Versio Vulgata

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by Chris Jackson

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi for the kind words above.  My main contribution to his wonderful book was giving it a title that he immediately hated (but I like to think he's come to love; even Tavis cosigned it). As he said, I'm an editor at Spiegel & Grau, a small corner of the Random House empire. In addition to Ta-Nehisi, I'm lucky enough to publish a gang of writers that I love:  Victor LaValle, Matt Taibbi, Dan Baum, Karen Valby, Shankar Vedantam, Warren St. John, Adam Mansbach and more.  In the next year or so, I'll midwife into life amazing books from Mat Johnson, Grant Morrison, and the world's most famous (greatest?) rapper.  In my past publishing life I worked with writers like Aaron McGruder, David Corn, Danyel Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Cupcake Brown, Juan Williams, Nancy Rawles, William Rhoden, Jack Weatherford, and on and on.  I apologize for the litany, but it's like they're my kids, and I don't want any of them to feel unloved.  And I do love them all, even the crazy ones.  

Part of the fun of being an editor is the occasional fantasy that you're calling together a league of literary superheroes to take on the forces of evil in the world.  Put your art to work, I say.  I've always been drawn to stylistic outliers, polemicists, and revisionists--I'm a firm believer that the greatest need in our age is for writers to move readers from whatever comfortable positioned they've fallen into.  I'm a fan of vulgarity.  In part its a function of my upbringing: growing up in Harlem in the 70s and 80s taught me a lot about the irrepressible power of a true thing told in the most resonant possible language.  125th street was always lined with various kinds of preachers and revolutionaries with microphones and milk crates and a horseshoe of an avid audience.  The  appeal of even the most racist demagogues among them (think of someone like the late Khalid Muhammad) was entirely in the fact that they would say true things that no one else would, and they would use the most unapologetic, ripe, cutting, frequently hilarious language. What a waste, I would think, that these thrillingly bracing moments of truth were couched in otherwise lunatic mythologies.  On the other hand, what a galvanizing surge of recognition I would feel just to hear those true words spoken in plain language, emotionally inflected with a sense of contempt or biting humor or sarcasm that further liberated the listener from the constraints of the old lie.  

Anyway, I think I've been looking for that same feeling ever since.  When I worked with Aaron McGruder on his big, bestselling, post-9/11 comics collections A Right to Be Hostile and Public Enemy #2, I felt some of that same sense.  He was speaking a vulgar, hugely entertaining truth, at a moment when the country was walking on eggshells--in retrospect, an embarrassing moment of media capitulation to the administration--and it led to his strip...a comic strip!...being banned from newspapers around the country (including the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post).  But the books, which, of course, included the banned strips,  were huge bestsellers.  Currently I'm reading Gary Shteyngart's deliriously vulgar Super Sad True Love Story, and it portrays the most chillingly convincing, visionary dystopia I've ever read.  The book springs around like a rabbit and is hugely entertaining--but it's moments of greatest power come from its unsentimental vision of our future and his comic ruthlessness in portraying it.  

And then there's Matt Taibbi.  One of my complaints about the left-leaning media and the blogosphere, in particular, is the preponderance of polite, earnest wonks, and the relative lack of kick-ass writers.  I think polite earnest wonks are essential; but their prosecutorial case-building and white-paper prose style can leave me enervated.  Matt is, perhaps surprisingly, as earnest and wonky as any writer I've worked with, when it comes to his dedication to actual reporting and getting things right.  But he's also a master at getting people to actually read the important things he writes.  He completely turned the narrative of Goldman Sachs around, for instance, by subjecting them to the rudest possible assessment, with no respect to their position or well-buffed reputation as the smartest guys on Wall Street.  He called the bankers who led us into the financial disaster out as frauds: not smart guys who got wealthy from their mastery of the system, but people who had simply chosen to be criminals, amoral and avaricious and ultimately destructive.  This is the simple fact that readers of his Rolling Stone pieces were left with.   I was stunned that when Matt's articles first appeared, Goldman's flacks were outdone by people in the media rallying to defend the Goldman narrative they'd helped create.  But now  the Goldmans of the world will have to fight to reclaim the narrative (and of course they already are), but it's the job of writers to keep up their end of that fight.  We're surrounded by information these days: the exciting mission for writers, it seems to me, is to find ways to estrange and disorient readers, find the language (not necessarily vulgar) that makes the true thing resound and moves their audiences to see the world again.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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