The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part II)
THE NOVELIST is a private creature, the reporter a public one, and the two have little to nothing in common. That more or less sums up the first half of this essay—last month’s entry. I am going to spend the rest of it trying to demonstrate another mundane assertion: one cannot be both a novelist and a reporter at the same time.
Unless you share, along with Dr. Jekyll or Gollum, the capacity to instantaneously morph into another creature for a few hours, it is not possible to be at once a novelist and a reporter. Part of the difficulty is that both the newspaper and the novel are slave drivers who demand, even while stroking your ego and chuffing you up, that you offer your soul—something that cannot be shared like bread. You may serve one but not two masters.
Each of the masters demands off-hours devotion. If you are in the thick of a novel, you may complete your writing for the day, but the characters will never stop whispering and bantering in your head; you may of course refuse to listen, but then you risk missing out on something essential without which your characters will turn out to be mono-dimensional phonies. In the same way, the reporter can never escape the news. There is no withdrawing from the noisy world, no peace of the recluse. If a ‘big story breaks,’ you must be there with recorder and notebook to get the story down, despite the fact that you may be in one of those morbid moods where nothing short of the Apocalypse will pique your interest.
I have so far done my best to resist the infiltration of the newsroom in my out-of-office hours. I must be one of only a handful of reporters, at least in the industrialized nations, who lack a cell phone. But it turns out that I am paying doubly for my unprofessional revolt. In recent weeks I have repeatedly woken up in a jarring anxiety because I cannot figure out the angle on the urgent news story I was just dreaming about. When you begin having nightmares over lead sentences, you know that, cell phone or no cell phone, your ass is now the newspaper’s.
But like Mephistopheles, the novel and the newspaper bestow spoils in exchange for your soul, though dissimilar ones. The novel offers freedom from all worldly trappings (resumes, supervisors, outfits, social niceties) and the electric sense that you are going for It, for the Big One, the novel that the slumbering century has been roaring for, the novel that will not render senseless all the transgressions and inflictions and errors of your life, that will transport you up over all the stifling tedium of your daily rote, that will make something alive and terrible and lasting before your life has hemorrhaged away, that will turn your days into a foolhardy one-in-a-million gamble, though a gamble for what you don’t even know nor do you care since it is the mad swinging thrill of the gamble that counts.
The newspaper, meanwhile, takes a blunt paws-to-the-earth approach in the booty it offers. There are the basics: a daily readership and a salary, even if a paltry one; the combination, at least to a novelist, approaches nirvana. Then there are the accoutrements: travel and social mingling, the opportunity to act upon your indignation at the corruption of power (ie. expose crooks in high places), the opportunity to be corrupted by the many freebies offered you in hopes of good press (ie. lunches, trinkets, flights, flattery), the opportunity to avenge yourself on those who wrong you or your family (ie. front page, you bastard), the confidence boost from seeing your name in print every day, the inflated sense of self-importance that comes from knowing that you are not only close to the events of your day but also writing their history, and the airs that result from having the weight of a newspaper behind you, something that always commands you respect no matter how unwarranted it may be.
This combination of perks and demands ensures that, as with the corporate or military life, you maintain absolute loyalty to your god. The same modern pressures that have rendered the under-forty crowd into an itinerant group of job-changers have also led to a rise in ‘holistic’ and ‘integrated’ lifestyles that blend such things as Buddha and Big Business. But, facades and frivolities aside, you cannot be a monk in the morning and a tycoon in the afternoon. The meditation room and the boardroom may amicably sit side-by-side, but you cannot serve God and Mammon. It was true thousands of years ago and it remains true now.
From afar the newspaper appears to win in the Faustian bid for the writer’s soul; whereas the novel’s intangible offerings are suspiciously subjective, the no-nonsense bounty of the press realm is indisputable. For example, I am currently on a Cyprus Airways plane heading to London for a weekend frolic known as a EU press event, compliments of the European Commission. No novel of mine has ever afforded me such an opportunity. The novel may offer dignity and bouts of exultation, but when it comes to material goods it cannot, except for a lucky few, even dole out a coffee, let alone airfare, room and board.
