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.