“Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”: The French Dispatch is a Bittersweet Reminder of the Bygone Era That Fortified Writers Through Literary Magazines

Edgar Wright might be of the belief that the notion of there being “better days” is a fallacy, but that really doesn’t seem to be true when it comes to literary magazines. An enterprise that long ago achieved its heyday, never to really do so again. For it is a decidedly antiquated medium that is difficult to make “sexy” to anyone except pretentious East Coast elite liberals who want to feel absolutely certain of their erudition. As well as their “generousness” for giving some of their gobs of money to “the arts.” Just never the arts or ventures in true need. Which is why Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, is such a bittersweet window into a past that actually allowed writers to “do their own thing” a.k.a. be creative, meandering and “weird” thanks to existing in a time when even the most middling literary magazines had a budget. And weren’t simply concentrated into one major juggernaut enterprise shoved under the Condé Nast umbrella. 

While some (particularly the French themselves) have found fault with The French Dispatch’s hyper-Andersonian “tweeness,” it should be difficult for editors and writers alike to balk at something so accurate in conveying the importance of the editor-writer relationship and its contribution to a “final product.” One that was at a synergistic apex in the late 60s/early 70s era that the film alludes to taking place in. 

But, alas, now we’re here. In The Opiate’s very own “Where to Buy” section, we mince no words about the sheer absurdity of trying to operate a literary magazine via the candid lines, “Print magazines, obviously, are not lucrative and extremely difficult to sell outside of a ‘it’s the 1960s and Esquire is at its peak’ milieu. Anyone who tells you otherwise, well, ask them for a sample of whatever it is they’re smoking. As such, it’s not exactly facile to find places to sell magazines in the current ‘marketplace,’ let alone produce them without major financial backing.” In short, running a lit mag in 2021 is on the level of crazy that goes with the territory of rubbing shit all over yourself. It makes no good sense and it’s never profitable. Especially not in relation to the blood, sweat and tears that go into it, paired with the random barrage of criticism from the writers themselves on how you should be handling things and asking why you haven’t read their work yet (perhaps because, unfortunately, there is other paid work to be done during most of one’s waking hours). And yet, without these last vestiges of independently-run magazines doing their best to emulate the quality and care of 60s-era literary publications in the face of being told they’re worthless, the medium truly will fall off the cliff for good.

As for “respected” rags like The New Yorker (which The French Dispatch models itself on and is an homage to), it is the prime example of being too overly diluted because of all the interests involved in making it profitable. When the emphasis on money overshadows the work itself, too many editors inevitably seem to get off on gutting a piece for the satisfaction of both “selling copies,” as well as their own ego. Never allowing the writer to keep their voice, especially if it’s in violation of any “sensitivity” reading protocol. 

What incites such a melancholic yearning within a writer whilst viewing the film is quite obvious: nurturing editors like Bill Murray’s character, Arthur Howitzer Jr., simply do not exist anymore (and if they do, there is not a significant enough amount of them to keep the literary “industry” clear of impure intentions, therefore inferior work). Arthur’s “distant and stern” manner (complete with a sign in his office that says, “No crying”—just as Jimmy Dugan [Tom Hanks] from A League of Their Own would probably have) is an overt cover for what a “softie” he is deep down, especially when it comes to ensuring all of his writers have what they need to create the exact prose they want. Even if that sometimes means springing for the expenses that come with these so-called “creative needs.” Like J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) “needing” to stay in that hotel alongside the ocean where she had her tryst in order to accurately conjure her memory. 

The absence of a judgmental air and the gentle guidance Arthur provides after reading one of his writers’ work is not only essential to bolstering the creative process, but also the quality and authenticity of the collective body of work that exists within the pages of a literary journal. Arthur’s personality type is most noticeable in this regard during exchanges with Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson)—based on Joseph Mitchell—and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright)—based on James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling. Playfully asking Herbsaint if perhaps he wanted to put in a few more “upbeat” mentions in his gritty description (“You don’t think it’s almost too seedy this time?”) of Ennui-sur-Blasé, like flowers or something, Herbsaint retorts, “I hate flowers.” But Arthur is that rare breed of editor who understands what a writer’s words mean to them, never giving too much pushback (hence another one of his aphorisms, “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”)… unless his suggestion would absolutely make it a better story. As is the case with Wright’s narrative about Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park) and The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric), wherein Arthur insists that the ending Wright took out is actually the entire point of having written it at all. 

“Silence! Writers writing,” declare the signs of The French Dispatch office, hallowed halls where respect for art (and the talent and effort required to do it) still exists. But again, it’s only through this wormhole in time called the mid-twentieth century. Before the steamrolling onset of 80s neoliberalism stamped out art for art’s sake irrevocably. Before a man like Arthur himself wouldn’t even be “allowed” to survive and thrive in order to help other writers do the same. 

An editor of Arthur’s nature is someone with that rare combination of both meticulousness and an adventurous spirit. As indicated by Anjelica Huston’s voiceover, “It began as a holiday. Eager to escape a bright future on the Great Plains, Arthur Howitzer Jr. transformed the series of travelogue columns into The French Dispatch. A factual, weekly report on the subjects of world politics, the arts (high and low) and diverse stories of human interest.”

With Arthur cultivating “the best expatriate journalists of his time,” The French Dispatch also highlights the increasingly diminished occurrence (particularly with COVID fuckery) of American writers traveling and living abroad for any extended period in order to expand their horizons and perspective on “reality.” 

Arthur’s disregard, like any writer, for “strict” deadlines or timeframes is manifest when an underling barges into his office and announces, “A message from the foreman: one hour till press.” Arthur promptly replies, “You’re fired.” Brilliance can’t be rushed. To that point, “These were his people,” Huston further narrates of Arthur’s connection to the writerly spirit of being anti-establishment and anti-convention. In effect, the very two characteristics that have left most writers out in the cold as the century wears on. Complete with a total lack of viable literary magazines to foster talent and encourage “coloring outside the lines” (both in terms of what they write and how they go about getting inspired). A phenomenon that simply cannot be when the lines in question refer only to keeping the bottom one “cost-effective.” 

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