Death Sentence

Posted December 27, 2007 in Feature Story

What are these essays but grotesque bodies pieced together of different members, without any definite shape, without any order, coherence, or proportion, except they be accidental.



Wasn’t the Internet supposed to make dinosaurs of magazines? Forget it. Those ad fat, pulpy behemoths are still lumbering around newsstands, mailboxes and coffee tables. If you can force your way through the scented pages and surreal advertisements that pay the bills for, say, GQ or Vanity Fair, you discover important, exciting stories like Andrew Corsello’s  account of a black priest and white farmer joining forces against tyranny in “Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.” Or Christopher Hitchens’ exposé on the persistent evils of “Agent Orange in Vietnam.” Even the little lizards of the literary scene survive on tense and terrific stories like Jo Ann’s Beard’s account in Tin House of a man who summons his athletic past to leap from his flame and smoke filled fifth-story apartment through a window in the building across the way.

Great stories like these make it easy to believe editor Ira Glass’ introductory claim in The New Kings of Nonfiction that we live in a golden age of feature writing. As for the Internet? “Honestly, it seems like nonfiction writing continues on its own path regardless of what’s happening on the net,” Glass says in reply to e-mail queries, “especially when it comes to long-form nonfiction like in The New Yorker, or in this collection. Those kinds of writers are generally influencing each other more than the Internet influences any of them. I’ve read with interest when nonfiction writers I admire, like George Packer, start a blog. His blog entries are a nice addition to what he writes in his big magazine pieces and his books. They’re timely, they’re personal, they’re quick. I think they don’t affect his magazine writing but are more like DVD extras for his fans, if you know what I mean.”

This year’s crop of essay collections reinforces Glass’ golden age contention. Their introductions trumpet the contents even if they’re not exactly music themselves. You can’t judge a book by its cover but you can render a verdict from its preface. Journalist-public radio personality Glass’ intro for The New Kings of Nonfiction is, like the book’s title, a gush. David Foster Wallace, the celebrity writer who put together The Best American Essays of 2007, wants nothing to do with celebrities. The executive director of the American Society of Magazine Editors who introduces The Best American Magazine Writing 2007 sounds like a journalism professor who’s publishing days have perished. But the Society’s collection of winners and finalists is worthy of tenure. Reading through these books as well as master profiler Mike Sager’s recent collection Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, I’ve come to agree with Glass. We live in a time of drop-dead writers. With few exceptions, the essays in these four collections are killer.

 The New Kings of Nonfiction surveys some 15 years of articles to award its crowns. Glass not only says it’s a “golden age” of feature writing—he also claims we live in “a golden age for crap journalism.” Can he have it both ways?

Depends on what you’re reading. Go through any grocery store checkout line and you can see the crap half is true. On the other hand, Glass makes strong arguments for the positive side of his declaration in his preface and by anthologizing 14 stories worthy of coronation. The preface, a princely essay in its own right, explains his terms. He cites good reporting that pursues angles that no one else has thought of. He wants stories to be entertaining and funny, if appropriate. And he wants the writer involved. None of this journalism school edict about keeping a safe distance. He wants to see the writer’s mind at work. He wants to follow the path to larger ideas.

Good essays are about more than what they are about; they reflect the culture as a whole. They become, as Glass calls them, fables. This is something Aldous Huxley discussed in his “three-poled frame of reference” for essays, what he calls the “abstract universal.” There’s a larger meaning, a larger application. When you read “Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities” by Michael Lewis you get more than the story of an Internet savvy middle school kid who caught the wrath of the Securities and Exchange Commission by making a fortune trading stock from his bedroom. You get a view of the stock market’s teetering psychology, the arrogance of its regulatory officials and the hypocrisy of greed. And you get laughs when the kids responds to a six-hour grilling from the SEC as any 14-year-old would when called to task by his parents or teachers, namely “I didn’t do anything.”

Glass doesn’t give us any context for his “golden age” claim, no comparisons with previous golden ages, say when Dorothy Parker and other members of the Algonquin Round Table were gathering at the New York hotel some 80 years ago. Or when Huxley or Henry James or Norman Mailer were writing for Harper’s or The Saturday Evening Post, or when Hunter S. Thompson was going Gonzo in the pages of Rolling Stone. Or when Montaigne himself was inventing the form over 500 years ago. Such comparisons aren’t really appropriate because of the nature of the essay: they’re products of their times. And as Mick Jagger famously sang in a different era, things are different today. 

Wallace’s selection of the year’s best was narrowed by our current political mess. He calls his preface, “Introduction: Deciderization 2007—a Special Report,” a title that seems influenced as much by Stephen Colbert as by a certain poorly spoken president. Wallace, wordy and clever as always, says that it’s possible that had he been the editor in a year before the 2004 presidential election he might have looked more favorably towards essays on “ferns and geese.” But now, with America in a state of “three-alarm emergency,” he felt it necessary to emphasize a range of political essays like Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement,” Marilyn Robinson’s “Onward, Christian Liberals,” Edward O. Wilson’s “Apocalypse Now,” George Gessert’s “An Orgy of Power” and other similar, serious stuff of ideas that seem to reflect Wallace’s bias. There are times reading his collection that one wishes for a celebrity. Or a goose.

