A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
George Packer Staff writer for The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: The Hitchens Prize is awarded annually by the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation to an author or a journalist whose work, in the spirit of the late Christopher Hitchens, “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” The 2019 winner of the Hitchens Prize is George Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic. This essay is adapted from the acceptance speech he delivered on Tuesday, January 21.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
After he got sick, I received an email that told me we were friends:
I know that either Rayner Heppenstall or possibly Richard Rees said of Orwell that he was too preoccupied with “the dirty handkerchief side of life”. But I find I must know exactly who said it and what the precise words were. Looking at my huge Orwell shelf I suddenly felt too exhausted to comb through it (which would once have been a pleasure) so I am employing you as a short cut.
Incidentally, because my library is loosely arranged by alphabet, I noticed last night that where the Orwell runs out there is a novel called The Half Man … [This was the title of my justly obscure first novel.]
Ingratiatingly, then, and in hopes of a swift lifeline, and with fraternal regards as usual.
The ability to be brutal in print and decent in person was a quality I very much admired in Christopher. It went to the heart of his values as a writer and a human being. It belonged to an old-fashioned code, and for all his radicalism, he was old-fashioned. He once said to me, “I’m a Paine-ite,” meaning Thomas Paine. That sounded right. Christopher was born a couple of centuries too late. He was a figure of the Enlightenment, a coffee-house pamphleteer, a ready duelist, an unreasonable fighter for reason, an émigré from England come to the New World to tell us what the universal words of our Declaration meant, and hold us to them.
As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?
First, there’s belonging. I know it sounds perverse to count belonging as an enemy of writing. After all, it’s a famously lonely life—the work only gets done in comfortless isolation, face-to-face with yourself—and the life is made tolerable and meaningful by a sense of connection with other people. And it can be immensely helpful to have models and mentors, especially for a young person who sets out from a place where being a writer might be unthinkable. But this solidarity isn’t what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.
Politicians and activists are representatives. Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another. They don’t write as anyone beyond themselves. But today, writers have every incentive to do their work as easily identifiable, fully paid-up members of a community. Belonging is numerically codified by social media, with its likes, retweets, friends, and followers. Writers learn to avoid expressing thoughts or associating with undesirables that might be controversial with the group and hurt their numbers. In the most successful cases, the cultivation of followers becomes an end in itself and takes the place of actual writing.
As for the notion of standing on your own, it’s no longer considered honorable or desirable. It makes you suspect, if not ridiculous. If you haven’t got a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them, then who are you? A mere detached sliver of a writing self, always vulnerable to being punished for your independence by one group or another, or, even worse, ignored.
In 2015, PEN America, an organization I belong to and admire, gave its first Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly. Four months earlier, two jihadists had slaughtered most of the paper’s staff at its weekly meeting in Paris. The award caused a lot of controversy among American writers. More than 200 PEN members denounced it, including some of the country’s most illustrious writers, and half a dozen table hosts refused to attend the awards ceremony. Charlie Hebdo’s satire, often juvenile, also took aim at intolerance in the Catholic Church and Orthodox Judaism, but the PEN writers found its crude caricatures of angry imams and the Prophet Muhammad beyond the pale. Theocratic Islam should be off-limits to satirists, the PEN writers argued, because French Muslims belonged to a “marginalized, embattled, and victimized” group. So do French Jews; so, at that moment, did French satirists. In fact, it took some nerve to argue that the balance of power between the heavily armed jihadists and the defenseless cartoonists was with the latter. These 200 writers wouldn’t honor other writers who had paid the ultimate price for expression. They were members of an organization dedicated to free speech, but they wouldn’t defend it in the face of murder. As Salman Rushdie said, “I hope nobody ever comes after them.” To its great credit, PEN held its ground.
Two years later, PEN gave the same Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the Women’s March. This time there was no controversy, because PEN members overwhelmingly supported the cause. The next year the award went to three student gun-control activists, and the year after to Anita Hill. However admirable, however courageous, the winners were no longer writers, and the issue was no longer freedom of speech. Perhaps the searing experience of 2015—the murders, the controversy that divided PEN, and then the incredibly tense awards ceremony, with riot police and bomb-sniffing dogs all around the Museum of Natural History—had taken some of the heart out of “freedom of expression courage.” After Charlie Hebdo, it became an award for American political activism. PEN was honoring heroes on its side—public figures whom the majority of American writers wholeheartedly support. The award became less about freedom than about belonging. As Charlie Hebdo showed, free speech, which is the foundation of every writer’s work, can be tough going.
Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
A friend of mine once heard from a New York publisher that his manuscript was unacceptable because it went against a “consensus” on the subject of race. The idea that publishers exist exactly to shatter a consensus, to provoke new thoughts, to make readers uncomfortable and even unhappy—this idea seemed to have gone dormant at the many houses where my friend’s manuscript was running into trouble. Fortunately, one editor remembered why he had gotten into publishing and summoned the courage to sign the book, which found its way to many readers. But the prevailing winds are blowing cold in the opposite direction. Incidents like this, minor but chilling, happen regularly in institutions whose core purpose is to say things well and truly. If an editorial assistant points out that a line in a draft article will probably detonate an explosion on social media, what is her supervisor going to do—risk the blowup, or kill the sentence? Probably the latter. The notion of keeping the sentence because of the risk, to defy the risk, to push the boundaries of free expression just a few millimeters further out—that notion now seems quaint. So the mob has the final edit.
At a moment when democracy is under siege around the world, these scenes from our literary life sound pretty trivial. But if writers are afraid of the sound of their own voice, then honest, clear, original work is not going to flourish, and without it, the politicians and tech moguls and TV demagogues have less to worry about. It doesn’t matter if you hold impeccable views, or which side of the political divide you’re on: Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Last year I taught a journalism course at Yale. My students were talented and hardworking, but I kept running into a problem: They always wanted to write from a position of moral certainty. This was where they felt strongest and safest. I assigned them to read writers who demonstrated the power of inner conflict and moral weakness—Baldwin, Orwell, Naipaul, Didion. I told my students that good writing never comes from the display of virtue. But I could see that they were skeptical, as if I were encouraging them deliberately to botch a job interview. They were attracted to subjects about which they’d already made up their minds.
My students have come of age during a decade when public discourse means taking a position and sticking with it. The most influential writers are those who create a dazzling moral clarity. Its light is meant to overpower subjects, not illuminate them. The glare is so strong that readers stop seeing the little flaws and contradictions of actual life, and stop wanting to—they have only to bask in the warmth of a blinding glow. The attraction of moral clarity is obvious, never more so than in the Trump years, when everything of value—honesty, kindness, tolerance, loyalty, courage—is daily trashed by the most powerful people in America. The Trump presidency is tremendously clarifying, and the duty of a citizen is also clear—to uphold those values in every way possible.
But the situation of writers is different. On the whole, Trump has not been good for them. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “‘Views’ do not really count. It matters not what you think but how you think.” For writers, certainty has a flattening effect. It washes out the details of human experience so that they lose their variety and vitality. Certainty removes the strength of doubt, the struggle to reconcile incompatible ideals, the drama of working out an idea without knowing where it will lead, the pain of changing your mind. Good writing doesn’t deny or flee these things—it explores them down to their depths, confident that the most beautiful and important truths are found where the glare of certainty can’t reach.
The imperative to take a position can be stunting. It makes writers less likely to test their ideas against others who disagree, against personal experience, and against facts. The enviable job of a reporter is to seek human situations that constantly confound your fixed ideas. But under financial as well as political pressure, reporting has given way to opinion, whose currency, which is certainty, is cheaper in every way.
Between my generation and that of my students is an entire cohort of writers in their 30s and 40s. I think they’ve suffered most from the climate I’m describing. They prepared for their trade in the traditional way, by reading literature, learning something about history or foreign countries, training as reporters, and developing the habit of thinking in complexity. And now that they’ve reached their prime, these writers must wonder: Who’s the audience for all this? Where did the broad and persuadable public that I always had in mind go? What’s the point of preparation and knowledge and painstaking craft, when what the internet wants is volume and speed and the loudest voices? Who still reads books?
Some give in to the prevailing current, and they might enjoy their reward. Those who don’t are likely to withdraw. The greatest enemy of writing today might be despair.
Writers in other times and places have faced harder enemies than a stifling orthodoxy imposed across a flimsy platform. I have no glib answers to ours. What I can say is that we need good writing as much as ever, if not more. It’s essential to democracy, and one dies with the other. I know that many readers hunger for it, even if they’ve gone quiet. And I know that many writers and editors are still doing this work every day. Meanwhile, whatever the vagaries of our moment, the writer’s job will always remain the same: to master the rigors of the craft; to embrace complexity while holding fast to simple principles; to stand alone if need be; to tell the truth.