journalism

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 24 Comments

We can fix a sexist blip

November 16, 2016 | 16 Comments

I flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to American anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!

I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George Bush.

The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.

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The case for Hillary

November 2, 2016 | 10 Comments

Puzzled by her aversion toward Hillary Clinton, former Bernie Sanders supporter Sonya Huber accepted an offer to quickly write a short book exploring why. In The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huber assesses fair and unfair criticisms of Clinton. I found Huber’s look from the Left balanced and interesting—and, more to the point, useful. With her historical overview, Huber clarified my own mixed feelings as a moderate progressive. The bottom line, however, is that we’ll both be voting for Clinton. I’ll be doing so with more confidence after Huber’s inquiry, which convinces me that the false narratives that dog Clinton do cloud our view of her.

I’d forgotten so much that Huber reminds me of, including Bill Clinton’s conservatism as a “New Democrat.” In the wake of Ronald Reagan and under pressure from a new breed of militant conservatives, Bill sought to out-Republican the Right. As Huber puts it,

“This was Jimmy Carter with brass knuckles, a party that had to get tough to rescue the southern white male vote by promising to enforce a series of belt-tightening bootstrap policies that would end up glorifying the Republican ideals of free trade agreements, destroying welfare, and enacting an era of mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.”

Bill appointed Hillary as chair of the Task Force on National Healthcare Reform, making her the public face of the effort. This was an unusual move, and Huber’s research indicates that Hillary was far from the plan’s architect though she was demonized by the GOP and left holding the bag for the initiative’s failure: “It’s amazing, really—the evil power that this narrative has given her. It wasn’t profit interests that derailed healthcare reform: it was a woman.”

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She wore white

October 26, 2016 | 15 Comments

By the final presidential debate, who could deny that our nation’s howling retrograde armies have assumed the bodily form of Donald Trump? In the face of ignorance and evil, Hillary Clinton acquitted herself almost flawlessly and looked fantastic. Her white suit alluded to the long struggle by women in America for equal treatment—and thereby stood, as well, for justice for all. In contrast, Trump was his usual vile self, and the Women of the House of Trump dressed in black—Melania capping her ensemble with a “pussy-bow” blouse, as if to refer dismissively, from the summit of haute couture, to her husband’s vulgarities. Symbolism has never had it so good.

There’s been so much inspired ink on what Trump’s surprising level of support means. The dominant narrative, of course, is that it springs from economic pain among America’s middle- and lower-middle classes. But clearly in this backlash there’s also a strong racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, homophobic component. Trump’s sole gift as a leader may be, in stirring the embers of fear and pain, to kindle rage. As a progressive who fervently believes in American exceptionalism, I’m worried. A proven cure for angry, unexamined feelings is education, which leads to consideration of others’ viewpoints and to self-inquiry, but that’s a slow process.

As for Clinton’s steely pragmatic nature, similar doubts might’ve been sounded about Abraham Lincoln, who worked as a tough, amoral lawyer. He represented a railroad. Who could have predicted his rise to personal and political greatness? That is, besides pretty much the entire South?

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Politics & our narrative impulse

October 11, 2016 | 11 Comments

Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.

Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”

The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.

Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist.

In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label.

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Doubt confronts faith

April 22, 2016 | 7 Comments

Some of us miss the personal dimension in nonfiction that deals relentlessly with its main subject—who is writing this thing and why? Others find memoir claustrophobic—where’s the larger world, other people, everyday life? The practice of telling both stories in the same work is ancient, but such books were a harder sell for all concerned until publishers could slap “memoir” on quirky personal narratives. Labels can matter. In an interesting talk at the 2013 River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, writer Michelle Herman called “stealth memoir” a bogus genre she made up. Like calling a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” however, stealth memoir is a discerning and useful phrase. It may be helping shape a subgenre by focusing and encouraging writers to include themselves while inquiring into a larger external subject.

Three of my favorite stealth memoirs are Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer; Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior (reviewed) by Brandon Schrand; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman.

My latest enjoyable discovery in this realm is Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir. Funny and personally poignant, while also an interestingly reported foray into the Bible Belt by a doubting English descendant of Charles Darwin. I admire the way Chapman writes honestly about himself even as he skewers others, especially Bible thumpers, but always with a compassionate wink. He both discerns and forgives others’ crutches and foibles, having racked up so many disasters himself. He talks at length, often in brave encounters, with people who are stunningly different from himself. These folks range from scary barflies to sweet true-believing students from a fundamentalist college.

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Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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