Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
April 6, 2017
I take some special pride and pleasure from the fact that this month's guest, Tom McGohey, is a former student that showed up in an introductory writing class I taught several decades ago.
Tom's craft essay, "Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth?" addresses a concern that, over time, has become something of a running motif on this blog. The matter I'm referring to is what Tom describes below as "the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life." In other words, the question he's raising is this: "...are we our words?"
In the piece, McGohey offer us several different examples of what he means: excerpts from the works of journalist Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, as well as illustrations and commentary from both himself and other writers. Tom considers all of this in relation to what he refers to as the larger connection “between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates."
#58 Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth? by Tom McGohey
It’s 11p.m., do you know what your inner loudmouth is doing? Is he popping off again? Is he making you look good or is he embarrassing you? Should he be encouraged, celebrated, awarded a prize for his convictions, his swaggering voice, or should he be stifled, silenced, erased from the pulpit of his page, or if preserved, stashed in a folder and buried beneath a pile of embarrassing pronouncements at the bottom of a drawer labeled, “False Starts & Other Obnoxious Railings That Once Sounded Like a Good Idea”?
“Inner loudmouth” is a term Ben Yagoda uses in his splendid book on style, The Sound on the Page, to describe the persona writers create (release? unchain? de-gag?) when they compose. The term evokes image of an overly precocious imp confined in your chest, kicking at your sternum, demanding entrance to your esophagus, and access to your tongue, where he will perform a buffoon’s ballet, reciting outrageous lines you wouldn’t dare utter yourself in polite society. He can be useful that way, offering candid, sometimes provocative, even offensive opinions and images, swirling and looping across the page like graffiti that, in some circles, could be considered great art, and in others, juvenile scrawlings that deface the landscape.
Yagoda explores the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life: are we our words? Would we acknowledge, much less embrace, our inner loudmouth outside the privacy of our homes, beyond the door of our writing rooms?
For example, consider the case of Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, where, upon the death of former heavyweight boxing champ, Sonny Liston, he published a journalistic eulogy titled “Amen to Sonny.” While readily conceding the seedier side of Liston’s life – former mafia thug, ex-con – Flaherty also expresses sympathy for a man used and abused by a corrupt sport and in a larger cultural conflict over the evolving role and image of a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Flaherty loves to skewer what he considers the pious and often hypocritical pronouncement of self-righteous guardians of liberalism. That attitude is on full display in the following passage describing the leadup to Liston’s title fight with then champion Floyd Patterson:
“He [Liston] arrived at a time when hopes of integration were high in the air, and Patterson and Ralph Bunche were everybody’s prototypical black men. I can’t recall anyone I know (with the exception of the Philadelphia-based writer Jack McKinney) who publicly wanted Liston to beat Patterson for the heavyweight championship. In Patterson’s corner were clustered Jimmy Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and the NAACP (which didn’t even want Patterson to give Liston the fight because of what Liston would do to the ‘Negro image’). As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys. Like the song, ‘Night Train,’ to which he jumped rope, he was that underground fear we wouldn’t face – the menacing black man who invaded the subway of our souls at four in the morning. In short, Sonny was a badass nigger.”
That last line about knocked me out of my chair. Man oh man, you couldn’t get away with that today, I thought. Hell, I can’t believe he got away with it then!
In the preface to his collected columns, Chez Joey, Flaherty writes, “A lesson for young journalists: in your early rounds forget the body and go for the head.” A pugilistic metaphor that sums up Flaherty’s persona in writing and in life; a perfect match of form and content, style and personality, Yagoda would probably say. Not much difference, if any, between, style and personality of Flaherty, who was a NYC dockworker and who as a reporter for “Village Voice” sometimes brawled, in print and with fists, with subjects, and who managed the mayoral candidacy of Norman Mailer, another brawler in word and deed. Flaherty certainly goes for the head in “Amen to Sonny,” not Liston’s head or Patterson’s, though he bloodies the latter’s nose with sarcastic jabs, but the collective head of boxing and liberals, white and black, who saw the match as a Manichaean bout between “good” and “bad” Negroes.
But what are we to make of that line about “badass nigger[s]”? Strictly in terms of structure, it’s a well-crafted paragraph, suggesting Flaherty knows exactly where’s he’s headed and he can’t wait to get there and smack pious hypocrites and his readers with such a provocative, if not outright offensive line. But you also get the sense of a writer overly pleased with his own sarcasm, a loud-mouth show-off seduced by his own persona who likes to pontificate himself. In this case, has the bravado of the persona exceeded the judgement of the craftsman?
To answer that question some historical and sociological context in matters of race is required. Unbeknownst to me, the term “bad / badass nigger” has had a fairly long and complicated history in America, particularly in sports, stretching back to days of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champ in early 1900s who infuriated whites with his mocking, defiant attitude. Scholars such as John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, and Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, have written extensively about the term. James Baldwin uses it in his powerful essay “A Report from Occupied Territory.”
So, “bad / badass nigger” is an acknowledged trope by both black and white writers, though with different connotations depending on context. In general, though, the term refers to a fearsome black man who threatens or intimidates or diminishes white authority. Does this semantic precedent justify or excuse a white sports writer using it? Do we assume that Flaherty is consciously employing a sociological term, or even subconsciously using it, as if the term were a fairly common one, at least for those who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about black people, whether athletes or intellectuals or average citizens being rousted and beaten by racist cops? Does Flaherty assume his readers will recognize this trope? If so, is he assuming too much knowledge in his audience? Would Village Voice readers of 70s have recognized the term, much less its complex connotations?
