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American Journalism Review
Camille Paglia: An Ego to Rival the Media's  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   December 1992

Camille Paglia: An Ego to Rival the Media's   

Sex, Art and American Culture
By Camille Paglia
Vintage

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Sex, Art and American Culture
By Camille Paglia
Vintage
338 pages; $13

For the sake of argument (and Camille Paglia starts lots of arguments), let's take the author up on her observation that she personifies the character of American mass media.
"My manic personality, which frightens and repels academics, seems perfectly normal to media people, who are always in a rush and on a deadline," Paglia writes in introducing her collection of essays, book reviews and speeches.
This is an intriguing, and relevant, concept because Paglia is certainly a creature of and for the media. "I like reporters and enjoy talking to them," she observes. To say the least. Her remarkably self-absorbed book, in fact, ends with "A Media History" that records her "personal, inflammatory presence in the media" and lists more than 100 articles and even several cartoons published about her during the past two years.
When she gets beyond this sort of narcissism, her writing features a brilliant and uninhibited voice, but one always verging on stormy self-righteousness and belligerence. At its best and worst it is much like..well, it is much like the media, isn't it? Stimulating and high-minded, but apt to come across as smug and irksome.
Like the media, she wallows in her own notoriety. A Philadelphia art professor, author and lecturer, she describes herself as "abrasive, strident and obnoxious" and her style as "out there punching and kicking and fighting with people." And she, too, has such a strong know-it-all streak so that even when you agree with her you frequently go away annoyed.
But you go away thinking. Along with polemics, Paglia offers thoughtful, pungent observations on matters from Madonna (she loves her) to French intellectual theorists (she loathes them).
Dominating this collection are her bombshell opinions on feminism, rape and sex. Male lust is "the energizing factor in culture." Concern about date rape is "a crock." And "hunt, pursuit and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality." While she specifically condemns rape, she seems grandly indifferent to the prospect that her positions might help perpetuate anger and violence toward women.
Though she pontificates with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, she clearly brings informed historical perspective, multilayered logic and accomplished style to her work.
What makes it especially interesting for journalists is Paglia's astute appreciation for the media's role in today's culture and the adroitness with which she exploits that insight. Following her breakthrough 1990 book "Sexual Personae," Paglia has made herself into a kind of icon of contrarious post-feminism, her standing authenticated by major attention from the trend-spotting Vanity Fair, New Republic and, of course, People.
Mass media "is our culture," Paglia writes, "completely, even servilely commercial..a mirror of the popular mind," a souped-up, high-decibel torrent fueled by "the triumph of television and rock music" and sustained by "daily excitement and bracing vulgarity."
Unapologetically, Paglia has harnessed her own personality and writing to this blazing force, and the resulting synergy has generated a "strange quick passage from obscurity to notoriety."
What may be the most unsettling parallel between Paglia and the media is that ultimately it is form rather than content that defines her work. In another echo of the medium-being-the-message, personality and style overwhelm her considered commentary. By overwriting ("I'm..pro-pornography all the way through kiddie porn and snuff films") and name-calling (Kate Millet is an "imploding beanbag of poisonous self-pity"), Paglia often undercuts her own effectiveness. The same can, of course, often be said of mass media. Like the media, Paglia must constantly choose between showing off and moving public opinion forward. l

Stepp, a WJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.

Briefly...

Writing for Your Readers, by Donald Murray (Globe Pequot Press, 244 pages, $13.95): Murray's first edition made everybody's list of the top 10 writing books, and this revision is just as delightful. The longtime author and writing coach adds material on handling routine assignments, finding story lines and other timely topics, and his voice remains warm and very, very wise.

Good Advice on Writing, by William Safire and Leonard Safir (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $22): This is another collection of quotations about writing. While it contains some gems, overall the choices seem flat and disappointing. I still prefer Jon Winokur's "Writers on Writing."

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