Culture Death Match #2: Tom Bissell vs. Sarah Vowell

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Culture Death Match pits Salvatore Pane against Amy Whipple in a point, counter-point battle royal. Today’s bout has them discussing the merits of Tom Bissell’s “Grand Thefts” and Sarah Vowell’s “Ike Was a Handsome Man”. Both essays are about obsessions, and while debating video games and politics, Amy and Sal stumble onto the subject of authority and just which writers are granted authority.

Sal Plays Video Games Because He Doesn’t Have Friends

When I was in college, I played so much Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that I almost drove away my long-term girlfriend—standing in line with me at Toys R’ Us while I purchased the game must have been an eye-opening experience for her. But rock bottom came in the form of my roommate who one day entered our dorm room unexpectedly. There I was, in underwear that stuck to our lawn chair furniture, tapping X to make my character lift weights in GTA. He stared at the screen, stared at me. It was a lot like being caught masturbating.

“You’re weightlifting?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“In a video game.”
“Yes.
“But you don’t lift weights in real life.”
“No.”

Long story short, anyone with my history is going to be a sympathetic reader to Tom Bissell’s “Grand Thefts” culled from his phenomenal essay collection Extra Lives. But his tale of playing the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto for hours upon end during coke-fueled international benders is required reading for more than just the Super Mario generation. Bissell knows what so many members of the below-forty crowd know: that virtual worlds can feel more real, more relevant, more important than our actual, physical, inescapable reality. Bissell writes, “What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories.”

What I love about Tom Bissell’s work is that he’s not afraid to compare GTA IV and its creators to Nabokov. He understands the importance of narrative and how video games are changing what narrative is and can be. The sandbox genre, which GTA IV is a part of, is a relatively new form of narrative where the “user” generates meaning, story and content. Bissell writes, “[Grand Theft Auto IV] turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can.”

“Grand Thefts” is an essay I feel incredibly strong about. “Grand Thefts” is an essay I teach to my students. “Grand Thefts” is a harbinger of things to come, a premonition that what we know about narrative and its boundaries is about to be totally fucked apart.

Amy Makes Reference to Smart Writers to Make up for Her Own Intellect

I read an interview once with Richard Rodriguez about how nonfiction writers are always asked about the content of their work instead of the craft of their work in a way that doesn’t happen for fiction writers. I bring this up because while the narrative of Grand Theft Auto IV is “a harbinger of things to come,” “Grand Thefts” is tremendously traditional in terms of essays. Bissell mostly follows a chronological narrative of his involvement with the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto with a couple of sections broken off to speak specifically about cocaine.

This isn’t a fault or anything. It makes me wonder, though. The essay, in its base form, is an exploration. In this way, it’s probably the most open form of traditional writing. What Bissell – and what my video-game-loving friends – latch onto in these games is the ability to explore. What would an essay look like if the reader did the exploring rather than the author? (Is this what Ander Monson is getting at with some of his work?)

But if we’re going to address content, then I’m in the middle of a battle I can never seem to win. In a content-driven world, I’ve always lived in a video-game fantasy land. To speak of virtual worlds to the Millennial Generation (Gen Y, whatever) isn’t new. Yes, maybe actually writing about it is new(er), but it’s not revelatory. I’m not a gaming nerd, but I can’t remember a life without video games. Mr. Pane – I’ve seen his collection – his entire life is games. The fact that I first used a computer when I was five is ancient compared to those currently coming of age.

It’s a direct result of the world I live in that I will throw down for my girl Sarah Vowell over a Tom Bissell any day. The history-nerd-girls don’t have a Kevin Smith or an Edgar Wright to put their causes and loves out into the public sphere. History-nerd-girls are relegated to the nightmare of high school history classes, hours upon hours left sometimes rightfully in the past. Applause for “Grand Thefts” doesn’t mean much when you give a shout-out to history.

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

My first exposure to Sarah Vowell came on a five hour car trip from Pittsburgh to Scranton. I purchased Assassination Vacation on my iPod and listened to it the whole way there and back. It’s a great read (or listen), but what sticks out in my mind most about the entire project is Vowell’s physical voice. She reads the book herself, and whenever a male character speaks (which is rare), some distracting guest like Dave Eggers or Stephen King is trotted out and reads the dialogue. If you haven’t heard Vowell’s voice, it’s heartbreakingly nerdy. Listening to Vowell read from her book for ten hours was the equivalent of time travelling to my high school creative writing class, where I spent the majority of the time being completely infatuated with the bespectacled girl with braces and a penchant for angsty poetry.

But we’re not talking about Assassination Vacation, we’re talking about her essay “Ike Was a Handsome Man” from The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Amy’s method of selling the essay to me was by claiming it’s about my beloved Nixon, but in reality it’s about presidential libraries and whether or not Bill Clinton should avoid the skeletons in his closet concerning his own library. Truth be told, Amy didn’t have to sell me on anything. I love Sarah Vowell, and in fact, this will be more like a Culture Mild Disagreement Match. But I brought up the voice thing earlier for a very specific reason: Amy is in many ways librarian chic while I, like Bissell, am a lovably annoying dude who runs his mouth about video games for hours on end.

