Goodbye, Iconoclasts

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I got into a minor Twitter spat with a prominent author the other day, and rather than continue to argue his point, he blocked me. I’d called him out on a particularly egregious tweet, pure unfounded innuendo and fear-mongering around the new Covid variant, casting all governments and corporations as evil and everything wrapped up in the ominous packaging of an international conspiracy in the outbreak’s timing, with an appropriate dusting of scare quotes. I have no problem with anyone calling a government or corporation evil, or even blowhorning their pet conspiracies to batter the world’s ears with. What irritated me was the lack of nuance, or frankly, any substance, and his high-fiving unadorned anti-intellectualism. All he was really doing, I pointed out, was cueing the scary music and making bleh bleh sounds instead of actually saying something interesting.

The writer was Walter Kirn, whose work I’ve greatly admired, something I’ve told him. He prides himself as a mid-American oracle, living as he does in Idaho, the voice of anti-coastal elites, and I imagine no doubt crafts himself the successor to that true iconoclast, the late Denis Johnson. The two writers don’t just have Idaho in common, but bone-deep Christianity, and Kirn’s prose, while not a match for the master, is tough, surly, vibrant, and often alive. I, too, enjoy giving the finger to elites, coastal or otherwise, or puncturing the ballooned egos of the often hyper-privileged names that people the pages of The New Yorker or the New York Times. But that’s not what was happening here. He was slapping down an upstart like me, hardly a coastal elite, and slapping me down for pointing a finger at the hollow center of his argument.

It looked to me he was also doing something else, far more dispiriting: brand-creation. Since he’s launched a substack and been building an audience, the incisive paranoias that used to slice through many of his pronouncements are often watered down to muddle-headed tail-wagging appeals to the rightly (or wrongly) sceptical, MAGA-hat cheerleaders, and any and all versions of the old tin foil hat basement dwellers, be they vax-“hestitants” or anti-woke warriors, and it shows in the ditto-head hallelujahs that chorus through his replies. And as I’ve learned, the whole so-called conversation pruned of dissenting voices. That’s not to say there’s not much that’s still genuinely vital and urgent in his writing, if not his tweets, and he remains a wilderness voice cautioning, no screaming, against our often uncritical embrace of the new.

We all deserve to make a living, and it ain’t easy out here in the dark woods of writing these days. And if anyone still believes good writing always wins the day, I’ve got a bridge to sell them. But what happens when our self-proclaimed iconoclasts, fine and prescient writers like Kirn, choose innuendo over genuine outrage, fear-mongering over nuance, all in service of branding a marketable self-image? Or is the only way to be an iconoclast these days to brand yourself just that, across multiple, corporate-owned media channels? And yeah, Black Mirror’s already done the episode.

I laughed about it the following afternoon over a late breakfast. I was sitting with a friend and neighbor, the novelist Cara Hoffman, who, like me, has found a home in Athens, Greece. The café was in Exarcheia, perhaps the last truly iconoclastic neighborhood left in Europe, once home to many of the students who in 1973 stormed the local university, which led to the overthrow of Greece’s military dictatorship. The streets are crowded with crumbling mansions made into squats, graffiti-splattered walls and hip, black-clad anarchists hoarding benches, drinking beers. The occasional running battle with ever-present riot cops makes the night lively, with Molotov cocktails flaming through the air. It was partly this fuck you, in your face ethos that brought Cara here, a New York transplant like myself.

We’ve been having an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a writer these days, and how to make a living while trying to live ethically, to push against the social media and corporate behemoth that pigeonhole and squeeze us into ever narrower channels of profitable content creation. One of the basic puzzles comes down to this: How can you write against a system when, as a writer, the octopus stranglehold of Amazon/Facebook/the Big Five (or is it Four now?) Publishers has become the air you breathe, the sea you swim in, the limitless horizon of your life? Cara’s choice, like mine, has been to work with independents, but the independents can’t breathe without Amazon for sales or Facebook for promotion. How did publishing, and as a result, writing, become so toxically entwined with so much of what is, to use a word Walter Kirn loves to throw around, evil in modern society?

It’s not a question to be answered over an omelet, and we’re soon wandering the streets, busy on a Saturday. Posters and banners abound, as does graffiti, against fascism, against white pride, against the Airbnb invasion. But the signs of gentrification are everywhere. A communally run taverna is now a chic wine and pizza joint. Flashy sunglass stores hog the street just a block from the main square, the heart of much activist activity in the neighborhood. Riot cops stand idly on corners, in full regalia, staring into their phones. And the once-crowded square is mostly empty. Gone are the kids, the anarchists, the fuck you life. It’s obvious that a new face is being forcibly painted onto old streets. There’s even a plan to make it stylish with new cafes and bookstores, therefore safe for the Gucci-sporting denizens of upmarket Kolonaki, only a five minute Uber away, if traffic’s good. And of course, where the square is now will be a new Metro station, next stop Kolonaki.

With safety comes money, and maybe painting on a new face is all you need. Athens has had countless faces over the centuries, and its current one, bedraggled, down at heel, chaotic, wild, is much of what endeared the city to me. It’s not an easy city; much of its beauty lies in the sense of its ruin, which is palpable. Years of neglect, of little, or no, urban planning, of unchecked greed, of an everyone for themselves attitude, it’s all visible on the streets here. But take that away, and what do you have? Another cookie-cutter European capital with its deathly rows of cookie-cutter franchises and stores (and people). And as writers, as we brand ourselves to build our platforms and grow (ha!) our audiences, it’s the sharp edges that begin to vanish, the uncontrolled moments, the momentary shafts of light that cast into relief those parts of our souls that just might illuminate.




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