From up close, however, the newspaper life is less glorified. Inept bores and unscrupulous devils continue to run the world in great part because the press is constantly chasing after them with microphones and making a fuss over them. It is possible of course to ask the chieftains the right questions and to place their quotes against the relevant facts so that you are not merely telegraphing propaganda. But the fact remains that journalists clustered around a high-ranking official more resemble buzzards around a piece of rotten meat than they do purveyors of truth. In fact there is no avoiding the foul scene for reporters and officials rely on each other: the reporters need the ‘authoritative sources’ and the officials need the PR platform, even if it is not great PR. For better or worse, the unhappy mycorrhizal lifeline between the two is a permanent one.
A newspaper also affords no time for loitering over words, for the sculpting and buffing that is necessary to make the pages gleam. The essential matter for every newspaper is to fill the pages. An invisible sign may as well hang over all newsrooms: ‘Poetic sorts best not apply.’ If you manage to squeeze out a pleasing turn of phrase over the course of the article, then kudos to you, but like with public toilets at chili con carne fiestas, you will upset the others if you take too long to finish your work.
In its mythic idealized form, the newspaper promotes vigorous concise prose. But economic forces push newspapers towards the sort of vulgar hyperbole where a simple rain shower is made out to be a torrential downpour, or a fleecy cloud a thunderhead. This leads to the temptation to overuse action verbs: speculation rages, controversy swirls, rows erupt, and plans are thrashed out. It is easy but dangerous to fall back on them; and like with chain-smoking or masturbation, once you start it is hard to kick the habit.
Cousins to the action verbs are the action adjectives; so we read about ailing Archbishops, beleaguered MPs, and embattled defendants. On the whole these adjectives are inoffensive and can impart some needed zest to a dull topic. But due to time pressures, the temptation also exists to bang out the articles (note the action verb) by stringing together lifeless hand-me-down phrases and clichés. There is no avoiding every wooden phrase, but you can only handle so many blows beneath the belt, opened cans of worms, and wool pulled over your eyes before you fly off the handle, hit the roof, or maybe even go into a rage, turning purple in the process, of course.
It is obvious I am only spiraling further away from what I said I would do at the outset: demonstrate why one cannot simultaneously be a reporter and a novelist. I have made a feeble case so far. In fact, looking back, I can see that I have entirely ducked the issue, and have simply tried slipping in a few dodgy contrived reasons to justify my claim, which I now wish I had retracted and edited out long ago.
But due to procrastination it is now the night of December 4th, and so I have no time to cut-and-paste this essay into a more coherent and respectable state. But something must be done with it. Since I have been steadily dropping, throughout this two-part essay, from third person neutral (the reporter cannot), to second person inclusive (you cannot), to first-person confessional (I cannot) I will stick to the confessional mode.
When I wrote “one cannot be both a novelist and a reporter at the same time” what I should have written was “I cannot.” I may as well admit that I have proven incapable of finishing or even working on a novel while holding a job as a newspaper reporter and so I have been making sweeping God-like generalizations, based on my very limited experience, about the incompatibility of reporting and novel-writing in order to shift all the blame for my fiction hiatus onto the universe. In other words, much of this has been no more than a giant excuse to make myself feel better.
But not all of it is an excuse. The rest is the result of a feeling that may come over me after a laborious day in the newsroom, as I am sitting under a swaying light on the balcony in the cool of the rising breeze with the warmth of zivania upon me, overlooking the hum of nighttime Nicosia, properly alone with myself for the first time in days; at times like that my unfinished novel can strike, rising up out of my forgotten memory to stare at me grimly, to ask if I have stepped into the world only to step out of myself, to tell me that though I have been doing nothing but writing, in the end I have written nothing.
It is a feeling that brings to mind some words from a book that I read years ago on the shores of Sinai, when my days were long and brimming and empty:
- The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part I)
- Booze Therapy
- From Kibera to Mara
- Lament for Michael Kilburn (Part II)