Tag Archives: John Jeremiah Sullivan

Derivative Sport: The Journalistic Legacy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace in New York City's East Village, circa 2002. (Janette Beckman/Redferns)

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…

How Did the Blues Become the Blues?

AP / Beth J. Harpaz

There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.

In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

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John Jeremiah Sullivan Discovers the Secret of the Quince

The quinces were weird. We didn’t know what to make of them, figuratively or literally. Did people eat them? They could have come from space. In fact on Sesame Street there used to be a skit that involved two aliens. They couldn’t reach the fruit on their planet’s fruit trees. One alien was too short, the other couldn’t bend its arms. When that came on I would glance outside at our quince bush. Extraterrestrial nectarines: that’s what they looked like. Beautiful, I realize now. Like a cross between a lemon and pear. (They symbolize fertility.) In the street-view picture, the quince bush was still there, but in the satellite view, taken five years later, you can see it’s been mowed to the ground. In the grass where it was there’s a pale, almost perfect circle.

I hadn’t thought of the quince bush for a couple of decades until I visited an old friend in LA last year, one I’d kept in contact with but hadn’t seen in several years. I’d flown into town that afternoon and was supposed to leave at dawn—it was one of those situations where it made no sense to go to sleep. You’d just be torturing yourself. Kevin West: a friend from college. We were in his apartment in Koreatown, a nice pad with a view of the city lights, though noticeably smaller than his old place in Laurel Canyon. He’d recently downsized his life. He had a bottle of good rye whiskey and some olives. At one point he was explaining to me that all modern fruit preserving, in cans and jars, descends from a discovery the Romans made—that if you cooked the otherwise inedible quince in honey and sealed it in jars, it became sweet and made excellent jam. Quince in honey, as a preserve, spread all over the world. The Portuguese called it marmelada. Marmalade.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, in Lucky Peach (via Medium), on the art of canning. Read more stories from Sullivan in the Longreads Archive.

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Photo: grongar, Flickr

Stories that Magazine Editors Are Afraid Of

“It’s probably worth saying that there are editors at all sorts of magazines (myself included) who know they should never assign a story on a certain kind of subject—a Phish tour, say, or Mitt Romney, or what’s up with Cuba?—and yet they do so despite their better judgment. A writer tells you he or she is interested, you convince yourself that it’s all going to work out despite the pre-digested conclusions or the limited access or the fact that what you’re talking about is a generality rather than a specific idea. And it never, ever does, unless something remarkable and unexpected happens in the reporting or the writer brings some stunning originality to it. And these things work in a kind of horrible tandem—the lack of interesting subject matter inspiring the writer to scat out thicker and thicker layers of word jazz—resulting in so many bad magazine stories.”

Joel Lovell (formerly GQ, now The New York Times Magazine), in conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan on how they worked together—specifically on this story. Read more from GQ in the Longreads Archive.

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Photo: thomasleuthard, Flickr

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A writer takes a trip to visit his wife’s family. What has changed in the country over the years, and what hasn’t:

For obvious reasons, the actual Cuban peso is worth much less than the other, dollar-equivalent Cuban peso, something on the order of 25 to 1. But the driver said simply, ‘No, they are equal.’

‘Really?’ my wife said. ‘No … that can’t be.’

He insisted that there was no difference between the relative values of the currencies. They were the same.

He knew that this was wrong. He probably could have told you the exchange rates from that morning. But he also knew that it had a rightness in it. For official accounting purposes, the two currencies are considered equivalent. Their respective values might fluctuate on a given day, of course, but it couldn’t be said that the CUP was worth less than the CUC That’s partly what he meant. He also meant that if you’re going to fly to Cuba from Miami and rub it in my face that our money is worth one twenty-fifth of yours, I’m gonna feed you some hilarious communist math and see how you like it. Cubans call it la doble moral. Meaning, different situations call forth different ethical codes. He wasn’t being deceptive. He was saying what my wife forced him to say.

“Where Is Cuba Going?” — John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times Magazine

More by Sullivan

The Great Heights of Venus and Serena Williams

Photo: Ian Gampon

Venus and Serena Williams, living as adults, free of their parents, and still America’s biggest tennis superstars:

I asked Oracene what she felt, watching her daughters reclaim the heights after what they’d been through. “Honestly?” she said. “I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don’t have many players that are doing well. And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they’re still holding up America. That to me was remarkable.” I thought about it. She was right. There isn’t another American right now who’s capable of really penetrating at a major. Or maybe, in fairness to Andy Roddick and a couple of other people, it’s better to say that there isn’t another player whose penetration at a Slam would not make your eyebrows jump. It’s just these two girls, these two sisters. They’re what America has right now.

“Venus and Serena Against the World.” — John Jeremiah Sullivan, New York Times Magazine

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Excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead,” on his brother’s electrocution, and what it did to his brain: 

On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Ellsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and in the strict sense of having been ‘shocked to death,’ was electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I asked for something new, a song he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with the two of us up late drinking and trying out our new ‘tunes’ on each other.

“Feet In Smoke.” — John Jeremiah Sullivan, Deadspin

See also: “Pulp Fever: Interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan.” — Daniel Riley, GQ, Nov. 3, 2011

With some of these pop pieces, partly what you’re doing is writing your way out of a confused admiration for the subject. But Axl retains his power to disturb, always his greatest weapon. I don’t remember there being much resistance from the Quarterly. Which suggests either a level of confidence for which I’m grateful, or a level of drug abuse that is worrisome. Granted the brakes did screech a little when I called Joel from Bilbao asking if we could put Axl on the cover. His manager had said it was the only way we’d get an interview. (We didn’t do it.) In retrospect that was dumb of him/them, as it would have been killer PR for Axl and that incarnation of the band to grant us an interview, PR that didn’t really materialize further down the road; but Axl is not always focused on the smart thing to do; he asks himself instead, what is the most “Axl” thing to do?

“Pulp Fever.” — Daniel Riley, GQ

See #longreads by John Jeremiah Sullivan