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The Writing on the Wall: When Reality Isn't Enough

Jesse Kornbluth on why fiction is sometimes more comfortable than reality

By Jesse Kornbluth - June 6, 2005

The journalist is leaving the stage. The blogger is calling it quits. Emerson was right: "The bust outlasts the throne"—they'll be singing the songs of Dylan long after Bush's name is dust. If I'm really serious about wanting to shake things up, fiction is the ticket.

Goodbye, cruel world, I'm off to write my novel.

I realized that last week at the D Conference, a splendid affair held at a Four Seasons hotel just up the coast from San Diego. I love this conference and wouldn't think of missing it—first, for the presence of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Barry Diller and the other Lords of Tech (all those giant egos in one venue), but more for the journalistic voyeurism. It's a kick to watch ace Wall Street Journal writers Kara Swisher and Walter Mossberg sit those honchos down and ask them tougher questions than they'll ever be asked outside a courtroom. And the Lords love it too. It's a great tradeoff. In exchange for a half hour interrogation, they get to present a new product demonstration that's touted far beyond the pages of the WSJ. Afterwards, the audience asks a few barbed questions. Then we drift out to the lounges and network like crazy.

Steve Jobs was the first god to be grilled, and he was more than up for it—a little more bounce in his responses and he would have been Tom Cruise on Oprah. Last year, Jobs got me so excited I rushed out in the middle of his presentation to buy Apple stock. This year, I had a hard time caring about Apple's latest rollout, an eye-in-the-sky mapping system that seems of interest mostly for people who want to know everything about the rooftop air conditioning systems of huge office buildings.

Then it was our turn. People lined up at the microphones. Tech question. Marketing question. A woman stepped to the mike. "You've had a hard year, Steve," she said. "I just want to ask: How are you doing?"

And, right there, you could feel a thousand people gasp. This was real. That is, what used to be called reality, before TV put quotation marks around it and turned it into a lower-budget form of fiction.

"As you may know, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," Jobs said. "And I had surgery, and I seem to be fine. And thank you for asking."

Exhale. The moment passed. But what a moment. The shadow of death had been in the room—for all of us—and moved on. Inhale. Delicious. As real reality so often is.

It was my last satisfying moment at D. I couldn't figure out why. Tech was back, bigtime—the room was perfumed with success, you couldn't help being intoxicated. I did my share of gladhanding and dealmaking, I picked up some gossip and put it to immediate use. But by the time we reached the publisher's panel, I was so agitated I left my seat early: I needed to be the one at the microphone asking the first question.

My target was Donald Graham, whose empire includes the Washington Post and Newsweek. My subject was The Downing Street Memo. The American press shrugged this bombshell off; the Post ran its piece on the memo on page A18 more than two weeks after it was page one in the British press. "Which disturbs you more—that the Post missed the story, or that bloggers by the dozens are now reminding you that you missed it?" I asked Graham.

Graham talked about "human error." It was all I could do not to retort that there's been so much human error in the press these past few years that it was starting to look a lot like policy.

And then I realized, as I do on a regular basis, that I'm in a minority. A low-grade anger has muscled out the bemused irony that used to rule my writing. My closest friends, my wife and I all describe ourselves as sad. And there's no mystery why. It's the War. And not just the death and doom in Iraq—though that should be enough to upset anyone who's still got a beating heart—but the way the press has taken the government's lies and the public's lack of interest as a signal to back way off about...oh, about pretty much anything of consequence.

Reality? It's so yesterday. Or maybe it's tomorrow. No reason to deal with it today. Scarlett O'Hara, c'est nous.

But even a slow-mo trainwreck gathers speed toward the crackup. I think that's the thing making my little cadre nuts: seeing disaster ahead on a magnitude so great the bursting of the real estate bubble would go practically unnoticed. And worse, feeling completely unable to do a damn thing to avert this reckoning. My new plan? To follow the advice of Hesiod (700 BC): "It will not always be summer. Build barns." So I'm going to store up nuts against the winter—to protect my family, to make a pile of money.

That's why I'm turning my energy back to my novel. It's therapy. It's commerce. And, above all, it's a solitary enterprise. I kept away from this book for too long. I thought I had more urgent work, I thought I had a patriotic duty. So, for the last year, I did a daily blog for Beliefnet.com before deciding all I was accomplishing was reassuring a few thousand people that they weren't crazy. By the end, I was writing stuff like "I feel like the happiest Jew in Berlin in 1932" and virtual friends were writing back, "No, pal, 1936."

That's why my spirits soared when the woman asked Steve Jobs a simple, personal question. She cut through the pixels and got to the reality. What a drag to come back to mediaworld and read, for example, Thomas Friedman's plea to shut Guantanamo. Noble thought—but not much different from the dreams of a teenage girl who believes, against all evidence, that her wandering boyfriend will come to his senses and return to her. Well, let Friedman try to save the Republic. I'm done.

The paradox of writing fiction is that, at least for the author, it is reality. My characters are trapped in a situation that's achingly plausible; I've got to help them through it to a credible resolution. This feels like decent, blue-collar work. And it has the small satisfaction of human-scale protest. A novel is a story, and stories have a kind of primitive power—they're the weeds that grow in the sidewalk cracks, the campfire fables and telephone tales that can never be stamped out.

My wife and I saw a movie the other night that reminded us how fictional characters—little people, overlooked by media—can be much more compelling than stars and pols and CEOs. It's called "Brothers," and it's from Denmark. [Skip this paragraph if you're rushing off to see it.] The story is simple: A Danish soldier goes to fight in Afghanistan. His helicopter crashes; everyone on it is declared dead. In fact, he's the sole survivor—and a prisoner of the Taliban. His heartless captors present him with an impossible choice: Kill the other Dane we're holding prisoner, or we'll kill you both. The soldier cherishes his beautiful wife and two daughters; we see him do the unthinkable. Soon he's rescued and returned to his surprised and confused family. And then, of course, he must deal with what he's done. The movie, you see, is all about accountability—the first casualty of the Bush administration. Watching it is like watching sci-fi or a National Geographic special; these Danes might as well be another species. It's devastating, searing, unforgettable stuff. And, maybe just coincidentally, directed by a woman.

jessekornbluth.jpgWe have a small child, we don't get to movies in theaters much. And so, more often that not, I take my inspiration from music. I knew my head was in transition when I found myself hitting the repeat button on Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"—music that's nakedly poetic, openly emotional, totally about what happens between two people in one room. This week, I've broadened my playlist; I've been listening, over and over, to a Matthew Ryan song called "The Little Things." It rocks pretty hard, but at the end, he more or less whispers:

Songs are souvenirs
For the peace that hasn't come
And if it never does
Better still that they be sung.

In that seditious thought, I take comfort, feel hope, maybe even find strength. I have an uneasy feeling I'll need all that. Indeed, I have a feeling we all will.

Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.



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