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4 problematic narratives

Let’s go ahead and get the disclaimer out of the way: By using these articles as teaching tools and points of discussion, I am neither dismissing the value of their respective authors nor the magazines in which they appeared. For one thing, I think (hope, at least) that we all evolve over the course of our writing careers and that we become more conscious of the roles that our own experiences and motivations play in all aspects of our work*- from the topics we choose to focus on, the way we interview and research our “subjects,” the ways in which we present or obscure ourselves within our narratives, and the ways in which we present all this in a chosen written form for an end reader. For another thing, I’m all too aware of the ways in which our own words get away from us, and even our very ideas about what we want to write, reshaped by editors who, in turn, make decisions based on prevailing notions of what readers want and, let’s be frank, what supposedly makes money.

Finally, by talking about other writers’ work, I’m not avoiding the responsibilities of taking a searching look at my own work. But I think I do that quite often here and believe there’s something useful in the practice of reading critically, too.


1. “Consumed,” published in Outside.

In the print issue in which this article appeared, the editor-in-chief provided the interesting backstory about “Consumed,” explaining how the author researched the feature about Hendrik Coetzee, a whitewater kayaker who was attacked and killed by a crocodile in December 2010.  But even knowing how meticulous the author had been in his information gathering from sources close to the subject I remained uneasy with the opening paragraphs of this article.

The author adopts what I call the “expert historian in a documentary” voice. He’s a narrator in the most literal sense of the word, dropping the reader right into the scene. In that scene, the protagonist, Coetzee, is still alive. He has just “drag[ged] his kayak ashore” and is getting ready to settle in for the night. The author provides some useful background context about the Ugandan park where Coetzee finds himself, and he references Coetzee’s own writings; Coetzee was, according to the author “an obsessive chronicler of his adventures.” Nothing to argue with there; Coetzee updated his blog regularly.

A simple sentence rubs me the wrong way: “Barefoot as always, he feels vulnerable, but not afraid.” How, exactly, does the author know what Coetzee was feeling? He cites a passage Coetzee has written (“I ask myself, Are you ready to die? I give it some serious thought. I believe I am. I look back on my life, and I feel satisfied.”), but even in its seeming clarity, even in the seemingly logical conclusion the author has made, there seems to be enough room to question the author. Why does he feel the need to narrate in the present tense? Why does he impose his own interpretations on Coetzee who is, after all, dead and cannot confirm that he was “vulnerable, but not afraid.”

After these opening paragraphs, the framing and narration of the article shift, pulling in the voices of living sources, but I’m already reading with a degree of suspicion: will the author attempt to manipulate the story in order to amp up its emotional charge?

It’s curious, this impulse to enliven–quite literally–the past with our own interpretations. Talking head historians do this all the time in documentaries. I don’t find the impulse itself problematic (a great deal of writing is an effort to make meaning), but I find the confident declarations that so often issue from this impulse to be borderline arrogant.


2. “Queen of the Mommy Bloggers,” published in The New York Times Magazine.

The most valuable and enduring lesson of my coursework in women’s studies was the notion of positioning yourself in your writing. You don’t have to write yourself out of your work in order to be scholarly or “objective” or use any other narrative sleight of hand to pretend that you’re not somehow invested in what you’re writing about. There are many techniques for positioning yourself–some more sophisticated and elegant than others– but generally, I find it preferable that a writer offer an inelegant positioning to not positioning himself or herself at all or insinuating that he/she is somehow smarter/better than the subject.

I generally like this author’s work, but this article bothered me, as these types of profiles often do. Belkin, the author, is “in” the article, but it’s clear to me that she views herself as both in and outside the scene simultaneously, both aligned with her subject and distant enough from her to make a conclusion about the subject.

Belkin even makes note of an exchange that occurs between her and the subject:

Noticing that I’d been taking notes during the meltdown, Armstrong winced but didn’t ask me to stop. “It’s all fodder,” she said. “It’s all material.”

Belkin doesn’t say how she responded to Armstrong after Armstrong says “It’s all material.” She just goes on to say “Or is it?” to the reader.

This seems so small, and it is, but it is in the small details that much of our work is delivered to the reader. And it is in the details that are left out that some important disclosures are avoided or withheld, consciously or otherwise.

3. “Supercolossal Street Art,” published in The New York Times Magazine.

I’m not naive about what it takes (or what editors and publishers *believe* it takes) to sell a story^, but I also wonder why some stories aren’t allowed to just stand on their own merit and why, instead, they have to be injected with a superlative (“most,” “best,” “biggest,” “coolest”) or reduced to some easy to grasp stereotype. As MatadorU photography alumnus Joshua Debner said recently, “Is there room for quiet stories?” I love that: quiet stories.

