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I, Me, Media 

A new Harper's compilation makes the case for first-person journalism.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

I am here to tell you how to write for Harper's Magazine. Not having done it myself should not be a problem. Any self-respecting and/or self-deluding long-form journalist at least wants to write for Harper's. I will find out how for you from a new anthology of 15 articles from that esteemed publication, each presumably excellent, illuminating, instructive.

To your doubts, meanwhile, about the appropriateness of the first-person voice in a brief book review, I must respond that in times such as these, to borrow Harper's editor Roger D. Hodge's phrase, maybe we are all our own most reliable narrators. Maybe what we once presumed to be a shared culture actually has been so atomized that first-person omniscience is the only way left to navigate it.

And maybe Hodge didn't coin the phrase "in times such as these," but from his introduction to the book, you'd think he owns it. The times he describes are bleak, collectively an age of "infectious autosatire" in which "America is no longer America" and for which blame belongs to, among other things, "the never-ending cycle of obscene news and the pandemic of poorly expressed, ill-reasoned, well-publicized opinion."

Did you know that Harper's Magazine is the antidote? I did.

Particularly its brand of openly subjective nonfiction, in which, as Hodge puts it, "the individual consciousness of the writer is paramount." This has been practiced for many years in various publications with varied success (even, indeed, within these pages); historically, Harper's has done it well.

Besides, it is any literary periodical's prerogative to put out hits collections (the New Yorker seems to issue half a dozen every year), even if it means going with the trumped-up-sounding title of Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper's Magazine. I can say objectively that the book has been organized into loose categories: politics, violence, illness, vice, the arts, and "confessions of war."

It begins with Wells Tower's "Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote: Undercover with Florida's Republican Shock Troops," a showpiece, about "the buoyant feeling of being part of the team that somehow matters enough to be hated this way." The writing is vigorous, with character descriptions worthy of a Bosch painting. As a whole the piece does not surprise. Maybe it's the four more years talking, but what good will currying favor with the choir to which it preaches do now?

"Good journalism may be the moral equivalent of war," the introduction to the violence section later allows, "but too much of our journalism about war, and about violence more generally, is the aesthetic equivalent of masturbation: maximum masculinity put into minimum effect." Step one is to admit it, right?

Barbara Ehrenreich's aversion to "bits of cuteness and sentimentality" where breast cancer is concerned is its own sort of steely machismo. Her piece, "Welcome to Cancerland," is indeed a personal survival story, albeit a rigorously reported one, and her critics should be appeased to think that, by contrast to the literal slumming she did for the series of Harper's pieces that became her best-seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, at least she came by this one honestly. (Ehrenreich, by the way, is the only female writer in the anthology.)

Similarly, in the sense of building the brand-name byline, award-laden Sacramento recluse William T. Vollmann's foray into "The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali" and the lore surrounding them has his characteristic slight air of detachment, but also an artfully digressive form of engagement: "It might well be that the quality of the tunnels that haunted so many of us was quite simply their goneness," he writes. "When I imagine them, my ignorance allows them to be what they will. Before we knew how hot the surface of Venus is, we used to be able to write beautiful science-fiction stories of swamps and green-skinned Venusians."

But don't get the wrong idea. Great nonfiction still should be about the stuff you can't make up. To wit, former San Franciscan Jake Silverstein's participation in a poetry contest put on by the Famous Poets Society in Reno (though disconcertingly misidentified as Las Vegas by his own editor in an introduction), on which he reports with wry humor and a light but erudite touch. Or the "empty meditation on emptiness" offered by Bill Wasik, the book's editor, in which he interrogates "the curious spectacle of an 'alternative' culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes," through the so-called "flash mob" he (sort of) invented. Or the other pieces left unmentioned here, not for any lack other than space allotted to this review.

Submersion Journalism will not settle the matter of whether the narrating nonfiction "I" is weak and indulgent or honest and alive. That will vary from case to case, and from reader to reader, as it always has. See: It's all so subjective.

And Hodge's hard sell won't prevent these articles from speaking for themselves — nor protect them from imitation by hacks. Still, writing for Harper's is not recommended for mere dilettantes. A special, sustained alertness is required. It is, Hodge writes, "the insertion of a human proxy into the stream of historical happenstance."

Sounds kinky. I'd be into that.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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