. fans because they saw both movies, who tell me they want to be writers because they saw Almost Famous. They are less tragic only than the young ladies who tell me that Paris Hilton is a “real businesswoman.” True fans of Hunter S. Thompson see that he held a dark mirror up to the world. He observed keenly, he wrote out of a profound repulsion for hypocrisy and cant. His accomplishment was not to give us permission to behave badly; he was just as harsh on himself as he was on his subjects. We, male and female alike, are perfectly capable of figuring out how to barf on people’s shoes without great Gonzo journalism. And we don’t need Joan Didion to show us how to fold our napkins. Paris Hilton, in fact, while not an entrepreneur, does teach women how to adopt status symbols. Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion are both much more complex and important than that.
I have some deep-seated problems with Didion’s work, and I haven’t read Blue Nights yet, and, yes, I’m worried I’ll have serious problems with it… but I have problems with her as a lifelong admirer of her work. And I really don’t want to get into that here.
Fact is, I’m tired of Joan Didion, in an existential way, tired of the way I sometimes can’t get her voice out of my head, tired of my own voice. I believe we all need a swift spiritual kick to the head, or maybe, just some karaoke. No really. I was entranced last night by a funny little book called “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” (by Raina Lee). It’s just a primer on singing over recorded music in public, but it made me think about the beauty of small acts of social courage, about cultural differences and lived tolerance, about the demon on Buffy who could read your soul by watching you sing… It made me think about close the ridiculous sits to the sublime. Being provocative and cutting is sometimes easier than being enthusiastic and vulnerable. Curtains and flowers, whiskey and horse races, the pitfalls of social outings, our quotidian hypocrisies and shame… Stupid karaoke. In the light of a keen and perceptive attention, dross can be gold, gold can be worthless.