Let’s back up. Vowell and Bissell are strangely similar writers (even their last names are similar). Vowell writes about her obsessions: history. Bissell writes about his obsessions: video games. It’s possible that Amy’s more into Vowell because she’s more into history, but I think there’s also a personality thing in play. Amy has told me in the past that whenever she reads my writing she’s often surprised by how much authority I just assume, that unlike her, I don’t have to think and rethink before I can put myself down on the page. I do assume (totally unwarranted) authority. And I’m attracted to big personalities. Bissell makes a lot of big statements. He’s totally bold and basically implies that the entire definition of narrative is about to change. That speaks to me, and not just because it’s about video games. Sarah Vowell, on the flip side, is more thoughtful, more heavily researched, more put together. She doesn’t have to rely on outlandish statements because she has facts to back herself up. That reminds me of Amy. And maybe that’s why Amy is a nonfiction writer, and I’m a fiction dude. I don’t care about facts. Give it to me raw.

Final note: I do think Amy got it completely wrong when she wondered why Bissell doesn’t write in a more experimental mode to reflect the upcoming shift in narratology. Bissell avoids this precisely because he believes that this shift isn’t going to have anything to do with prose. Video games do something that prose can’t: they can have a totally interactive narrative generated completely by the user. Prose shouldn’t try and replicate that. It doesn’t have to. It’s like suggesting Chuck Klosterman include music tracks in his books because he writes about bands.

Amy Throws down the Facts about the Boys

(Ha! Sal said give it to me raw.) While I won’t quibble with the statement that I love facts, there are plenty of big personalities in nonfiction. He mentions one right at the end. Chuck Klosterman has the exact same “my narrative voice has authority simply because I said so” that Sal does. Hunter S. Thompson (though I suppose you could question the validity of the term nonfiction in his work) has it. Think of the guys here on The Rumpus or over at HTMLGiant. I don’t say it to hate, I’m saying it because it’s true. You get to say what you want to say when you want to say it and it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re right – just so long as you act like you are.

Last month, Gina Barreca and Gene Weingarten talked about a similar idea. (Spoiler: Gina totally wins. Then again, she always wins.)  Barreca, Vowell, Joan Didion – you can’t tell me they don’t have big personalities. It’s just that they make sure their authority comes from somewhere authentic, a place of actually knowledge instead of swagger.  Narrative is a boy’s club. History is a boy’s club. And yet there is Vowell, powering down both of them. Mostly because she takes the time to truly understand what she wants to say before she says it. Other than the folks at Mental Floss, tell me one other person who is as intellectual, witty, and charming as Vowell. (Besides me, Sal.) That’s right. You can’t.

History is all about narrative and Vowell takes that on directly in “Ike Was a Handsome Man.” In fact, you might even say that Tom Bissell takes the advice she gives to Clinton. By looking at the libraries of Ike, LJB, and Nixon, Vowell does what she does for not only The Partly Cloudy Patriot, but just about everything she’s ever written. Vowell looks at the good, at the bad – and doesn’t necessarily make a judgment on it.

I’ve been obsessed with this idea lately. In the things I read, the podcasts I listen to, the writing project I’ve been tackling…I’m all about exploration. So I guess Bissell just won a couple more points, though the idea of wandering through a video game just absolutely overwhelms me (I couldn’t even handle the Mario game for Nintendo 64).

Basically, I’m totally over overt political agendas. I’m totally over reading essays and books that come across as little more than PR puff pieces. You really want to change my mind about a subject? Explore it. Be willing to show me the possibly conflicted, possibly humane moments of Nixon’s and LBJ’s presidencies.  Have a sense of humor over the very subjects that scare you. Offer me something like this:

“Once, years ago, I was at the LBJ. I was walking away from a copy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 toward a photo of a serviceman who had been killed in Vietnam. In the ten seconds it took to walk from that law to that face, a song from a nearby pop music exhibit started playing: ‘Louie Louie.’ And I felt like all of America was in that ten seconds: the grandeur of civil rights, the consequences of war, and the fun, fun, fun of a truly strange song.”

Bliss. Absolute nerdy bliss.


The one time Amy Whipple saw Sarah Vowell read, they were wearing matching sweaters. Salvatore Pane and Tom Bissell both look like this. Though Amy is the better cook, she sometimes lets Sal cook for her and never reciprocates. This arrangement keeps the proper power imbalance in their friendship. When they’re not geeking out to their favorite writers, Amy writes profiles for Maniac, book reviews for PANK, and once wrote about furries for The Pittsburgh City Paper; Sal has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has fiction published or forthcoming in Quick Fiction, PANK, Annalemma, and others. More from this author →