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Reword: The Village Voice's Impact on American Journalism Explored in "The Freaks Came Out to Write" Review.
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Reword: The Village Voice’s Impact on American Journalism Explored in “The Freaks Came Out to Write” Review.

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Located between the glamorous Times Square and the bustling Wall Street, Greenwich Village was once known as New York’s hidden territory, serving as a safe haven for artists, rebels, dropouts, and those who strayed from mainstream sexual norms. In 1955, with the New York Times as the city’s official source of news, this bohemian community gained its own local publication, the Village Voice. Living up to its rowdy and lively name, the Voice captured the eclectic spirit of the village. However, after its closure in 2018 (although it has since been revived as a quarterly), the history of the Voice has been told through a series of interviews in The Freaks Came Out to Write, documenting the paper’s idealistic beginnings and eventual descent into unsavory practices such as running advertisements for seedy massage parlors.

The beginnings of The Voice were proudly unprofessional. One of the first contributors was a homeless man recruited from a nearby street, and the only equipment the team had was two worn typewriters, a messy mimeograph machine, and a waste paper basket for rejected submissions. The team’s spirits were lifted when one member discovered that dried pods used in fancy flower arrangements contained opium, which they would cook up during coffee breaks. The editorial standards were far from the strictness of The New Yorker. When Norman Mailer, a columnist at the time, caught a Voice copytaker mistaking “nuance” for “nuisance,” he loudly scolded the timid worker and demanded that they “take their thumb out of their asshole!”

The norm at the impolite Voice was behaving in this manner. A journalist researching joined with groups of teenagers on raids for stolen goods, and amidst a conflict at Tompkins Square in the East Village, another reporter took pleasure in the damp yet efficient tools used by squatters. These individuals collected their own urine, mixed it with donations from stray cats, and hurled plastic bags from rooftops onto the officers below. We are informed that police officers would flee from cat urine, as it is far superior to a gun.

At the New York Times, there was a divide between those who spoke harshly behind your back and those who confronted you directly at the Voice. The writers were notoriously competitive and would insult each other with aggressive phrases written on the office bathroom walls. There were even physical altercations in the newsroom. The music critic Stanley Crouch once warned a colleague that although they were allowed to physically fight, he would still find a way to harm them. If he couldn’t use his fists, Crouch would resort to biting. There was also a battle of the sexes, but it was a more civil exchange of insults. Mailer insulted the feminist writers at the Voice, saying they wrote “like tough gay men”, and one of the women responded by calling Mailer and another male writer “sexist assholes” or “total jerks”.

The front page of the Village Voice on 24 June 1986

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The Village’s writers were a unique breed, known for their bold and often eccentric style. Jill Johnston’s writings delved into the complexities of femininity, with a free-flowing structure reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Greg Tate pioneered a critical approach to analyzing Black culture, coining the term “Yo, Hermeneutics”. When his favorite baseball team lost the World Series, sports reporter Robert Ward was at a loss for words, beginning his column with a long groan followed by a sprinkling of curses: “Oh. Shit. Jesus Christ. Ugh. Fuck.”

Amidst the constant chatter and noise, a particularly poignant account comes from Michael Musto, who was responsible for sourcing showbiz rumors for the Voice. In the midst of the Aids crisis, Musto reflects on showering in the dark, overcome with fear of finding a deadly lesion on his body as he washed.

One of its former editors proudly declares that “The Voice” played a vital role in saving the Village. In the 1950s, the publication’s advocacy helped defeat a plan to demolish the area’s chaotic and cramped streets in order to make way for a large expressway. However, while the physical character of the Village was preserved, it was eventually modernized through unseen social and economic changes that ultimately silenced the radical voice of the publication. As wealthy developers moved in and ousted struggling artists, the lofts and studios they once occupied were taken over by yuppies. Additionally, the strict policies enforced by Rudy Giuliani’s administration at City Hall led to the closure of gay bars and adult shops near churches. Even the formerly blood-stained streets of the Meatpacking District have transformed into upscale showrooms for luxury brands such as Rolex, Apple, Moschino, and the extravagantly named “Theory” clothing line.

According to Ed Fancher, the creators of the Village Voice viewed it as a form of religious movement, advocating for progressivism. However, currently, consumerism has become the dominant ideology in the area, overshadowing any liberal reform efforts. The Village has been transformed into a commercial hub, with the constant presence of persuasion to make purchases. “The Freaks Came Out to Write” is a lament for the earlier, more authentic and affordable times.

  • The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano is published by Public Affairs (£27.72)

Source: theguardian.com