There Will Be Blogs

‘Out on a Limb’
Andrew Sullivan (Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan)

“I have never tried to be popular,” declares Andrew Sullivan in the introduction to his career-spanning new collection, Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989–2021. But Sullivan is a popular writer. In fact, by any reasonable standard, he is and for many years has been a very popular writer. He gained instant notoriety when he—an out, gay conservative—was named editor of the New Republic in 1991 at age twenty-eight. His blog, The Dish, was a powerhouse of political commentary for the first decade and a half of the new millenium; among his dedicated readers was President Obama, who was given a special login to circumnavigate the paywall. And since being forced out of New York Magazine last summer and launching his Substack newsletter, Sullivan has quadrupled his salary and gained somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred thousand subscribers. He is a familiar face on CNN, MSNBC, and Real Time with Bill Maher

A little later in the introduction, Sullivan strikes a slightly different note when he claims that some of the writing collected in this book actually “helped change America.” Among the achievements for which he takes some credit: the popularization of gay marriage; the election of Barack Obama; the digital-journalism revolution; the exposure of the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror; and an “early grasp” of the threat Donald Trump posed to American democracy.

It would have been nearer to the mark—and a good deal seemlier—for Sullivan to simply acknowledge that, on several key issues, he happened to find himself on the right side of history (to use the Obama-era cliché). I’m fairly sure, for instance, that Obama would have still been elected president had Sullivan not written his October 2007 cover story for the Atlantic. Neither Sullivan’s opposition to “enhanced interrogation” techniques nor his early grasp of the threat posed by Donald Trump qualify as prescient or novel or even brave positions, least of all to the readership of his own blog or New York Magazine

On the subject of gay rights and gay marriage, Sullivan was a courageous and forceful voice.

The exception, of course, is on the subject of gay rights and gay marriage. Here, though he still has legions of detractors—take a peek, if you have the stomach for it, at Dale Peck’s scrupulously unhinged review in the Baffler—Sullivan was a courageous and forceful voice at a time when, for example, President Reagan’s communications director called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men”; when Republican senators routinely and publicly referred to homosexuals as moral degenerates; when HIV-positive foreigners were banned from traveling to the United States; and so on. For someone of my generation, born too late to remember the worst of the AIDS epidemic, raised in a milieu where being gay seemed about as exotic as being left-handed, it takes some effort to imagine what life was like for gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially those raised in conservative religious communities. To this reader—a prosaically heterosexual and tacitly left-wing atheist—Sullivan’s early writings on these issues movingly bridge that imaginative gap. His voice is anguished, alarmed, and searching. Here is a writer trying to make sense of the morass of his own conflicting feelings about the politics of a global pandemic, the clash between his faith and his sexuality, and the sudden, unwelcome presence of potentially imminent death. In “Gay Life, Gay Death: The Siege of a Subculture,” he writes:

Largely invisible and almost incomprehensible to outsiders, gay men and their families now live lives alien to modernity’s rhythms. Death is ubiquitous. Friends and lovers die with random, rapid consistency. Time horizons shorten. Death is mentionable again. Indeed, it is unavoidable. Gay men now live essentially as medieval among moderns: habituated in a world of health, besieged by death in the midst of oblivious life.

What’s more, for all the racial controversies to which Sullivan seems shackled—largely due to the self-imposed albatross that was publishing the 1994 New Republic cover story by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein adapted from The Bell Curve, their book about race and I.Q.—he is admirably sensitive to the specific and widely neglected suffering of Black and Hispanic gays during the AIDS crisis—a neglect often visited on these populations by the overwhelmingly white AIDS activist groups, whose hypocrisy Sullivan rightly deplores: quick to condemn homphobia in the broader culture, they were circumspectly silent on homophobia within minority communities. 

The fact that Sullivan, a conservative and a Roman Catholic, has often fallen afoul of his fellow gay-rights activists only serves to make these early writings more interesting, at least from a human standpoint. (Contradictions are always more interesting than resolutions.) So while I can’t say I found him particularly convincing, I was nevertheless moved by Sullivan’s depiction of being a Catholic who discovered he was gay—and by the difficult negotiation this discovery necessitated. In “Alone Again, Naturally,” easily one of his finest essays, Sullivan writes:

Because it was something I was deeply ashamed of, I felt obliged to confront it; but because it was also something inextricable—even then—from the core of my existence, it felt natural to enlist God’s help rather than his judgment in grappling with it. There was, of course, considerable tension in this balance of alliance and rejection; but there was also something quite natural about it, an accurate reflection of anyone’s compromised relationship with what he or she hazards to be the divine.

Out on a Limb, with its 576 pages, bristles with plenty of other passions and considerations: a reflection on the term “bear” in gay culture; an impassioned defense of the psychedelic drug LSD; a thoughtfully provocative essay questioning our assumptions about hate; a mawkish, dew-eyed elegy for Princess Diana; an account of Sullivan’s Bush-era defection from the Right. There is plenty to quarrel with, as you would expect, but there is also a good deal to appreciate. Most of that, however, is confined to the first fourth of this book, or up until about the late 1990s—which is telling, as it happens, for being around the time a new form of writing begins to emerge, a garrulously democratic and insistently populist form. I mean, of course, the weblog.

