Romance in disguise

Romance in disguise.

I can’t help it. My library just keeps growing. It only took partway through the first chapter of McKeon’s book on the novel before I was online ordering it, and the Cicero to boot. You just can’t have enough at your fingertips. These are books I know I will use. Like that book of selections from the Tatler and the Spectator I got eons ago, while researching the “pleasures of the imagination.”

Brief and uncollected thoughts

McKeon cites one John Aubrey who says of the ancient Britons: “They were two or three degrees, I suppose, less savage than the Americans.” It’s the native Americans that he’s speaking of. Somehow, I suspect that the bashed in skulls found in the bogs since then might refute that appraisal.

Debates over truth and authenticity were at the core of the proliferation of the printed word. If it’s in print, in must be true? Not really. It sort of reminded me of the ongoing metablogging discussion. Folks everywhere are revisiting an old debate with increasing fervor. As periods become defined (and histories get written) the process of separating the truth from fiction becomes increasingly important.

I’ve always had an inherent mistrust of journalism, and much of the debate about web behaviors often goes back to the idea that it’s a new “replacement” for journalism. However, I never placed it in the context of the battle between mythoi, “just stories” and logoi, or “true stories.” I also never thought of journalism as the creation of the sort of “lust for the new” which the Romantics are so often accused of. I think that criticism is ungrounded, but it’s often voiced anytime those horrible generalities about Romanticism are thrown about. McKeon suggests that “romance” is the category that came to replace, or fulfill the need satisfied by myth. There was from the beginning a tension between the “new” and the “truth.” McKeon cites an instance where in order to assault a reporters case in 1630, the worst insult Richard Braithwaite could hurl at the reporter was to call his article “novel,” thus undermining its historicity. The fundamental opposition involved, which journalism grew up in the middle of, was between history and romance.

It seems to me that journalism is still very much romance in disguise. While fact checking has been improved, its novelty, or newness, is the single most deciding factor in distribution. It’s seldom well grounded, and presents opinion as often as it presents fact. One of McKeon’s citations made me turn back to the Tatler, for Steele’s comment on those who educate themselves through newspapers:

As great and Useful discoveries are sometimes made by accidental and small Beginnings, I came to the Knowledge of the most Epidemick Ill of this Sort, by falling into a Coffee-house where I saw my Friend the Upholsterer, whose Crack towards Politicks I have heretofore mentioned. This Touch in the Brain of the British Subject, is as certainly owing to the reading of News-papers, as that of the Spanish Worthy above mentioned to the reading of Works of Chivalry. My Contemporaries the Novelists have, for the better spinning out of Paragraphs, and working down to the end of Columns, a most happy Art in Saying and Unsaying, giving Hints of Intelligence, and Interpretations of indifferent Actions, to the greater Disturbance of the Brains of ordinary Readers. (#178, 30 May 1710)

This blog is nothing if not the practice of the “most happy Art in Saying and Unsaying, giving hints of Intelligence,” and judging from my mail it does cause great disturbance in the brains of “ordinary readers.”

We aim to please. But don’t fool yourself. This is romance in disguise, but it isn’t journalism.

1 thought on “Romance in disguise”

  1. Jeff,Can you add a more specific reference for the Tatler passage? I want to add it to my commonplaces file.By the way, thanks for a delicious and stimulating blog. Sometime I want to correspond about teaching writing/composition, which falls to me by default in a curriculum that allows no room for specific writing courses. . . .
    Easily done!

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