The only real surprise about William T. Vollmann winning the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central was that merit was rewarded. In literature as in life this is not always the case. I have been reading Vollmann since my college days in the mid-1990s, when a love affair with a Canadian caused me to pick up Fathers and Crows, the second of the Seven Dreams series, about Jesuits in Quebec. (This might be mere sentimentality, but I still believe it’s his best book.) The Vollmann award means that serious novels are still being taken seriously, despite Norman Mailer’s comments at the ceremony to the contrary during his depressing Lifetime Achievement speech. (“It’s a shame in the literary world today that passion has withered, producing fiction that is all too forgettable,” said Mailer. “I’m watching the disappearance of my trade. The serious novel may be in serious decline.”) Does Vollmann publish too much? I leave the question open – it’s not rhetorical. Vollmann’s style is perhaps overly mannered and has not developed much over the years (he started in the stratosphere but has stayed at the same relative altitude), although in his best writing the mannerism works to his advantage. But his seemingly monomaniacal prolixity is more likely to be a sign of compulsive brilliance more than anything else, so that the complaint is almost meaningless – roughly the same could be said of Dickens, for example. This is genius in more than one sense: you get the feeling Vollmann has an actual daemon sitting on his shoulder dictating book after book.
The writer that Vollmann brings to mind most strongly is not Dickens, however, but Stephen Crane. At first this may seem like an odd comparison, given that Crane’s devotion to literary realism is very far from being Vollmann’s first priority. Like Crane, Vollmann writes both adventure journalism and novels. Like Crane, Vollmann is drawn to wars and conflict zones. Vollmann’s series of books about prostitution surely have a classic literary source in Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Vollmann’s historical novels are strongly flavored with reality and research. Vollmann’s tremendous output matches or perhaps even exceeds the famously productive Crane, who by the time he died at age twenty-eight had already published two novels, a multitude of short stories and poems, as well as an immense body of journalism. (The authoritative edition of Crane’s work, published by the University of Virginia, apparently runs to ten volumes.) It’s almost as if Crane knew that time would be short; a sense you get reading Vollmann as well, who, you sometimes feel, has lived longer than he thought he might. Even Vollmann’s short chapters, with their antiquated newspaper-dispatch style headings, call to mind works like “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” (1897).
Crane made his name as a war correspondent, covering, for example, the sinking of the Commodore, a ship laden with arms bound for Cuba. This happened in 1897, just prior to the sinking of the Maine and the entry of American into the Spanish-American War. Journalists were more than observers in the conflict. The representation of the coverage in Citizen Kane isn’t far off the mark regarding the pro-war Yellow Journalism of the Hearst papers of the day. Phyllis Frus and Stanley Corkin, the editors of the excellent Riverside Crane volume, write that
The existence of newsreels, filmed reproductions of events, and even enactments that were clearly remote from the action in Cuba provided people in the United States with images of warfare that made it a kind of spectator sport in which most viewers had a clear rooting interest. With his writing, Crane helped create the new public sphere, and as a celebrity journalist, he participated in it.
Iraq was not the first time that reporters were embedded, and the problems of bias they created are nothing new. Crane reported under fire with the marines direct from a very different Guantanamo. Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, published in 1992, ten years after he flung himself into the middle of the struggle against the Soviets, has the self-mocking subtitle “How I Saved the World.” In it, Vollmann dissects himself as much as the conflict, creating a ruthless (and very timely) examination of the entire concept of American altruism when it is combined with an emphasis on military solutions. (Not everything Vollmann wrote about Afghanistan was perfect – when the New Yorker sent him back to check up on the country during the 1990s, Vollmann was at times too soft on the Taliban, acknowledging their crimes but presenting received ideas about how they had brought stability to the country.)
Here’s the problem with adventure journalism more generally: it’s not written by experts or beat reporters, and therefore only infrequently rises above the usual combination of local color, exoticism, florid prose, and received opinion back home. (Good adventure writers, among whom I count friends and some of our best writers all around, are to be admired all the more for rising above this level.) The adventure writer is essentially a proxy for the reader, an American dropped into a strange – and, ideally, somewhat dangerously atmospheric, hopefully more atmospheric than dangerous – locale. It’s understandable, but no less peculiar, that we would rather read what American magazine writers think about the Taliban, for example, rather than someone like, say, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani who writes in English and has covered the region’s politics for something close to two decades. But the adventure journalist gives us something we desperately need – an exotic fix.
This thirst for far-flung locations and the current craze for dispatches is surely not bad in itself; I tend to enjoy it, as a kind of literary stamp collecting. Also, it’s probably another “since September 11” type of trend, and hopefully a sign of renewed American interest in the outside world. The only downside is that the entire genre excludes those legions of literary types who are retiring homebodies and prefer to stay in bed all day crafting sentences. Not everyone should be forced to be a reporter, that’s my thesis; writing shouldn’t be a form of reality TV in which one auditions for a part in the national conversation by exposing oneself to mud and murder.
I think it was Schopenhauer who once wrote that there are two kinds of good books, those which introduce the reader to an experience they couldn’t have themselves, and those which use language in a remarkable way. Probably all good writing combines something of both, but the rise of adventure journalism involves a lopsided emphasis on one aspect against the other. It also represents another chapter in the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, for it is against “thought” and for “experience.” Our magazines are full of direct experience – like the kind that comes mediated through a translator on a two-week junket. Of course, the best writers in this field manage to combine thought and observation in a kind of genre-bending tag-team wrestle, and, in doing so, are creating a fine new genre in the process, don’t get me wrong. Vollmann is an ideal example.
Even though much of Crane’s and Vollmann’s fiction is based on research, interviews, and reportage, it is more enduring stuff. “The Open Boat” is a classic, whereas “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” is more ephemeral. Maggie was based on Crane’s real experiences with prostitutes, but the imaginative work outlives the adventurism, just as Vollmann’s The Royal Family feels superior to his Butterfly Stories. But it is the historical fiction of both writers – The Red Badge of Courage and Europe Central, respectively (plus, for my money, Fathers and Crows) – that critics have celebrated as their greatest accomplishments. Historical fiction might be the least fictional of fictions, the most closely related to facts, a genre involved directly with actuality as a magical element in the alchemy. But these two novels have more in common than an obsession with or addiction to the atmosphere of violent conflict. They are both novels documenting real events that their authors never could have experienced. It’s almost as if their thirst for experience was so overwhelming that when they ran out of the amount of reality available to them directly they had to fabricate other worlds to inhabit as well.