These essays aren’t dry and stiff, or academic, something Wallace also claims to dislike. Garrett Keizer’s “Loaded” is a statement of principles and controversial ones—the necessity of firearms—but it is reasonable, readable and argued in terms that transcend the usual bickering on the subject. Putting a human face on events, as Phillip Robertson’s account of the Mahdi uprising in Iraq “In the Mosque of Imam Ali” or Jerald Walker’s “Dragon Slayers” on black stereotypes, makes them serious and entertaining. Mike Sager is a master at discovering the humor in the human condition. Check out his story in the December issue of Esquire on Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell’s “Wounded Warriors” barracks. Sager brings the war home with equal parts laughs and compassion.

A master at getting under a story’s skin, Sager makes his subjects real, celebrity or not. His book collects profiles from as far back as 1990 and each of them, butler or billionaire, is brilliant in what they reveal and how they relate to Huxley’s abstract universal. The fledgling dotcom mogul and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is just a big, playful kid. Ice Cube, livin’ large, sends his posse out to pick up a breakfast of cookies and potato chips. Sager’s best pieces are about regular folks in irregular circumstances. One story profiles a 92-year-old man whose head is so cluttered with memories that it takes him until lunch to remember what day it is. Another follows the “Man of Tomorrow,” a 17-year-old kid who ponders his future while juggling relationships with his girl and his mother. Then there’s the middle-aged sad sack on the prowl for romantic love at a swinger’s convention (he ends up settling for a good bang).

“For me, celebrity interviews only rarely approach the depth and breadth of immersion reporting with real people,” Sager says in an e-mail interview. “I got two hours with Jack Nicholson. I went to high school for the better part of four months to write about a 17-year-old boy.” Celebrities, he says, “don’t really want to tell us everything we want to know.” The exception is Sager’s piece on Roseanne Barr. During the four months he spent with the over-publicized comedian, Barr revealed multiple personalities and the childhood incidents that gave them birth. “Every once in a while, a celebrity with a huge personality will let somebody in and an amazing story will result.”

For good and bad, The Best American Magazine Writing 2007 doesn’t exclude celebrity profiles (and it has Paul Theroux’s piece “Living with Geese”). Alex Ross’ study of Mozart’s roots not only invites comparisons with the shallowness of contemporary celebrity profiles but raises questions of the effects of child-rearing on genius. Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion” is the winner, inexplicably, in the profile category even as the celebration of its inflated subject seems ironic. Is this really the best we can do? Chuck Klosterman had only five hours with Val Kilmer for his story in Glass’ collection “Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy” but he gives us a sense of what being an actor and a celebrity have done to Kilmer’s thinking.  

Beyond subject matter, there are great displays of craft at work in these collections. Essays should be like jazz improvisations. The structure should be invisible. Or to quote Huxley’s paraphrase of Montaigne, “Free association artistically controlled . . . one damn thing after another—but in a sequence that in some almost miraculous way develops a central theme and relates it to the rest of human experience.”

Cleverness has its place. But if it’s used in serious context, well, the writer better be pretty damn clever. We don’t want wordplay to be trivial. Consider this example from Christopher Hitchens’ “The Vietnam Syndrome” from Best American Magazine Writing:


“Agent Pink, Agent Green (yes, it’s true), Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and—spoken often in whispers—Agent Orange. This shady gang, or gang of shades, all deferred to its ruthless chief, who proudly bore the color of hectic madness. The key constituent of Agent Orange is dioxin: a horrifying chemical that makes total war not just on vegetation but also on the roots and essences of life itself. The orange, in other words, was clockwork from the start.”


Now there are many clever turns here and playfulness galore on words suggesting color. But the seriousness remains, rotating around the word “horrifying” and the (again) clever reference to the horrors of that murderous movie landmark A Clockwork Orange. Hitchens is the best kind of writer, one who infuriates readers with his opposed politics and religious views but seldom for his style. Ian Parker’s profile of Hitchens in the same collection proves him more outrageous than outraged.

There’s one essay included in The New Kings that’s construction is seemingly affected by the Internet. Written by David Foster Wallace, it’s the story of KFI-AM radio talk show host John Ziegler, and it’s peppered with highlighted words and phrases much like an Internet article. On the Internet, one clicks on the highlighted words and goes to some explanation. In Wallace’s story, the explanations are scattered around the page in boxes, adding an interesting design effect. Sometimes there are boxes inside boxes, one reason that the story sometimes reads like a Chinese puzzle. This may be the only stylistic innovation apparent in these four books, indeed the only innovation that the essay has really seen since, well, the last golden age of nonfiction.

Which collection to buy if you have time for only one? Wallace’s for timely, thoughtful discussion, the Magazine Society’s for the most inclusive view of profile and criticism, Glass’ for sheer entertainment and Sager’s for craft, knowing laughs and empathetic feeling. What makes all these stories great are the people and the circumstances caught in a changing culture. May you live in interesting times is both an old blessing and a curse. Judging from the stories in these four books, we do. 


The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass; Riverside Books, paperback 455 pages, $15


The Best American Essays 2007 edited by David Foster Wallace; Houghton Mifflin, paperback, 307 pages, $14


The Best American Magazine Writing 2007 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors; Columbia University Press, paperback, 502 pages, $16.95


Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality by Mike Sager; Thunder’s Mouth Press, paperback, 331 pages, $16.95


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