Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle and Readmill users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.
1. Ghosting: Confessions of a WikiLeaks Ghostwriter
Andrew O’Hagan | London Review of Books | February 23, 2014 | 105 minutes (26,390 words)
Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books, recounts the disastrous experience of trying to ghostwrite the autobiography of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (The publisher later released an unauthorized early draft of the book):
I wrote through the night to assemble what we had. The thinness could become a kind of statement, I asserted; it could become a modernist autobiography. But the jokes wouldn’t hold and Julian, despite promising his publishers and me that he’d produce pages, paragraphs, even notes towards his book, produced nothing in all the months I was there. Not a single written sentence came from him in all that time. But at the end, from all those exhausting late night interviews, we assembled a rough draft of 70,000 words. It wasn’t by any means great, but it had a voice, a reasonable, even-tempered, slightly amused but moral voice, which was as invented as anything I’d ever produced in fiction. Yet it hadn’t felt like creating a character in a novel, so much as writing a voiceover for a real person who isn’t quite real. His vanity and the organisation’s need for money couldn’t resist the project, but he never really considered the outcome, that I’d be there, making marks on a page that would in some way represent this process. The issue of control never became real to Julian. He should have felt worried about what he was supplying, but he never did – he had in this, as in everything, a broad illusion of control. Only once did he turn to me and show a glint of understanding. ‘People think you’re helping me write my book,’ he said, ‘but actually I’m helping you write your novel.’
More LRB: “The Problem with War Reporting” (Patrick Cockburn)
2. The Plot From Solitary
Benjamin Wallace-Wells | New York magazine | February 6, 2014 | 28 minutes (7,106 words)
Four men from rival gangs launch a hunger strike protesting the conditions of solitary confinement:
The severity of his isolation meant that as the strike began, Ashker had little idea of what effect it was having or how many other prisoners had decided to join him. It turned out to be the largest coordinated hunger strike in American history. On the first day, 30,000 prisoners across the state refused their meals. Three days in, more than 11,000 still had not eaten. “We had expected hundreds, even thousands,” says Dr. Ricki Barnett, a senior official in the state’s correctional health-care system. “We did not expect tens of thousands.”
From the beginning, even the most basic matters about the strike—what Ashker and the others were after, why so many people joined them, what the strike demonstrated—were opaque, and profoundly disputed. To the prisoners and their supporters, this was a protest against barbaric treatment, and the SHU was both an outrage in itself and a symbol of the arbitrariness and brutality of the prison system across the nation.
More Wallace-Wells: “The Blip: Was America’s Economic Prosperity Just a Historical Accident?”
3. How Much My Novel Cost Me
Emily Gould | Medium | February 24, 2014 | 22 minutes (5,586 words)
On writing books, going into debt and navigating relationships. An excerpt from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction:
It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.
I spent some of the advance on clothes that no longer fit my body/life, but mostly I spent it on taxes—New York even has a city tax, on top of the state and federal kind—and rent. I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. I also spent $400 a month on health insurance. At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing. I also thought that I would immediately start another book, which I would sell, like the first, before I’d written half of it. In order to believe this I had to cut myself off from all kinds of practical realities; considering these realities seemed like planning for failure. In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself.
More Gould: “The Bell Jar at 40” (Poetry)
4. A Question of Mercy
Pamela Colloff | Texas Monthly | February 24, 2014 | 33 minutes (8,410 words)
In 1998 a district attorney sent a teenager to prison for murder. Years later, he’s questioning the life sentence:
According to the law, Cole continued, it did not matter that Randy had not fired the gun or had not wished Heather dead. In Texas, the “law of parties” erases the distinction between killers and accomplices, finding that a person can be held criminally responsible for the conduct of another if he participated in the crime. By virtue of the fact that Randy had assisted Curtis, he was guilty of capital murder. “He could stand here all day long and tell you that his intent was not to assist in the commission of this crime, and his actions cry out differently,” Cole insisted. “He’s guilty. He must pay the consequences of his choice.”
The jury agreed, and on August 25, 1998, Randy was convicted of capital murder and handed an automatic life sentence. Cole watched as Randy, then nineteen, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons. As the DA gathered the papers at his table, he was relieved that the trial was over. Yet he hardly felt triumphant. “It was not a moment of celebration,” Cole told me. “There was no joy or happiness. I had a deep, deep sense that another young life had been senselessly wasted.”
More Colloff: “The Guilty Man”
5. A Faustian Bargain? What It’s Like To Navigate America’s Healthcare System In The 21st Century
John Fischer | The Morning News | February 25, 2014 | 22 minutes (5,532 words)
When it comes to elective surgery, you can plan for almost everything except the price:
Here’s what happens when you have urethral surgery. You arrive at the hospital in a tracksuit with your mom and your best friend in tow. They give you hugs. An administrator swipes your credit card for an “estimated payment” of $3,200 and change. Then you change into a gown and hairnet, and sit in a small room while various people ask you to verify your name and date of birth. You sign consent forms. The surgeon and his assistant come to tell you that everything’s going to go great. Your mom and friend are permitted one last hug and squeeze of the hand. Finally you’re escorted down the hall, around the corner, and through a door into a very bright room in which a team of people are moving purposefully. You lie on a large metal bed and are promptly covered with blankets. The IV goes in. Suddenly you’re floating. Someone puts a clear plastic mask over your mouth and tells you to take 10 deep breaths. Your skin prickles all over.
More Morning News: “Everything in This City Must” (Alexander Chee)
We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.