Category Archives: Writing

The End of ‘Rolling Stone’ As We Know It

In the end, Jann Wenner was always going to sell Rolling Stone. The current timing is certainly unprompted and a bit of a surprise — Wenner, along with his son Gus, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, announced this week the magazine is now open for bids — but there had been indications in recent years that the once groundbreaking magazine would soon be top edited by someone other than Wenner.

Wenner has passed on opportunities to sell Rolling Stone in the past, including an offer of $500 million that he turned down two decades ago. But in 2017, the timing was too good to pass up. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone‘s founding, and not only is the occasion being marked with an HBO documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney, Knopf is publishing the first major Wenner biography this fall, written by Joe Hagan. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the book.)

Read more…

The Mastery and Magic of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.

Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.

Read more…

Confronting Wealth and Class Privilege as a Black Professor at a White College

In an essay rich with lyricism and brutal honesty, Kiese Laymon tells the story of his early years teaching at an elite liberal arts college in New York. When a new friend is arrested on a parole violation, the author learns to see class differences and power dynamics in a new way.

Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie, was a felon because he was black, scared, desperate, and guilty. I was black, scared, desperate, and guilty but I came from folks with a bit more money than Brown. Though I wasn’t the grandchild of grandparents who passed money or land down to my parents, I was a child of what folks called “the black middle class.” My mama was one paycheck away from asking Grandmama or me for money neither of us had the week before payday.

There was no wealth in my family of black middle class women. There were only paydays.

I knew that my student Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty because he was a white child of wealthy parents. Cole could literally become president of all kinds of American things, or president of nothing. Either way, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be free, but materially, Cole would never suffer.

Read the story

It Takes a Village: A ‘Village Voice’ Reading List

Say goodbye to those red sidewalk boxes — and a slice of American literary greatness. Since 1955, the Village Voice has been a ubiquitous part of New York City culture. In a half century it was transformed from a counterculture rag to a longform powerhouse rooted in the character and the color of the city.

This week, the current owners of the Voice announced the end of the era: The free print edition of the paper is finished. Once available on every street corner, it will now be online only. In their write-up for The New York Times, John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir mourn the paper’s once inescapable presence: “Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials.”

The Village Voice was the first paper you grabbed on the way to the subway, the last thing you grabbed at night for the long ride home. It redefined the alt-weekly and introduced readers to a new kind of journalist and critic. If the Voice was the first place you were published, then you were on the way to a brilliant career. Here are some of our favorite moments of brilliance.

Read more…

Why Fiction Haunts Us: Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on His Ghosts

In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”

In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.

Read the story

Inside the Content Machine

Assembly line workers

Many of the freelance writers I know cobble  together their income from a mix of projects:  journalism, copy writing, web production work, and cranking out content widgets. Call that last bit what you will — content marketing, brand journalism, native advertising — skilled writers can make good money in this sector of the word market.

And there’s a fat supporting industry to all that content marketing gold — books, classes, fancy conferences. On Tablet, Sean Cooper attends a content marketing conference to find out how the content industry is selling itself — and selling itself out.

…the roaring fire that was 20th-century nonfiction magazine literature has been hosed down to wet coals. In this new 21st-century post-literature era, the techniques and tools of the journalism trade have been plundered by scavenger industries, which rightly foresaw profit opportunities in what has been called branded content, native advertising, or content marketing, which agglomerates techniques used to build characters, create narrative arcs, and establish tones of voice that once served as conduits for nonfiction writers attempting to intimately mind-meld with readers. While journalism continues to struggle, burgled storytelling devices are being leveraged at scale by content-marketing agencies and branding studios that publish content stories to satisfy shareholder expectations. One industry analysis estimates that the content-marketing business will be worth $215 billion in 2017. The Struggling Writer is here to see them count the money.

Read the story

The 1923 Novel That Helps Us Understand Today’s Racial Climate

First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.

Andrew Mitchell Davenport looks at the creation of Cane alongside his own personal history as a black man with racially ambiguous features in an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, where he beautifully muses on the difficulty of forming a solid black identity in the wake of violent white supremacy, past and present.

I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.

Read the essay

Youth From Every Quarter

Kirstin Valdez Quade | Longreads | July 2017 | 2390 words (10 minutes)

When I was twenty-four, my then-boyfriend and I taught at a high school summer program at an elite New England boarding school, which I will call Elliot Academy. The summer school was a kind of cash cow, trading on the Elliot reputation, catering to a wealthy and not very diverse student body. Students were promised rigorous classes, stimulating friendships, field trips to area colleges and idyllic swimming ponds: a glorious New England summer.

One of the students in my boyfriend’s English class was a rising sophomore, whom I’ll call Ana. Ana was from rural Oregon. Her parents, farmworkers, were Mexican—and, though Ana did not say, I suspect undocumented—who traveled around the state following the crops: cherries, plums, pears. Ana was shy and serious, with frizzy black hair escaping her ponytail, off-brand sneakers, and modest, too-long khaki shorts. At home, she translated for her parents; she took care of her younger siblings; she excelled in school. When she and another girl from her town were granted one of the few scholarships to Elliot Academy’s summer school, their conservative Christian church raised funds to cover the rest.

Ana had never been out of Oregon, had certainly never been exposed to the level of privilege on display at Elliot, with its columns and cupolas and manicured grounds. The other students were used to jetting off to this or that summer enrichment program, and arrived equipped with iPods and Tiffany necklaces, sleek new laptop computers and spending money for shopping trips to Boston.

Read more…

Why Quotas Still Don’t Work for Journalism

Imagine you work in an industry where accuracy and precision are hugely important. Your work is scrutinized by an ever-growing field of critics eager to catch any misstep, and if you get something wrong it has the potential to do people serious harm.

Your job often requires making dozens, if not hundreds of calls to obtain or even just verify a single fact. You spend your days wheedling information out of people who don’t want to provide it. You pore through mountains and mountains of documents which may only include one salient fact buried deep in a dense bog of data. Often these documents are difficult to find, or require the assistance of lawyers to access — lawyers you personally can’t afford and your higher ups may not want to pay for.

Now imagine this industry is failing at being a viable industry.  People in a different department than you are supposed to be responsible for that aspect — business, finances, the bottom line — but your department creates the product that is being sold. When “innovators” are brought in to come up with dynamic ideas, they pin them on you. There’s nothing to suggest the product is broken or failing, and everything to suggest that the means by which money is made from the product is the problem, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the innovators. They have figured out how to track how your product is consumed — do we have the metrics on that?  — and so they are going to use that information to suggest changes to how you do what you do.

Read more…

The Best of City And Regional Magazines: A Reading List

Last month, the City and Regional Magazine Association, a membership-based body of local magazines and alt-weeklies, announced the winners of its annual awards. This year, Texas Monthly, Portland Monthlyand Sarasota Magazine won overall excellence awards in their respective categories.

Local and regional periodicals fill an important space in the media ecosystem; voices rooted in the sights and sounds of a place can reveal the complexity of what’s really happening in an area. We all know by now that our time is one where the press is imperiled and the pursuit of truth is threatened. There is commercial pressure on journalists due to a fragmented marketplace, and mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations that have shorn staff sizes and budgets.  As we have said before, it is important to support their work.

In honor of the awards, we compiled a few local and regional deep cuts, including some of the winning pieces from CRMA publications. What do they have in common? A rigorous approach to the truth, a convergence of the of the personal and political, implicit — and some explicit — calls to action, and excellent writing.

Read more…