Friday, August 10, 2007
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
Whenever God erects a house of prayer / The devil always builds a chapel there; / And 'twill be found, upon examination, / The latter has the largest congregation. - from The True Born Englishman
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Lecture: Robinsoe Crusoe as Hack Journalism
COPAC UK: Defoe
Library of Canada: Defoe
Library of Congress: Defoe
Other Library Catalogs: Defoe
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was an English pamphleteer, journalist and novelist, at a time when the novel form was in its infancy in the English language, and can thus fairly be said to be one of its progenitors. Defoe's pamphleting and political activities resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in 1703, but he was released early in return for his cooperation. He is most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, about a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The story is based on the true story of the shipwreck of Alexander Selkirk. He wrote an account of the plague of 1666, A Journal of the Plague Year. He also wrote Moll Flanders, a picaresque first-person narration of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th century England. She is a whore, bigamist, thief, commits adultery and incest yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy. It is arguably the first novel written in English. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Daniel Defoe.]
Robinsoe Crusoe as Hack Journalism
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
Robinson Crusoe is great docu-drama -- let me explain why. Daniel Defoe was a hack. But, being a hack is one of the reasons we appreciate Defoe. A hack will write anything for anyone, and in any way you ask them to write -- if there's money in it.
Of course hack doesn't mean bad -- although many may be. It's the motivation that makes you the hack, not the style you use, or the stuff you write about.
A true hack is not burdened with the restrictions imposed by having to adhere to any particular ideology, moral position, or philosophy. You can defend, or attack, any position and be equally persuasive at the drop of a hat: pro-choice in the morning, pro-life at noon.
In this culture a good hack is a highly valued professional. Corporate executives, politicians, advertising agencies, television networks, large companies, churches, trade magazines, communications and public relations agencies, and news organizations depend on them for much of their output.
Economics ensures a ready supply. The money is good.
This is a huge phenomenon. For most writers, the media is not a lucrative profession, and jobs are scarce and getting scarcer as newspapers change their role, television specializes, and public broadcasters like the CBC contract. Thousands of former journalists -- end up as hack writers: driven there by economic necessity: a situation Defoe found himself in many times during his career.
The Nature of the hack.
So, Defoe was a hack. So what? Hacks and journalists -- Defoe was both -- work fast and work to deadlines, and the name of the game is, after all, productivity. Editors want a happy readership and prize writers who will generate ink -- on time -- without getting their papers in trouble. Writers quickly learn that survival in this game means conforming to the expectations of your editor -- and the editor expects the writer to help sell papers and hold onto their advertisers. The safest way to do that is to learn how to write fascinating prose without really saying too much at all. Facts, especially controversial facts, are a real pain for journalists in a hurry. First of all -- facts need to be checked, and rechecked -- and that interferes with deadlines. Writers in a rush can circumvent factuality be resorting to the allegedly and unnamed sources cliches.
One of the ironies of modern journalism is that some of what masquerades as independent journalism is actually written by hacks. I once worked as a hack for a national TV News service. This is an interesting behind the scene activity of which viewers are unaware. It works like this. A reporter is assigned to cover a story and speeds off to do the job. The hack's job is to direct the story behind the scenes. Your role is to suggest to the reporter who he should talk to, to suggest the questions he should ask, and to offer a summary set of conclusions. If necessary you will write the script and feed it to the reporter. This is a hack job because the sense of the story, the slant if you will, has been more or less predetermined by the hack's ability to sanitize the story before it reaches the viewer. The hack job is to translate corporate priorioties and to instruct the reporter on how how to pull that off. If the story is in the least bit dangerous, the hack must feed the script to a small army of lawyers who stand by to "lawyer" [that's what it's called] your writing and to protect the news organization from a suit. The hack's awareness of this legal shadow has the effect of neutralizing news. This practice is routine for major newspapers. Little which is printed is printed without detailed vetting and re-writing by lawyers.
Journalists in Defoe's time had to do this sort of thing themselves. They became their own internal censors not only about questions that might have some legal significance, but around issues that might alienate editors, readers and advertisers.
