Essay as Longform Journalism

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

This week we continue to explore the essay into newer forms and media, in particular, those related to journalism. As we began to discuss Friday, the type of journalism that associates with the essay is usually found not on the front page, but in sections where there is space for features, such as The New York Times Magazine. Our reading for Wednesday and Friday will be from that publication.

One name for this–a kind of synonym for essayistic nonfiction in journalism, is longform journalism. This site, aptly named Longform, archives a range of this type of nonfiction. A quick scroll will show that it includes classics of journalistic essay writing such as George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” as well as very recent longform pieces that blend with current news. For example, the recent piece in the Times that broke open the Harvey Weinstein story; and the piece from late last week about Roy Moore in Alabama. In both cases, I assume it is the longer form of the reporting and the writing that makes it essayistic.

I see something similar at work in the Serial podcast. I noted that Sarah Koenig uses the analogy of zooming (she refers to a children’s book titled Zoom): that to understand Bergdahl’s story, one has to both zoom in closely, but also zoom out for a larger and longer perspective. It seems to me that the podcast format, including the multimedia supplements such as this map, enhances this experience of the zoom. Or maybe it is just the only way these days, with all our distractions and devices, that we will sit still for the longer period of time required to hear this complex narrative.

In class Friday I mentioned the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans. I called it a photo-essay; it is also a famous case of very long-form journalism that was rejected by the publication (Fortune) and later published as a book. It is in my mind one of the most difficult and challenging books you will read and find deeply rewarding. I highly recommend it. One of these days I’d like to build a course around it.

Here are two other examples of really longform journalism, both published in magazines, and then turned into books; we can think of these long essays this week–while reading much shorter examples. (I did toy with the idea of assigning these).

“A Sense of Where You Are”: A 1965 profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley from when he was in college, by the great nonfiction writer John McPhee (originally published in The New Yorker).

“Fast-Food Nation,” by Eric Scholsser, originally published in Rolling Stone in two parts in 1998, then turned into a book, then a movie (as well as part of the documentary Food Inc.).

What of the essay genre might we read or see in this journalism? And what can we learn from journalism that we can extend (back) to the essay? Some thoughts.

In Rankine’s “The Meaning of Serena Williams: On Tennis and Black Excellence,” we could start with her title. Remember “on” goes back to Montaigne. Also her first paragraph:

There is no more exuberant winner than Serena Williams. She leaps into the air, she laughs, she grins, she pumps her fist, she points her index finger to the sky, signaling she’s No. 1. Her joy is palpable. It brings me to my feet, and I grin right back at her, as if I’ve won something, too. Perhaps I have.

Or the ways that later in the essay Rankine deepens the discussion with personal reflection…

Two years ago, recovering from cancer and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I flew from LAX to J.F.K. during Serena’s semifinal match at the U.S. Open with the hope of seeing her play in the final.

…and then complicates her own personal investment:

‘‘You don’t understand me,’’ Serena Williams said with a hint of impatience in her voice. ‘‘I’m just about winning.’’ She and I were facing each other on a sofa in her West Palm Beach home this July. She looked at me with wariness as if to say, Not you, too. I wanted to talk about the tennis records that she is presently positioned either to tie or to break and had tried more than once to steer the conversation toward them.

And in the case of Pollan’s “Unhappy Meals,” notice the ways he sets up the problem/response of his argument.

The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, ”Eat more fruits and vegetables”?) And so, like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters.

Food should be simple, but has been made complex; but that complexity needs complicating, not just simplifying–since part of the confusion results from the reductive views of food/nutrition science. So, food needs to be thought of as a relationship of simple and complex; like ecology; or, like the essay.

No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?

In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in what we call food chains, or webs, that reach all the way down to the soil. Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant. Similarly, cow’s milk did not start out as a nutritious food for humans; in fact, it made them sick until humans who lived around cows evolved the ability to digest lactose as adults. This development proved much to the advantage of both the milk drinkers and the cows.

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Hacking the Essay

Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.

And so the futuristic and new in Monson’s mind returns us to the old medium of Montaigne’s essay, theater of the brain, thought thinking. For example:

Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….

The essay is a thinking and writing machine; or more to Monson’s point, to essay is to hack one’s way through the process of thinking: the essay as hack is a technology repurposed to solve a sort of problem. Monson’s essay returns us to our starting point: the essay on the essay, the philosophy of the essay. But it also pushes us forward in developing its rhetoric, the effects of its argument, by way of its  poetics. The essay as technology or machine or hacking of our thinking machinery emphasizes the importance of the “process” by which essays are made. Process, as we have been hearing, is a keyword and interest of the new media essay. And it is what Emerson has in mind, surely, in “Circles,” where every truth written is a witness to its process of becoming undone.

And so, for the experimental third writing project, the purpose is for you to explore and consider more directly the process (and by extension, the processing) of the essay. For a complement to Monson’s sense of the essay as hypertext, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay on hypertext narrative (she’s the author that writes the hypertext memoir, “My Body”). There she argues for a version/vision of hypertext narrative that sounds something like the argument for the lyric essay–or perhaps, the original essay: collage, nonlinear, paratactic (rather than linear and hypotactic), creatively responding to “constraint” (one of Monson’s keywords). We might think of Jackson’s hypertext essay “My Body” as a hack of the personal essay, or a hack of the body. Or both. It brings into focus the rhetorical and poetic device we discussed earlier in the semester, metonymy. Consider this other project of Jackson’s for an even more metonymic version about writing on the body.

Consider this related perspective from Andrew Piper, who argues for an understanding of literature and books and essays that includes their longstanding interests in what we now associate with computers: numbers, gaming, algorithms.

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this feature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

The understanding of texts as dynamic and interactive and not static objects: though the specific reference here is to the digital text, we can  also think of this as a fundamentally social and rhetorical nature of writing. When we read and write we rewrite; we hack our way into what has already been said and written. That’s the algorithm. Emerson called that “recomposition.”

What do you think of this idea of literature–the experiences of reading and writing–interacting with the logic of numbers, of playing, of computation? The argument from Monson and Jackson and Piper seems to be that literature, and specifically the essay, has always had an element of play, long before the invention of digital mediation. Would you agree? Do these essays return you to Emerson or Montaigne? Enhance or even improve upon what those older essays do? Or fail to engage your attention?

My hack of Monson’s hack as essay (my digital annotations) is available here. Monson also does some video essays. For example one he calls an “essay-dispatch” titled “Silence in the Former Indianapolis Airport.”

For those interested in creating a hypertext essay or narrative for Project 3 (or possibly the Final Project), in the style of Monson or Jackson, Twine is an online site that provides the software to do just that.

I suggested that Monson’s and Jackson’s hacks  of the essay present us with examples of the paratactic nature of the essay. Recall in our introduction to the poetics and history of the essay, reference was made to the essays paratactic style. Read here for more on parataxis–to use a paratactic feature of the digital age, the hyperlink.