By Josh Roiland
Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.
When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”
Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.
Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.
Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…
Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)
There are few subjects in contemporary history who deserve a 1,400-page biography, but Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency merits every word. Deeply researched over nine years — with over a thousand interviews and many never-before-seen documents — David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama covers 44’s life to date: his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, community organizing in Illinois, his impressive work as a Harvard Law student, and his pursuit of politics as a profession in Chicago. All the while, Garrow shows, Obama was both being shaped and thoughtfully crafting himself, turning himself from the bright, jocular kid at Punahou School in Hawaii into one of the most revolutionary, exciting presidents of the modern era.
Garrow is a Professor of Law and History, and a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, and has written several nonfiction books, including Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Bearing the Cross.
His latest book has already been compared to Robert Caro’s history of Lyndon Johnson, but Garrow’s Obama biography seems to go even further: two hundred pages of footnotes, conversations with seemingly every vital person in Obama’s life, and a nonpartisan perspective that will no doubt open the floodgates of interpretation.
I spoke with Garrow recently, and it’s clear he’s a born interviewer; he began asking me questions about my own life, until, finally, I steered us toward a wide-ranging, exceptionally in-depth conversation in which we discussed Obama’s coming-of-age, influences, formative experiences, shifting personality, the significance of friends and family, and how he eventually understood his own legacy and the arc of his grand personality.
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Josh Roiland is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Journalism and a CLAS-Honors Preceptor in the Honors College at the University of Maine. Roiland is a cultural historian of the American news media, who researches and teaches classes on the cultural, political, and literary significance of American journalism. This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. Our thanks to Roiland for allowing us to reprint it here, and for adding this introduction:
David Foster Wallace saw clear lines between journalists and novelists who write nonfiction, and he wrestled throughout his career with whether a different set of rules applied to the latter category. In the years after his death, he has faced charges of embellishment and exaggeration by his close friend Jonathan Franzen and repeated by his biographer D.T. Max. Their criticisms, however, do not adequately address the intricate philosophy Wallace formulated about genre classification and the fact/fiction divide. This article explores those nuances and argues that Wallace’s thinking about genre was complex, multifaceted, and that it evolved during his writing life.
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Before he sat down with the best tennis player on the planet for a noonday interview in the middle of the 2006 Wimbledon fortnight, David Foster Wallace prepared a script. Atop a notebook page he wrote, “R.Federer Interview Qs.” and below he jotted in very fine print 13 questions. After three innocuous ice breakers, Wallace turned his attention to perhaps the most prominent theme in all his writing: consciousness. Acknowledging the abnormal interview approach, Wallace prefaced these next nine inquires with a printed subhead: “Non-Journalist Questions.” Each interrogation is a paragraph long, filled with digressions, asides, and qualifications; several contain superscripted addendums. In short, they read like they’re written by David Foster Wallace. He asks Roger Federer if he’s aware of his own greatness, aware of the unceasing media microscope he operates under, aware of his uncommon elevation of athletics to the level of aesthetics, aware of how great his great shots really are. Wallace even wrote, “How aware are you of the ballboys?” before crossing the question out.
New Yorker editor David Remnick spoke with Hillary Clinton for a wide-ranging profile in the magazine’s September 25th issue. Remnick interviewed Clinton and other players — both off-the-record and on — on the occasion of the publication of What Happened, her memoir of winning the popular vote but losing the more crucial electoral one to a crass, bigoted reality TV star.
Remnick considers the role the media might have played in this debacle by frequently, unfairly, painting Clinton in a harsh light. It’s nothing new, he acknowledges, pointing to a similar discussion in a 1996 profile in his own magazine:
Twenty-one years ago, in an article for this magazine called “Hating Hillary,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., she admitted, “I apparently remind some people of their mother-in-law or their boss, or something.” In the same piece, Arianna Huffington remarks on Clinton’s “self-righteousness,” Peggy Noonan on her “apple-cheeked certitude.” Gates observed that Clinton was widely perceived as Mrs. Jellyby, the character in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” who is as “intent on improving humanity as she is cavalier toward actual human beings . . . the zealous reformer with a heart as big as all Antarctica.”