Let’s give Flaherty the benefit of doubt and say he was familiar with progressive criticism of race relations in America, may have even read Baldwin, whose essay was first published in The Nation in 1966. As a native New Yorker and a reporter he was certainly aware, on some level, probably more detailed than typical urban dweller, of grim conditions in “occupied” Harlem. Even a casual reading of a handful of Flaherty columns quickly reveals that, for all his graphic and smartass outrage and mockery, he was a very well-read man. His pieces are littered with high-brow literary references and metaphors. Regardless. Let’s grant him a higher intention than shock or knee-jerk, juvenile banter / taunting. Does he go too far? Is it enough to assume, or hope, that audience will hear the ironic quotation marks around inflammatory language? Whatever his persona – satiric and highly literate, cultural commentator or rude-crude, blunt troublemaker – when does a writer’s persona go too far? When should a writer stifle his “inner loudmouth” clean up his ethos for the sake of a less offensive pathos or logos?
My purpose here is not to defend or condemn Flaherty for offensive language, but to consider the connection between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates.
Indulging one’s inner loudmouth is seductive, at times even addictive, potentially leading to offensive or just plain obnoxious prose that undermines content. I need look no farther than my own writing for evidence of this mercurial “condition,” shall we call it, for it does suggest a disorder one might find in the official Psychiatric DSM. Admittedly I often write first and foremost to entertain myself, not for rhetorical effect or for “meaning” or message. I’m ethos first and logos last; hell, at times I’m all ethos, and what little logos I consciously craft is swallowed up by my loudmouth ethos: my style, caterer of my persona (or vice versa?) devours my content. The inner loudmouth thinks that most anything that tumbles out of its oral cavity is by default endlessly witty and a benefit, socially and morally, to anyone who reads it. (I’ve been living in the South for 30 years, and have lost track of the number of times my partner, God love her country-girl soul, has made excuses on my behalf for bewildered folks unsure of how to take some snarky comment: Don’t mind him, that’s just his smartass Yankee sense of humor. Email correspondence, I find, is particularly problematic for me, as I refuse to use emoji’s to explain my intentions; such reading aids strike me as a sniffy kind of post-traumatic trigger-warning: Too little, too late. )
I’ve had this problem with editors of literary journals, as well. In response to a personal essay I wrote about a guy so protective of his cat that he mounts a mission to destroy a neighborhood cat bullying his precious pet, one editor wrote that though they liked the piece, they weren’t sure how to take the tone: Was it supposed to be absurdist? Hell yes, I wanted to shout. Isn’t it obvious? Apparently not. An editor at another journal said the essay had provoked a contentious debate among the staff: some found it poignant, others found it offensive. To which I thought, Can’t it be both? A tension between tones of sympathetic and disturbing was the effect I was working for. Frankly, I thought it was the strength of the piece. So far no editor has embraced my hybrid-aesthetic of sincerity and sarcasm. The piece remains, sadly, unpublished. And I’m left to consider the distinct possibility that what I lack in my writing at times is a deft sense of touch and proportion. You can do anything, as long as it works, right? Right?
To my knowledge, there’s no template for touch in writing. It’s kind of like phrasing for a singer: you either got it or you don’t. I recognize it in other writers, and I’ve gotten to a point that what I admire most in any writer is the ability to modulate tone or, as Yagoda says, “the sound on the page.” But Yagoda does offer a pretty good taxonomy of style in the Chapter “Tendencies of Style”: “Competence, Iconoclasm, Extroversion, Feeling, Single-mindedness, Tension, and Solicitousness.” I would argue that any number of these qualities, separately and in combination, apply to Flaherty. When he calls Liston a “badass nigger,” he’s exhibiting iconoclasm, extroversion, and feeling. Solicitousness, however, does not seem high on his list of concerns, although he does make concerted efforts throughout the column to generate sympathy for Sonny, arguing that “he should be judged in context. He was better than the sport he practiced and the men who rule it. In fact, he was one of boxing’s most legitimate sons. When greed, hypocrisy, and corruption complete their ménage a trois, a Sonny Liston will always be plucked from the breach.” So the tension for Flaherty is that between iconoclasm and solicitousness. His sense of touch, stinging though it may be, lies within that tension.
Yagoda states, “Beware ‘Biographical Fallacy’: the assumption that you know a person when you know only his or her writing.” And illustrates the point with Adam Gopnik’s “Law of the Mental Mirror Image: we write what we are not. It is not merely that we fail to live up to our best ideas, but that our best ideas, and the tone that goes with them, tend to be the opposite of our natural temperament.”
Sounds good to me. Except according to Wilfred Sheed, writing in the introduction to Chez Joey, such laws did not apply to Flaherty:
“The man you meet on the page is precisely the one you meet in real life, and not some literary persona cooked up for the occasion. … When Joe does strike a pose, it is strictly for laughs or some other esthetic effect. His major distinction, in a field where showing off is mandatory and where marginal idiosyncrasies are cultivated like sick plants, is that he is always himself. … Joe’s contribution to New Journalism is a strict emotional precision, based on a lacerating self-awareness. … All this could be pretty painful if it wasn’t so funny. Joe may be cursed with the liverish eye of a satirist, but he is twiced blessed with the heart of a clown. … He isn’t mad at anybody, only operatically outraged, and this is the great strength in his writing. Yet his laughter can be as merciless as another man’s rage.”
So where does that leave us? I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. In the matter of giving voice to one’s inner loudmouth, I prefer to defer to the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Modern Essay”: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.”
Despite flunking two of three required freshmen writing courses, Tom McGohey went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at UNC-Greensboro, and to teach Composition and direct the Writing Center for twenty years at Wake Forest University. He is retired now, living in Southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Thread, and Sport Literate, and has been selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is pleased to have the opportunity to submit another assignment, forty years later, for the old mentor who inspired him to write while making up one of those F’s.