Monday, July 23, 2012

Thinking about Sorkin

I've never read John Irving.  I don't want to any more than I ever have (not much) after reading Charles Baxter's excellent review of Irving's new book in the recent NYRB.  I've been thinking about the ending of the review for several days.  Here it is:

Reading John Irving’s novels, I have often found myself swept away by the story and emotionally overwhelmed at the same time that I have felt an uneasiness bordering on rage. Irving doesn’t mind assaulting his reader with full-frontal sentiment until that reader finally gives up or capitulates. Reading his novels is like spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast filled with Victorian furniture and being mugged in the middle of the night. I finished The Cider House Rules—the orphan takes over the orphanage!—in tears, but also outraged by what had been done to me. The reader of one of these novels does not collaborate with the author so much as submit to him, a condition that creates polarized responses of resentment and tender sentiment. The combined effect reminds me of an anecdote told by that charming and neurotic memoirist, pianist, and film star Oscar Levant, about a movie he once saw in the company of the composer Virgil Thomson: 

"...That same night we went to see a preview of the movie Young Man with a Horn, based on the legend of the late Bix Biederbecke. The story begins with a young man from Missouri. Virgil, too, was from rural Missouri, so the identification was immediate…. The boy’s role was played by Kirk Douglas and was a study of a musician in search of the indefinable…. When the lights went on after the cornball climax, Virgil’s face was streaming with tears. “What an awful picture,” he complained."
* * * 
The reason this review's been in my head, I think--other than its sheer excellence and perspicuity--is because of Aaron Sorkin's new show, The Newsroom.  As many reviews have attested, it's an appallingly bad show (bad in a way that recalls the 5th season of The Wire; its badness not only offends in the moment, it casts a retrospective pall on all the writer's done before).  A long thoughtful explanation of all that's wrong with The Newsroom is beyond my ambition at this moment.  In part though, what makes it so frustrating is the quality that Baxter finds in Irving, and that Virgil Thomson found in the Young Man with a Horn--the excellence of the craftsman in contrast with the mediocrity of the artist.

And as a craftsman Sorkin is undoubtedly a master.  He knows every trick, and he conjures up supremely affecting and moving moments seemingly without effort.  Unfortunately, they're wasted in service of what increasingly seems a puerile and uninteresting mind.  He's like a musician who can sight-read any score but can't compose anything but banalities.  If he weren't such a master of his craft--if he were just a hack writer on True Blood--no one would care about the quality of his imagination.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  He's frustrating because he does so much so well, but his skills are unbalanced.  He's like Paul McCartney, in Wings, a great musician but not a great artist.  So I watch the show to pick up tricks of the craft, but I have to pause and fast-forward through at least 1/3 of it.  I hate it, but I watch it and am affected.  


JMW said...

It's the Newsroom, not the Network, though I can see why you said that because from what I've read it borrows a bit thematically from that movie. Anyway. I haven't seen it yet. And from all I've read, I don't really want to. Would love to read your more ambitious take it on at some point, though.

Not shocked you never read Irving, but maybe mildly surprised. My sense is that many big readers (especially males?) had some late-adolescent experience with his books. Because they're great gateway drugs. I haven't read any in years, but Owen Meany, Garp and Hotel New Hampshire all had a big impact on me. And when I've dipped back into Meany, it seems -- in some ways -- not very good. His prose is too muscular and unpoetic (plenty of writers have the opposite problem), but he tells great stories. Which is nothing to sneeze at, as Baxter intimates, but not the whole ball of wax.

OK, more pertinent e-mail to you arriving later tonight...

Subliminal Gary said...

I got myself all worked up to defend The Newsroom to you. Not because you're wrong about it, particularly, but because I was itching for a good, pointless fight.

Then I watched the last episode. Gods, that was bad.

Dezmond said...

Haven't seen the show, but based on the many reviews I've read, I don't have much interest. It is like I wrote in a recent post on my own blog, I resent being preached to by people who don't seem to fully understand the issues. As many people do from his political perspective, he approaches things too emotionally and with not enough thought or reason. I say that bsed on his work that I have seen, and from all of the reviews I've read, the Newsroom seems to do it evenly more painfully than his previous work.

ANCIANT said...

Urp, yes. Newsroom. Sorry. I'm trying to edit less so I feel more permission to just write--treat it more as a journal, I mean. The blog. But that leads to worser writing. It's all first drafts, I mean, spewed out quickly. So, there are casualties.

JMW--I'm not opposed to Irving; I haven't avoided him out of any deliberate distaste. I've just never had anyone push him on me (which is usually how I end up reading stuff). I know plenty of people who've read him and enjoyed him, though. And I know he's a huge Dickens guy; so I probably would like him.

Dez, what's really surprising to me is that much of what's bad about the Newsroom is NOT its political speechifying. I actually thought the episode where they went back and 'exposed lies' told during the just-passed newsyear had some great content. Not to say there aren't a lot of tedious sermons about subjects the writer either doesn't understand or doesn't bother trying to understand (probably the latter)--there are. But there was political sanctimony on the West Wing, and it didn't usually bother me.

Although the thing last night about the Scott Walker stuff in Wisconsin was deeply infuriating.

Anyway, the political banality of it is not at the core of what makes it frustrating. And 'frustrating' is really the operative word. As I said, if Sorkin were just putting out the usual network pablum, I wouldn't bother being upset about his writing. The frustration is that he's so good at certain types of writing, it makes his glaring failures at others all the more irksome. He's like a pitcher who can throw 108 MPH, but can't throw strikes when he needs to.

I think success may not have helped him, either. I wouldn't be surprised if the folks at HBO have more or less let him do whatever he wants. Too much leeway might not have helped him.

JMW said...

"I think success may not have helped him, either. . . . Too much leeway might not have helped him." The list of people/artists about whom I would say this is a long one. But he's done good stuff recently enough (Social Network) that it still seems odd. But that was a collaboration, so maybe that helped.

Please keep writing freely. You can always change "Network" to "Newsroom" after an annoying person like me points it out. Small price to pay.

ANCIANT said...

I realize, btw, I keep saying that it's bad but not saying exactly what makes it bad--it's not the political speechifying, it's other stuff, as much, but what other stuff? It dispirits me to anatomize all its many failings, so I have not done so. But they include having female characters who are made lovable by being stupid (the head producer can't do arithmetic without counting on her fingers); manufacturing ridiculous tension between the 'network honchos' and the noble reporters (a shouting match erupts b/c a network heavy INSISTS that the head anchor declare Gabby Giffords dead b/c all the other networks have done so); people constantly reciting their resumes to each other; people in work environments constantly having massively personal shouting matches about their love lives in front of everyone else; ridiculous ignorance on the part of supposedly senior newspeople (the head producer doesn't understand how BANKS work!); and on and on and on....