But surf fans even worse!
Surf writers are idolaters. Sycophants. Failed scions of the surfing family tree that trade on their only worthwhile commodity to bask in the reflected glory of the demigods that they can never become.
Or so I thought as I finished up watching The End of the Tour on Netflix the other night, a crumpled quiver of tins at my feet.
Have you seen this fillum? It’s a biopic about the late American novelist David Foster Wallace, who at one stage in the nineties, was considered to be the greatest living writer in those United States. He was an unwilling literary darling, brilliant but flawed (aint we all?) and the movie details the burgeoning friendship between he and a Rolling Stone journalist who’s been assigned to write a hard-hitting piece on him and his alleged drug use.
Only thing is, the journo, David Lipsky, is an aspiring writer and DFW fan himself. Lipsky struggles to move in for the kill – how can he tear down something he loves? – and eventually abandons the story completely.
In typical Foster Wallace fashion the movie is intended as insightful expose of the contemporary American psyche yadda yadda yadda. But for me, sitting there half drunk in the half dark as the credits rolled and the next flick queued up (a documentary on Tickling? Por que no?), it got me to my previously outlined observation: surf writers are just a big bunch of Lipskys. Fan boys. Unwilling to write anything inflammatory lest it ruffle the feathers of the surfing elite they so adore.
Because, I thought to myself as I kicked away the cans and headed for bed, most surf scribes have not reached the competitive or talent levels of their subjects. Instead they leverage their craft to increase their own surfing time and subsequently rub shoulders with the movers, shakers and shape shifters of the surf industry.
Their assimilation leaves us with three basic categories of acceptable surf story. There’s the new school freesurfer eschewing the mainstream competitive career. The old school competitor eschewing the played-out freesurfer mould. And the rags to riches battler/phoenix rising from the ashes. They’re the only narratives we can muster. Because they’re the only ones sponsors want us to hear.
At least the Rolling Stone editor pushed Lipsky to ask the hard questions where necessary. Surf journalism is, for the most part, one giant bro-down. I put myself to bed, wrapped contently in my new found realisation. Those fucking two-bit hacks. All recruited through social connections, comments sections or kitsch Instagram accounts. The only source they’d ever double check is their coke dealer .
And yet, and yet. Something didn’t feel right. A foul nor-easter blew up through the open window as I fell into a deep sleep under a blood red moon.
It was on this night that Nick Carroll came to me in a dream. A ghostly apparition, he was dressed in a Greek toga with an olive leaf behind his ear and with a David Foster Wallace-signature bandana over his bald head. He stood at the foot of my bed. He clutched old copies of Deep magazine to his breast.
“Mr Surfads,” he said in a booming voice. “You’re falling into a trap of fallible generalisations. There has been, and is still, so much good in surf writing. It’s not just all puff. Remember Melekian on Irons, Brisick on Drouyn, Pawle on Branson, Doherty on Peterson, me on my little brother. These were stories that were prepared to upset the status quo, take different angles, disrupt the scene. You are focussing on the wrong target.”
The wind blew even stronger behind him. My linen curtains flapped, twisted and furrowed, and for a second assumed the familiar waves of the Billabong logo.
“You’re right,” I said. “Of course you’re right. And many of those guys ripped too.”
I sat up in my bed to face him.
“But even then you’re all still writing for or promoting through media outlets that rely on industry advertising to function. You’ve told some of the stories that need to be told. But not all of them. You come to me with exceptions, not rules.”
Nick shrugged his shoulders and floated out the window, muttering something about needing to visit a wayward BG commenter.
The curtains fell dead.
I woke with the windows somehow shut, soaked in sweat. The bastard’s got a point, I thought. There is good in surf writing. From Hynd to Carroll to Samuels to Rielly to Smith. Men and women with credentials in and out of the water.
Indeed, it’s a torch that’s carried by this esteemed publication.
But even Chas’s 200-word handjobs and Longtom’s occasional long toms are still only scratching the surface. LT’s recent article on Andy dug a little deeper, yes. Hard questions were asked. Why was Andy’s condition covered up for so long? Is it because those that were supposed to report on it objectively were his friends? And friends with the institution that enabled him?
But Andy’s is the one story we are beginning to hear. How many others have we not?
And then it hit me like a Taylor Steele boxed set. Our subculture and the industry that sustains it readily construct heroes. We feed off the mythology at all levels. It captures our imagination. It sells boardshorts. Their exaltation equals exoneration and they are protected by a corporate-media complex that has its own survival as its main concern.
How can we expect objectivity from it when we are all a part of it?
So maybe surf writers aren’t idolaters. Maybe they’re just cogs in the giant industry wheel, unable to poke a stick through the spokes. Many do try, and try well. For every Stab Style Guide there’s a Surfer’s Journal.
But still the wheel rolls on.
Yeah, it’s hardly a new notion. I’m not the first person to break through surfing’s fourth wall. And really, does any of this matter? Would anybody outside of our quirky little niche of a sport, a pastime, a lifeblood, need to know what’s going on?
Or even care?
But The Old Man On The Point was right about something else too. I was focussing on the wrong target. It’s not the writers that are the problem. They’re doing the best they can in an industry that’s still finding its feet on the big stage. And the industry, well, it’s just doing what all industries do.
The real problem is us. The commenters. This whole brain fart brings to the fore the oxymoronic nature of the contemporary surf fan.
We’re a bunch of big fucken babies.
On one hand we want our sport to be left to the core. Us disgruntled locals. Fuck the mainstream. Fuck the WSL. Yet at the same time, we’ve evolved to a point now where we demand the transparency and accountability of our heroes and the systems that support them, just like we’d expect from a mainstream sport.
Who’d have thought we’d care this much about the WSL, for instance?
So what do you want from the surf media? Cottage-industry hacks keeping everything rose-tinted? Or a fully-fledged independent fourth estate ready to tear holes in the myths and institutions we hold dear?
Of course this is a derivative, simplistic take on a complex issue.
And when it comes down the it, who’s going to pay the cheque for our very own Bernstein and Woodward anyway?
Fuck, maybe we should all follow competitive tickling for kicks instead. It’s pretty kinky.