Antoine Wilson’s Notes on “Hack”
The Dial is an occasional column that will sometimes serve as my soapbox, but more often feature guests whose work is either closely personal, experimental, or otherwise off our usual diet of book reviews and review essays. H.L. Mencken once said that “a professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas,” and I suppose the same goes for editors and columns. So now I have a theory and I have a column.
I thought about borrowing one of the titles William Dean Howells used for his columns, like “Contributors Club,” which has a Boy George ring to it, or “The Editor’s Easy Chair” or “The Editor’s Study,” both of which have some kind of steampunk allure for me. But Howells is a little too William Howard Taft for most people these days, unfairly or not, a little too rotund, and his reputation never recovered from Sinclair Lewis beating him up in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (when Howells was already 10 years dead, and Lewis claimed Howells’s “greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.”) I thought about proto-slacker Joseph Dennie’s 18th-century columns like “Meander,” with its comic faux Greek, or “The Farrago,” a fancy name for mixed fodder, and decided these references (and Dennie himself) were way too obscure. The Dial is the title Bronson Alcott suggested to Ralph Waldo Emerson when Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley began planning a new publication for their fellow transcendentalists in 1839. The sundial, Alcott thought, was a perfect metaphor for an integrated relation between nature and culture. Emerson introduced the first issue in July 1840:And so with diligent hands and good intent we set down our Dial on the earth. We wish it may resemble that instrument in its celebrated happiness, that of measuring no hours but those of sunshine. Let it be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.This first Dial has loomed large in literary histories ever since, but it never had many subscribers, lost money all along, and closed only four years later. It sprang back to life briefly in 1860, at the height of national debate about the fate of the Union, then died again and wasn’t revived until 1880. That third incarnation, edited by Francis Fisher Browne for over three decades, combined literary and political talk, and it fared fairly well until the 1910s, when, after Browne left, great dissension raged on and off the page, most notably between the ardent pacifist Randolph Bourne and the philosopher John Dewey, who believed that only violence could solve some conflicts and who supported America’s entry into the Great War. The magazine was shut down, sold a couple of times, and reemerged yet again in 1920 as the premiere modernist literary magazine in America, publishing Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” and work by Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, Khalil Gibran, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Odilon Redon, and Bertrand Russell. Its major editors through these years included Scofield Thayer, Marianne Moore, Gilbert Seldes, and Kenneth Burke. It died in 1929, like so many other magazines.
I’m not sure what possessed me to adopt the name of such an illustrious and doomed rag for my column here, but I’m sure it was compounded of our fondest hopes that we will achieve the combination of literary and political salience that The Dial sometimes managed, and my fears that we’ll fail over and over again to prove sustainable. In the meantime, “a cheerful voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics” seems a good idea.
Today I’m glad to turn The Dial over to novelist Antoine Wilson, for a piece called “Notes on ‘Hack’” — a title which also wears its homage on its sleeve.
I was talking to a TV director the other day and he pointed out that a “hack” is a taxi-driver, someone who gets you where you want to go. Wilson takes the conversation in a very different direction.
— Tom Lutz
Notes on “Hack”“Taste has no system and no proofs.”1. To start with comedy. There is only one unimpeachable criterion: Is it funny? But a question follows close behind: Funny to whom?
—Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”
2. Apocrypha from the world of television: A sitcom writers’ room is working late into the night, trying to generate the perfect gag to punch up a scene. Joke after joke is pitched, but nothing seems to work. The scene remains stubbornly flat. Finally, a writer pulls out a box of index cards and rifles through them. He stops, pulls out a card, and asks: “Can the floor be wet?”
3. A Hack can get a huge laugh out of an audience. And yet he can also rightly be called unfunny. When we employ Hack as a pejorative, we call into question the audience’s taste. We say, in effect: You are laughing only because you have no taste.
4. Meanwhile, to himself and to his fans, a Hack is justified by his success; he need not justify himself otherwise.
5. The comic who recycles old jokes, confirms stereotypes, pantomimes his way through his act, and makes folks chuckle without in any way threatening the established order is offensive to us precisely for failing to offend.
6. A Hack comic is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, “poking fun,” never “killing.” He is the jester who won’t risk the king’s displeasure.
"Notes on hack" is brilliant. I think every writer should read it!
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