EDITOR’S NOTE: Our innate modesty and abhorrence of insularity, self-referencing, self-reflexivity, and, well, self-everything would normally prohibit us from publishing this piece. But we were so captivated by this tribute by one Bright Lights writer (Norm Ball) to another (Andrew Grossman) that we decided to be loosen up and go ahead and publish it. We appreciated Norm’s thoughts, which both celebrate Andrew’s unique talents and discuss the larger implications of his writings in these strange times, and hope you will too. — Gary Morris
No great friend of Orwell’s brevity, rude efficiency for its own sake, or getting to the point like a cogitating machine, this guy chooses instead to really write. Thus, if you don’t have the time, or one of your other eight multitasked screens is clamoring for your divided, depreciated attention, he may not be the writer for you. Nonetheless we mustn’t let Andrew become a scapegoat to our criminal distractedness.
He’s forever ending sentences with rhetorical questions, a technique that politely guides the reader from one startling insight to the next. In the hands of a less erudite writer, this technique would immediately be sanctioned as patronizing and coyly polemical. But Andrew is too smart and too wise for narrow polemics. Without great fanfare, he assumes the lead. Readers will acquiesce to being led once the writer has demonstrated the intellectual integrity of his motives. Grossman has proven himself an honest broker. Reader suspicions are suspended.
There is so much going on in this introductory paragraph (from “When the World Was Wide(r): A Requiem for PBS”): New Left-Marcusian wariness, deceptive depths, broadening shallows, insensate waders, poisoned waters, misread tides, unquenched thirsts, thirsts hell-bent on cessation, honest skepticism over silly notions of a priori purity. The ambitions are Nietzschean, a geometric starburst as opposed to the neat, linear bullet-fodder routinely found on corporate PowerPoint presentations. We should expect much more from our culture thinkers than we do our marketing managers. And shouldn’t some realms be preserved from the ordering protocols of commercial speech? Grossman writes against the efficiency curve. We are rewarded with fruitful difficulty. This paragraph is a dimensioned exercise in breaking out all over:
The exponential explosion of television channels is yet the most logical manner in which a capitalist multiplicity attempts to mask comprehensive banality and degradation. The cruel volume of channels begs to be read as a liberation, yet the ocean shallows as it broadens, revealing a barren bedrock on which we stand dumb and erect, only wishing the waters were deep enough to drown. The image of Tantalus is inverted — we wish not to quench our thirst but kill it, for the stream runs thick with poison. But when were the waters pure? Contrary to McLuhan, did the toxins, in fact, precede the stream?” — from “When the World Was Wide(r): A Requiem for PBS”
Andrew’s writing is easily convicted on its unapologetic “density.” He doesn’t just get to the point like a two-minute egg-timer or a six-minute manager. This audacious sense of intellectual circumspection works against the savage tempo of the present moment. What is really meant by the charge of density (in this blog-clogged age) is tightly compressed intellectual rigor. Just as modern man cherishes his blissful state of unthinkingness and the attendant easy reads such sleepwalk rewards, Grossman is not for the lazy reader. Nor is it his fault the mere commission of challenging prose today (and here I pointedly exclude its turgid cousins: academic pedantry, film criticism that invokes mise en scene and other related obscurantisms) almost by itself is construed as an audacious political statement. To all this, Adorno, enemy of war and no friend of Joan Baez, would offer a knowing smirk.
As for Orwell, Asimov pegged him for missing the trajectory of our dystopic future by a mile. I’m similarly leery of the former’s quest for written “clarity.” Clarity sounds like the guiding principle for an IKEA coffee table’s assembly instructions. The marketplace assails us with commercial tripe and idiot-proof prescriptions. After all, the salesman tells us just enough to consummate a sale. Indeed, one of the great sales admonitions is to stop talking when the sale is in the bag. In a sense, I seek in literature a partial respite from the market’s received form of violent simplicity. Don’t get me to your point. Let us fashion a point together.
Grossman’s writing exhibits equal parts thinking and writing. Frankly, we should have more thinking in our writing — even if it slows the normal process of reading to a useful crawl. Re-reading and lingering over the occasion paragraph is not a crime yet. (Though eyes that loiter on the written page will soon spark inquiries from HSA retinal scanners.) Certain power centers wish death on those messengers who tamper with today’s blistering public tempo as the former are suspected of making thinking possible. So be it. Intellectual death has already claimed the impatient reader. May vital writers and their dwindling audiences always remain one paragraph ahead of the goon squad.
Power encourages the glossed read. Pamphlets and Twitter deny subversive thinking the proper venues and media for taking root. Incommunicado is built into the frame. We’re back to politics, power, and control, if we ever left it. Grossman is a thorn in the side of our culture’s Cliff Note sensibility. Most readers have been ankle-deep in Andrew’s 500-channel toxic pool for so long they lack the eyes and ears for his bedrock ruminations. Therein lies the saddest paradox of all: The life-rope is never grasped by those up to their necks in shallow waters. A pity really as Andrew might represent one of our last, best friends, calling us back to more fulsome locales where the prospect of thinking remains both a tantalizing possibility and a potential world-changer.