I think this story about JR, the “photograffeur” who was just awarded a TED prize, is fascinating, but I was troubled by the “Who is this masked man?” kind of tone the author conveys in most of the piece.

4. “Pierda su maleta y nosotros le garantizamos el melodrama,” published in Etiqueta Negra.

Sorry for the non-Spanish speakers among you, but I’ll summarize. This piece is a personal essay about the author losing and then recovering her suitcase during a trip. Annoying? Yes. Traumatic? I think that’s a stretch. The article is filled with declarations that feel hyperbolic: “The number [of lost suitcases] is chilling….” “The suitcase is our identity. The objects in it define us, we view them as essential… as irreplaceable.” The problem here, apart from the hyperbole, is that rather than speaking for herself, the author is speaking for a generalized we… an easy way to alienate your audience.


What kinds of narratives or techniques do you find problematic and why? I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

*a topic about which my friend Alison Wellner has written about quite eloquently in this piece.

^in fact, I’m currently struggling with a situation in which a publication is attempting to sensationalize a story I’m writing.


13 responses »

  1. The biggest lesson I’ve learned since signing up for MatadorU is that my stories are enough. When I write about other people’s stories and try to attribute things to them, it’s not only unfair to them but also discredits me as a narrator in my own narrative.

    • Hope-

      I’d pay money to be a fly on the wall listening to conversations between you and Josh. Between “quiet stories” and “my stories are enough,” I’m beginning to wonder whether the two of you ever have a banal conversation. 🙂

  2. I like this post, Julie. I’ve been reading a lot of craft books lately and it’s so imperative to be trustworthy as a nonfiction narrator/voice. It’s maybe the hardest thing in my opinion about this genre. In fiction, you can be vulnerable so your reader will empathize with you, and it’s not as though you can’t be vulnerable in cnf or literary journalism, but you have to do so in a way that makes the reader believe you. The first story here, since you felt you were being talked down to, failed in that respect. And it goes back to that sentence….”Barefoot as always…” How DID the writer know that? She/he couldn’t have. But the tone of expert/historian only amplified your distrust in it, I’m sure.

    Thanks for getting the gears ticking here…

    • You’re welcome, Alyssa, and thanks for your thoughts, too. In a future post, I think I’ll explore some of the techniques for being vulnerable and believable. As I allude here, there are elegant and inelegant ways of doing this, and I don’t think many writers learn the elegant ways as they’re developing craft skills.

  3. I love the phrase “quiet stories”! It captures something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, something about how crucial it is to pay attention to those stories that are not “sensational” (in a sort of blockbuster film sort of way, or in a “most”, “biggest”, “best” sort of way) but which are nonetheless relentlessly compelling because of their human-ness, their everyday-ness.

    Interesting insight into the NYT “Mommy Bloggers” piece, too. I quoted from it at length in a recent post, but I did also feel a surprising amount of resistance to the piece (no, that’s not right: disappointment in it, perhaps) in spite of the fact that I was compelled to read on, captivated by the subject matter. I think maybe you’ve hit on why: the author’s place was not very well-defined. She was simultaneously inside the room with the Armstrongs and outside of it, and so ultimately seemed to hover somewhere between being objective (/distanced) and invested (/close). I guess this should work, theoretically (it’s sort of similar to what she describes Heather Armstrong as doing so well – both revealing and not-revealing at the same time), but it has to be very carefully done.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this before or not, but an interesting – and perhaps related – example of narrative (and the author’s place in a narrative, particularly in a narrative that is huge and essentially sensational) is Tom Junod’s piece on “The Falling Man” –

    • Miranda-

      Thanks for your comment- I feel like you and I are exploring similar ideas and I really love and appreciate the way you’re articulating your thoughts about small details and quiet stories.

      I also felt very uncomfortable with Belkin’s article and continued reading despite my discomfort because I was also curious where it was ultimately all leading. I *do* think it’s possible to be “embedded” (what a terrible word), even briefly, with a subject and to be thoughtful and transparent artfully. But in this case, I couldn’t help but feel (and was reminded of an earlier article about “octomom,” also in the NYT Magazine, that left me feeling similarly) that Belkin was looking down upon Armstrong, and if she *did* feel that way, I just wanted her to come out and say it.

      Thanks for the link to “The Falling Man”- I hadn’t seen that and am off to read it in a few minutes.

    • Miranda-

      I don’t think I’ve ever had so physical a response to something I’ve read; my stomach was clenched tightly throughout Junod’s entire piece.

      Though it employs some of the same techniques as the author of the Coetzee article, I don’t find it problematic because Junod acknowledge other possible interpretations and perspectives. After presenting (and even privileging) his own interpretation of the photo, he says, “Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else — something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom.” And then, by setting the piece up into discrete sections that turn the photo, his interpretations, the data retrieved, and the very process of this whole story around and around like a kaleidoscope, he avoids the trap that other writer falls into.