If you want to survive as a writer, then or now, follow these guidelines:
1: Say anything you want -- as long as it mirrors the conventional wisdom of your audience. This means that as a journalist you need to know where the winds are blowing. What does the audience want to hear? You need to match audience expectations. Don't rock the boat. If the government of the day becomes unpopular, get onto that bandwagon -- reflect this sentiment in your writing. If the age you are living in is permeated by a boundless optimism, as Defoe's age was, reflect a sense of that in the tone of your writing.
2: Anticipate shifting winds. Pay attention to new directions, and write about them. But never advocate a shift until you are absolutely sure that is where your audience is headed. If you are certain -- market consultants will guarantee this -- advocate like hell. Make yourself look like a prophet.
3. Do not originate! Original or novel thinking is taboo. Let the philosophers, academics, and politicians do that -- it's not your role.
4. Develop an interesting and exciting style -- make your reputation on style -- not news.
What this all means, in a novel like Robinson Crusoe, is quite interesting. First of all it seems highly improbable that Defoe, at age 60, and after a lifetime adhering to these rules, is going to break out onto the world as a radical innovator of new thinking and new ideas. Let's not fault Defoe for failing to deliver new ideas. That's not what he is about and that wasn't what he trained himself to do. Defoe is no Descartes,
Newton, Galileo, Locke or Hobbes. Yet, Defoe is doing something here that only a skilled hack could pull off.
Defoe picks up on issues that seem to reflect a set of attitudes about life, but these issues reflect the temper of the times -- something Defoe has been in training for during his long training as a hack. Defoe suggests that the Spaniards had been "beasts" in their oppression of the Americas -- this is nothing more than the conventional wisdom of Defoe's day. It's also acceptable in Defoe's era to populate a new world plantation with black slaves -- that again is conventional wisdom and therefore safe terrain for the hack. Women in Defoe's day are meant to be neither seen nor heard -- conventional wisdom again; Catholicism is dangerous; it's safe to embrace piety and the redemptive nature of Jesus Christ -- God was very popular in Defoe's 18th century; This too is a century that revered the exterior over the interior. Whatever values or virtues will sell -- those same values or virtues will creep into the hack prose.
What seems really curious about this is that as politically incorrect as Robinson Crusoe is for its mysogny or racism, we are prepared to forgive Defoe for these flaws. We seem to understand that these values are at least as much a reflection of Defoe's century [and Defoe's training in reflecting his times] as they are a reflection of Robinson Crusoe, the man. We feel less angry about these attitudes than we are
interested and curious. These are after all some of the conventional attitudes that existed then, and in reading this novel we feel that we are eavesdropping on his age. Ironically, Defoe the hack brings integrity to the narrative by reflecting in an honest way the temper of his era rather than his own values.
Another fascination -- again one that would be a product of Defoe the journalist and hack, is his attention to reportage. There is an element of safe and fascinating factual detail that permeates Robinson Crusoe and which we find quite believable: Defoe's attention to the natural world as it was -- or believed by most then to be. This is very safe ground for a journalist -- as much environmental writing is in the modern world [as long as it melds to majority taste]. Defoe's descriptions of nature and events are brief but highly believable: storms, hurricanes, ocean tides and currents, earthquakes, seasickness, dismembered bodies, bullet holes,
the loping off of a head, the capture of a goat, the felling of a parrot, the killing of a bear, an encounter with wolves, the sinking of a ship, the discovery of drowned men on the ship, the discovery of a boy's body on the shore, etc. These and hundreds of other brief incidents and events in the story roll through the pages of this novel with the fidelity and brevity of breaking news. They seem genuine and have that live eye feel. Here is the picture; here is its caption. Like front page news, it's all you need to know. Like a real picture it is neither overdone or underdone. It simply is.
But, why is Robinson Crusoe a Great Book? Why are we reading it? I think we are reading Robinson Crusoe for the same reasons we value good documentary television. It's easy. There are plenty of pictures. And, although there's nothing terribly deep going on [hacks cannot afford to be philosophers], Defoe does do a fabulous job in mirroring his age -- in a way no one other than a hack journalist with a nose for what the public wanted to read could ever do.
Books from Alibris: Defoe