The Corner

Books

Sean Penn Tries Writing

Sean Penn (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

I’ll be the first to concede that I am sometimes — in the spirit of KDW and WFB — prone to a bit of sesquipedalian ostentation. Some call it legerdemain; some call it shtick. And, to be honest, sometimes it is shtick, but at least the reader is in on it. Anyway, I bring this up without apology, simply to head off the lazier charges of hypocrisy. But also to introduce some of the worst writing I’ve seen in a while, even if it is intended to be an homage to Thomas Pynchon.

Sean Penn has written a novel. Claire Fallon, over at the Huffington Post’s U.K. encampment, has done the heroic work of reading it. She’s posted excerpts:

“Hence, his life remains incessantly infused with her identity-infidelity, and her abhorrent ascensions to those constant salacious sessions of sexual solitaire she’d seen as self-regard.” ― page 11

“Whenever he felt these collisions of incubus and succubus, he punched his way out of the proletariat with the purposeful inputting of covert codes, thereby drawing distraction through Scottsdale deployments, dodging the ambush of innocents astray, evading the viscount vogue of Viagratic assaults on virtual vaginas, or worse, falling passively into prosaic pastimes.” ― page 36

“Behind decorative gabion walls, an elderly neighbor sits centurion on his porch watching Bob with surreptitious soupçon.” ― page 71

“While the privileged patronize this pickle as epithet to the epigenetic inequality of equals, Bob smells a cyber-assisted assault emboldened by right-brain Hollywood narcissists.” ― page 99

Now, I will say that I like the neologism “Viagratic.” And if someone does a Robert Caro–style five-volume biography of Bill Clinton, I expect the final tome will be subtitled something like “The Viagratic Years” or “Viagratic Winter.”

But as for the rest of it, it’s painful. It’s painful in part because I recognize it in myself. When I was in high school and college, I dabbled with this kind of writing. I recognize its appeal. Because all shortcuts are appealing. And when you’re a young writer with more ambition than skill or experience, shortcuts are very seductive.

You want to know what the best kind of writing is? The kind that works. If you’re Pynchon or William S. Burroughs, or William F. Buckley, you can get away with stuff that others can’t because you can make it work for you — because it comes from some place real and authentic in the writer.

Certain writers with a really pronounced style invite imitators who think the secret isn’t in the author but in the technique. For decades, National Review was inundated with submissions from Buckley impostors who thought Buckley’s writing was a trick, with a few simple rules: “Write a normal sentence, take out a dictionary and a thesaurus, and ‘translate’ it into the biggest words you can find that mean the same thing. And add some Latin.”

Back when I was ostensibly “running” NRO, aspiring writers would send me stuff modeled on the outrageously self-indulgent style of the G-File, on the strange assumption that I thought everything should be written that way, even when the writer is artificially assuming a voice not his own. The problem is that when a certain writing style doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s not really a style. It’s an algorithm — and it shows. Let’s take another look at this passage:

Hence, his life remains incessantly infused with her identity-infidelity, and her abhorrent ascensions to those constant salacious sessions of sexual solitaire she’d seen as self-regard.

Somewhere there is a dog-eared, nicotine-soaked thesaurus with Sean Penn’s smudged fingerprints all over it (he probably left it in the penthouse of the George V in Paris, where all the best writers hermit themselves). It’s the kind of thing you write when you don’t have the confidence to say what you want to say the way you want to say it, so you follow a formula (“4 parts alliteration, 1 part wry masturbation references . . .”).

I don’t mean to be cruel. Writing a novel is a brave thing for a writer because it leaves you no place to hide. Writing non-fiction at least lets the mediocre author seek shelter behind facts and arguments when the prose falls flat (which is one reason academic writing can be so terrible). Nor am I saying that just because a style comes naturally that there isn’t work involved. Basketball came naturally to Michael Jordan. But he also worked really hard at it. When Jordan tried to play professional baseball, he worked even harder at it. But the hard work wasn’t enough, and he struck out.

Sean Penn, whatever you say about his loathsome politics, is a fantastic actor. It comes naturally to him. He’s tried writing. I’m sure he worked very hard at it.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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