      Thanks for sharing this.

      • Glad you liked the article – I know exactly what you mean about having a physical response. It is – literally – gripping. A friend of mine (who recommended it to me) read it on the subway; she said she only realized she’d missed her stop when she looked up and saw she was at the end of the line.

  4. alisonwellner

    Excellent analysis, as ever, Julie! These are major issues in narrative nonfiction for me.

    As a writer, I think it’s fine — and desirable and perhaps even ethical — to show readers what I’m thinking and imagining as I’m constructing a story. As you point out in your look at Belkin’s piece, the problem with not doing that is that you’re glossing over your role as “puppet master” — no matter how “accurate” you are, you’re by definition only showing this tiny little slice of the reality you studied, your subjects don’t choose that slice, nor how they’re portrayed in your story, and they almost always have no time to respond in your story to your final selection or interpretation. As a writer, I think the least you can do is acknowledge in some way the power that you hold.

    I think you can do this by judiciously showing your work — and I think this needs to be done early and often. For instance, to cite an author I admire tremendously and a book that I otherwise loved: Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City. He has a scene of a murder, from the victim’s perspective. After the scene is over he says something like — that’s how I imagine it went. Fine, it’s not Jayson Blair or James Frey territory, but as a reader I felt manipulated, because as I’m reading that scene in a book of nonfiction, I’m thinking — oh the victim survived, because otherwise we couldn’t possible know her thoughts. After that scene, my trust was shattered — when will there be another “gotcha! I’m making this part up”? That wouldn’t have been my reaction if he had started the scene by flagging that he was going to write a little fiction. (And I have no problem with that at all, I just want to know what’s happening.)

    There are cases where a writer has gone to some lengths to gather details that SEEM like they’re made up, but actually aren’t. I’m thinking now of the VQR’s remarkable reconstruction of the Mumbai attacks, which recounted a taxi drivers last words before his cab exploded. It created enough of a question for me that I asked on the blog how the writer knew that, and I got a very detailed answer from Ted Genoways.

    I realize that it can be cumbersome and in fact undesirable, for a writer to explain how they got every single detail in the body of the text, but in nonfiction, when something seems improbable — like recounting the thoughts or words of someone who is now dead — there’s got to be some explanation somewhere, if only in an end note.

    • Alison-

      The end note….

      I know that poets, at least (or perhaps more accurately, their editors!), believe that a piece should stand alone, that you shouldn’t have to give and shouldn’t give the backstory. I don’t know if I always agree (though I have sat through one too many readings where the writer felt it was necessary to divulge every single detail and reference made in the poem, and good God, if it’s that insular, it really shouldn’t be let out into the world).

      In nonfiction, though, I’m willing to make a case for the divulgation of the backstory. You’re so right- there’s not always a way to work backstory into the principal story. But if you can’t, then perhaps you owe it to the reader to offer that context in some other form, be it the endnote or a separate blog post (I keep coming back to your own “He Is Dead” essay and then the backstory explanation on your blog as one excellent example).

  5. Nice post, Julie. Do you think the vexing line about Coetzee would have been better if the writer used the word “seems” and thereby show his own bias a lot more transparently?

    I like reading (and enjoy using in my own writing) my own personal observations during my experiences with a subject. I feel like as long as they’re not overly subjective or judgmental (which they are going to be at least a little, by their nature), then it works, even when spliced with more removed, I-less reporting. I’m not sure I ever really view myself as “in” the story, I just find that using “I” makes things a bit easier to bring color to the story. I want the reader to see what I’m seeing, to see the subject’s actions as they relate to my presence there. So I’m not sure I have a problem with Belkin being both in and out of the story (and granted I didn’t read the whole thing because I have a short attention span, so we may be talking about two different things), although her “Or is it?” line just seems stupid.

    • Megan-

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think the line about Coetzee might have been better if the narrator used “seems,” but I don’t think that verb would have been congruent with his very framing and narrative style of the opening of this article. What I would have preferred rather than this “expert historian” voice was the exact same strategy he used in the rest of the piece: straight-up reporting (which could have still incorporated excerpts from Coetzee’s blog posts).

      Like you, I do like using my personal observations in my work. In fact, I think it’s important, and that’s what I’m talking about when I reference “positioning.” In the case of Belkin, it’s not so much that I have a problem with her being both in and outside the story–in a sense, all writers are participant-observers in the lives of their subjects–but that I never get a really good sense of what kind of agreement she comes to with Armstrong. By agreement, I don’t necessarily mean some overtly articulated agreement about what Belkin’s doing there (that’s obvious enough), but this: How is Belkin reacting to Armstrong in those moments and in that space they’re sharing together? I don’t get *any* of that in the article- just a slightly judgmental tone that seems safe enough when it’s on the page and removed from the environment.


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