Such ingrained habits of media antagonism proved to be another factor that allowed Trump, the biggest liar in the history of Presidential politics, to be seen by tens of millions of people as a figure of rude authenticity, their champion. In Clinton’s view, she could never win with people who had been trained to regard her as a high-minded phony. Her wariness and evasions drained their sympathy; her strained attempts to win people back too often fell flat. Why couldn’t she be admired for her intelligence, her competence, her experience?
If America’s storytellers “lost the narrative they had been creating for decades” the morning after the 2016 elections, as Esquire explains in its oral history of the national trauma that began one year ago today, we’ve been writing our way out ever since. We’ve been knocking on doors, asking people why they did what they did, and asking ourselves how to fix it. We’ve been writing out our feelings, making fun where we can and commiserating where we can’t. Storytelling has been a way of getting through this, and we’re still getting through this.
Perhaps you won’t want to read this piece. I understand. I had to let one more election night pass before I could even begin a history that starts with Steve Bannon’s triumphant proclamation, “You have a hundred-percent chance of winning.”
We’re not the only ones reliving this day: it was also the day the nightmare began for Donald Trump. It was his last good day and he won’t let us forget it. Instead, think about how much has changed, and how far we still have to go.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker: I thought about, and actually wrote, an essay about “the first woman president,” and the historical background of it all. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffragettes, the relationship with Frederick Douglass…a historical essay, clearly written in a mood of “at long last” and, yes, celebration. The idea was to press “post” on that piece, along with many other pieces by my colleagues at The New Yorker, the instant Clinton’s victory was declared on TV…
We agreed that night, and we agree today, that the Trump presidency is an emergency. And in an emergency, you’ve got a purpose, a job to do, and ours is to put pressure on power. That’s always the highest calling of journalism, but never more so than when power is a constant threat to the country and in radical opposition to its values and its highest sense of itself.
David Remnick’s ranging profile of Hillary Clinton, who has borne many titles: First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State, Democratic Presidential candidate — the first woman to win a major party’s nomination — and author. Remnick interviews Clinton — and other players, both off-the-record and on — on the occasion of the publication of What Happened, her memoir of winning the popular vote but losing the more crucial electoral one to a crass, bigoted reality TV star.
Reactions to Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Detroit have been polarized, and the considerable backlash may have caused its opening weekend box office to suffer. Bigelow’s films are known for their tightly-choreographed combat scenes and their fictionalization of brutal historical events. In Detroit, Bigelow takes on the story of the Algiers Motel incident, where three young black men—Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard—were tortured and killed by police officers in the motel’s annex. In the early morning hours of July 26, 1967, a few days into the unrest that would eventually become known as the Detroit rebellion, the three young men, along with many others, took refuge at the motel amid a city-wide curfew. Police forces received reports of sniper fire and raided the Algiers, finding a group of black men socializing with white women. There were interrogations, humiliations, assaults, and eventually murder. No gun was ever found on the grounds of the Algiers, and the police involved were found not guilty on all charges associated with the incident.
Conversation about the film has touched on questions about who has the authority to tell what stories. Bigelow is a white woman from the West Coast who said she knew herself not to be the “ideal person” to make the movie. But she and former journalist Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter, worked with black academics, historians, and eyewitnesses to ensure a certain level of accuracy in the story. Jelani Cobb, a historian and staff writer at The New Yorker, Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard were among those reportedly consulted.
The growth of food writing has evolved with the explosion of all the food-watching that accompanied programs like Top Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and we’re way past the days of Craig Claiborne or Ruth Reichl reveling about an up-and-coming chef in an out-of-the-way corner of a yet-to-be-gentrified-neighborhood somewhere.
The James Beard awards—otherwise known as the Oscars of food—were announced earlier this week, and befitting the honor’s nearly 30-year history, let’s toast sparkling rosé and caviar-topped amuse-bouches to the best food writing published in 2016 (here is the full list of winners).
Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)
When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.
And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.
Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.
Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?
That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.
If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.
That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…