 

In a 2008 essay for the Atlantic extolling the virtues of blogging, Sullivan defines the form as “the spontaneous expression of instant thought,” which may well be a useful definition, except that what Sullivan takes to be the form’s supposed virtues are really its worst flaws: the “colloquial, unfinished tone”; the urge “not to think too hard before writing”; the intoxicating freedom that is “like taking a narcotic.” This sounds less like a definition of a style of writing than a fairly accurate summation of Donald Trump’s confiscated Twitter account. Sullivan admits as much: the key to understanding blogs, Matt Drudge once explained to him, is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication—a remark Sullivan, damningly, offers without further comment.

He does admit to some of the form’s limitations, of course. He knows that blogging cannot replace or rival the depth of understanding the time writing, and reading, an essay affords. He even suggests that the rise and spread of blogging will make us appreciate traditional print media more, rather as a family might tearfully gather around old photos of a terminally ill grandparent. Weirdly, he goes on to enlist Montaigne as some sort of ancestral blogger. “Montaigne,” Sullivan writes, “also peppered his essays with myriads of what bloggers would call external links.” I confess I’m not really sure what he means. Montaigne, needless to say, wasn’t writing with an internet connection that gave him instant access to his readers, nor did he rely on those readers to supply him with hyperlinks or dole out swift and intemperate correctives. No, the great Frenchman wrote in willed self-isolation, sequestered from the cacophony of the modern world in his inherited citadel, and didn’t publish the first edition of his Essais until 1580, almost a decade after his retirement from public life.

What Sullivan takes to be blogging’s supposed virtues are really its worst flaws.

Just as telling as the urge to claim Montaigne as a forerunner is the decision to ensconce so much “instant thought” in the most ponderous of print mediums: the deckle-edged hardcover book. Of the forty writings collected here, fourteen were written either for The Dish or The Weekly Dish; a somewhat misleading representation, because for the majority of his career Sullivan has been less of an essayist or journalist than an intrepid pioneer of blog writing. (Even his columns for New York Magazine in recent years were often closer to collections of blog posts than a traditional opinion set piece.) It raises the question: Why preserve for posterity, or at all, what is by Sullivan’s own definition scarcely meant to endure beyond the moment? If blogging is closer to broadcasting than publishing, why saddle your listeners with transcripts of instant thought?

It is a problem of style as much as form. Whereas someone like Christopher Hitchens, Sullivan’s friend and occasional interlocutor, seemed to write as much for the music of language as for the rhetoric of argument, Sullivan seems progressively unconcerned with the literary act itself. Now, this may not be the most methodologically rigorous way of measuring a writer’s prose, but I tend to underline any sentence or phrase that stands out to me as I read, whatever the context. Any collection of Hitchens’s will have about half a dozen per page; halfway through Out on a Limb, I didn’t even notice that I’d left my pen in the other room.

Style, as we know, is not a glaze applied after the fact; it is a substance baked into the worldview that informs the writing. And my sense of Sullivan as a writer, especially as his presence has shifted from traditional print to fiber-optic cables, is that his writing has become increasingly obscured behind an immense digital scaffolding of tweets, blogs, newsletters, videos, diaries—anything, it often seems, but the central medium itself: prose. 

The effect of all this on Sullivan’s style is everywhere apparent. The prose bespeaks the form in which it is written: because blogs are meant to be self-forgetful, even self-erasing, the writing proper assumes all the permanence of an Etch A Sketch. His earlier gift for the graceful aphoristic turn (of a friend dying of AIDS in a hospital, Sullivan remarks: “He was an instrument of the instruments keeping him alive”) has given way instead to the usual procession of dull conservative bromides (“Left Twitter,” “radical feminists,” “liberal media,” and so on). Crudely put: blogging writes white.

Anyway, what good has all this instant thought done us? Surveying the blighted everyman’s-land of the culture wars, what do we see? People sitting around waiting for something to be offended by, and the people offended by the people sitting around waiting for something to be offended by. Reader, how can you tell them apart? It is clear that problems abound on university campuses across the country, in the beleaguered institutions of traditional print media, and among entire populations of this divided country. But surely these are issues that call for nuanced and patient thought, not Twitter threads or thought-stifling generalizations.

All of which I’m sure Sullivan, who likes words like “sanity” and “reason,” would hasten to agree with. We must all recognize our tribal thinking, he high-mindedly counsels his readers. “So much of our debates are now an easy either-or rather than a complicated both-and. In our tribal certainties, we often distort what we actually believe in the quiet of our hearts, and fail to see what aspects or truth the other tribe may grasp.”

Well, Sullivan would know. His hyperactive Twitter feed is stacked with the kind of tribal cheerleading he pompously (“in the quiet of our hearts...”) inveighs against in Out on a Limb. “Preach!” he claps as he retweets something an intellectual ally wrote. “Wow,” he comments as he retweets some poll about free speech at MIT. “Disgusting,” he snorts as he retweets a video clip of an appearance by Michael Eric Dyson on MSNBC. I can’t tell if it’s ignorance or cynicism, but for Andrew Sullivan to condemn tribal thinking is like watching an arsonist call the fire department.   

The best that can be said about Out on a Limb is that it offers an inside view of the past three decades of American intellectual and cultural decline. It is an instructive and sobering read for any incipient young writer—but not for the reasons Sullivan probably intended. We might even say that the title is offered advisedly: if you venture too far out, the branch is bound to crack eventually. 

Out on a Limb
Selected Writing, 1989-2021

Andrew Sullivan
Simon & Schuster
$35 | 576 pp.

Published in the January 2022 issue: 

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (2017). He has contributed to the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the Point, and the American Interest, among others.

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