"An Illusion of Control"

In yesterday’s New York Times, there’s an interesting essay under the “The Way We Live Now” section by Walter Kirn, a frequent Times contributor and author of many awesome books.  His article describes a modern phenomenon called “procedural voyeurism,” which he defines as the focus on the business of creating a spectacle rather than the spectacle itself.  He cites LeBron James’s “The Decision” and the tabloid back-and-forth between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno.  Best part, cut and spliced:

“The process of delving ever deeper into questions of process is relentless, a kind of narcissistic spiral into a procedural heart of darkness … Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over.”

Writers might be nodding at this, especially when thinking about the Q&A section that is commonplace after a public reading.  Questions such as “Do you write by hand or on a computer?” or “Where do your ideas come from?”, to name just two, echo the ideas that Kirn has raised.  Hearing these questions from behind a podium, I nod politely and answer truthfully, but I’ve often wondered why anyone would care about how my work is created.  What difference does it make, I’d wonder, compared to the experience of the story?  I’ve always admired the way William Trevor is noticeably silent in the back of all those anthologies his stories appear in: why comment on how it all came about when the story is in your hot little hands?

But, on the other hand, as a sports fan, I enjoy seeing how a team is constructed, what decisions go into who is hired, signed, for what type of contract, all that stuff.  The construction of a baseball club or a basketball team is interesting to me.  Is it a “narcissistic spiral into a procedural heart of darkness?”  (Could I just quote a kinder part of Kirn’s essay and take it easy on myself?)  I’ve never felt believed that the simple narrative process about the BP oil spill or the backroom deals about the health care bill or any other complex sociopolitical event gives me an semblance of control over these disasters.  Nor have I, or any reasonable person I know, bought into the idea of some grand conspiracy by the president, corporate oligarchies, or left-wing (or right-wing) cabals.  Conspiracy theories strike me as a form of illiteracy: because modern events are so complex and absurd, we create some character, probably like this guy, at the center of the storm, conjuring havoc.

With events like the Gulf oil spill or the war in Afghaniston, I don’t believe discovering this procedual voyeurism is a bad thing at all: doesn’t how it all happened matter?  Isn’t the transparency of the decision-making process in our government important?

But when it comes to art – be it film, literature, sculpting, etc. – should the process matter at all?  Or is it simply a matter of the end product?  It’s not quite as simple as one might think from behind the podium: many artists, such as Percy Shelley, Pablo Picasso, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were, to put it mildly, difficult (and this could quickly be a very long list of “difficult” artists) to live with and, with an arsonist’s glee, set fire to the lives around them.  The How-Did-This-Happen asked of a writer isn’t just about the process, because the process isn’t a great big Hollywood studio (insert Dan Brown joke here), but, more often than not, just one person.  One person in front of the page, worrying and writing and working, getting ultimately at this question: Who am I and what do I have to say?  And, when dealt with honestly, that’s a haunting question with no easy answer.

No wonder we always ask it of other artists.  And ourselves.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.