Swans 10th Anniversary
by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - May 8, 2006) When I was growing up in the lower east side of New York, my irrepressible moxie got me into the offices of the just-founded Village Voice, where I talked myself into a job as off-Broadway reviewer. Still in high school and so wet behind the ears that the droplets were slithering down my neck, I began covering the nascent Off Broadway theatre in and around Greenwich Village and, gradually, felt myself incorporated into the paper's personality. It was that "personality" that first attracted me. At the time, long before it was colonized by the grasping New Times media, The Voice was a true counter-cultural paper, boasting a regular column by Norman Mailer (an early backer of the paper), dance reviews by Jill Johnson, film reviews by Jonas Mekas, play reviews by Jerry Tallmer, cartoons by Jules Feiffer and contributions from people like Henry Miller, Luc Sante, Pete Hamill, and a host of "underground greats" who have since disappeared -- many without trace.
Being part of The Voice helped me realize who I was. It added molecules to my identity. I had become part of a small cluster of people who were critical of government, rankled by hypocrisy, opposed to mainstream hokum disguised as art and turned on by innovation -- not only culturally, but as it applied to one's personal life. The Voice stance involved being hypercritical, probing, and dismissive of the shibboleths of American society as they played themselves out in that transitional period between one decade and the next. The chip on my shoulder, I came to believe, was simply a halo that had slipped down from my head, and although others might view me as a cranky and argumentative dissident, and controversial, there were those who looked upon those traits as positive aspects of a burgeoning personality sloughing off the over-sanitized legacy of the fifties, which were drifting helplessly into the inferno of the sixties.
The Voice and the "tone of voice" it espoused became the flag of my disposition. It culturized me by making me aware that there were others who thought as I did, experienced the same kinds of social and esthetic impulses -- and in so doing, expanded a consciousness which was mawkishly juvenile and inchoate.
Later, in England, I felt the same kind of burgeoning from another counter-cultural publication, the bi-monthly Encore Magazine; a small, cheaply-produced, black-and-white harbinger for what eventually became the "New Wave." Never having more than 3,500 readers, it ultimately (and incongruously) turned into one of the most influential publications in the British theatre. Encore championed the first play of Harold Pinter, (a widely disdained work called The Birthday Party), the work of left-wing writers such as Max Frisch, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Peter Handke, and Bertolt Brecht -- and innovative French newcomers like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco, who were conveniently but falsely categorized as "absurdist." I eventually became one of the three editors of the magazine and my contributions appeared alongside those of Peter Brook, Kenneth Tynan, Lindsay Anderson, Arnold Wesker, John Arden, and Robert Bolt. The declared enemies of Encore were West End commercialism, the Lord Chamberlain's office (which at that time still censored what British audiences could see on British stages) and the ubiquitous stodge of middle-class playwrights such as Terence Rattigan and William Douglas Home that glutted most of the classier London theatres.
It was all relentlessly exuberant and sometimes idiotically militant. Writers and intellectuals who would run a mile from a fist fight or the threat of a midnight mugger were belligerently engaged in cultural battles with cutlass in hand. Our favored location was "on the barricades," firing fusillades, trying to subvert or overthrow the Establishment, routing the Philistines and "epater-ing the bourgeois." Mocking those stuffed shirts and bloodless upper-class vampires whose indignation and disdain served only to whet our resolve.
For me, my association with Swans is something of a reincarnation of those heady days. And although I feel a strong kinship with many of my colleagues on the magazine, I am nigglingly aware that there is very little of the energetic militancy that made those previous associations so intoxicating. My fellow writers are often astute, perceptive, dickeringly analytical and intellectually stimulating -- but rarely provocative, subversive, or iconoclastic. There is an academic aroma to many of their essays which sometimes makes them read like the esoteric pages of a university journal. The language is more concerned with nuance than outrage, more critical than rebellious -- even when the object of criticism seems to justify rebellion; safe where it should be risky -- as if these writers felt the Department of Homeland Security might be vetting their essays and, somewhere down the line, there might be a price to pay for being too outspoken. It would not be politic to single out individual authors but I will say that I miss the pugnacious rhetoric that John Steppling used to bring to these pages and feel a more Stepplingesque approach to social and political issues would give the magazine a firmer spine and more impressive muscularity.
Analyses of contemporary events which do not encourage the readership to tackle or transform legitimate grievances is simply wearing one's gripes on one's sleeve. Gripes that don't escalate into protest inhabit a literary netherworld where the brain occasionally gets tickled but the heart is never stirred. There is a whole sheaf of publications, from The Atlantic Monthly downward, that proffer insight and commentary -- as if analyzing a tacky issue were tantamount to "taking up arms" against it. Opinion inhabits a realm utterly distinct from action language -- language which actively urges collaboration between readers and writers in order to induce change. The literary quality of MoveOn.org is far inferior to that of Swans or other magazines of its kind that I could mention, but almost all of its prose is committed to firing up its readers and provoking direct action -- whether it is harassing congressmen, impeaching the president, or inciting a demonstration. If you want some examples of action prose, I refer you to the Declaration of Independence and parts of the United States Constitution, the works of Tom Paine and Voltaire -- activist writers who were personally embroiled in the struggles about which they wrote and for whom writing was simply the overflow of social activism.
In a world saturated by newsprint and cybertext, an informational deluge from which no one can possibly escape, the question of what writing ought to be doing becomes itself a burning issue. Analysis and opinion certainly serve a purpose, but when all one has is analysis and opinion, it begins to feel as if the richness of language is being drained by redundancy. TV's talking heads largely duplicate the articles of the major weeklies and monthlies, and blogging, although occasionally insolent and provocative, has lowered the standards we used to apply to the written word. If any would-be scribbler's meandering diary entries are to be considered part of contemporary literature, where does that place works like Pascal's Pensées, Thoreau's Walden or The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
It is bracing to have novelists like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen maintaining the standards established by writers like Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer, but periodical prose has a different function -- especially in volatile times such as these when the fibers of American democracy appear to be coming apart. Chekhov once claimed that all art need do was to "ask questions," but in a period of social tumult, a horde of questions without corresponding answers is just an exercise in evasion. What is missing in American journalism today are writers whose works are exemplary of the change that their articles should embody. Not just analytical snowboarding to display their literary skills, but resounding declarations of convictions whose validity is so striking it prods readers into action.
No, you won't find such articles in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly or (god forbid) The National Enquirer, but there should be outlets which encourage and disseminate action prose, which grapples with the apocalyptic issues that have now become the preoccupation of every thinking man and woman in America. And one would hope on this anniversary of its tenth "year to heaven," one might find such writing in Swans.
Starting its eleventh year of free publication, Swans is rich in friends, but poor in cash. If you've enjoyed being a Swans reader, please help us out with aThank you.