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.