Tag Archives: leslie jamison

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…

Second Life: A World that, for Some, Allows Full Participation

Photo by Alicia Chenaux (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

At The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison profiles several long-term, hard-core users of the immersive, virtual reality platform Second Life. In the game, you create a fantasy alter-ego and your “selective self” resides in a virtual world that allows you to leave behind everything you don’t like about yourself and your real life. Weary of your teal-blue lozenge pool? Install another.

Some critics of Second Life easily dismiss it as escapism. Despite the fact that Jamison herself struggled to embrace the virtual land of imperfect perfection, she discovered that for some, it can offer a kind of refuge from the hassles and frustrations of everyday life — an oasis of belonging regardless or age, status, or whether or not you have a physical disability or a mental illness. As she notes, “Second Life recognizes the ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be.”

Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”

In another life, the one most people would call “real,” Gidge Uriza is Bridgette McNeal, an Atlanta mother who works eight-hour days at a call center and is raising a 14-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, and severely autistic twins, now 13. Her days are full of the selflessness and endless mundanity of raising children with special needs: giving her twins baths after they have soiled themselves (they still wear diapers, and most likely always will), baking applesauce bread with one to calm him down after a tantrum, asking the other to stop playing “the Barney theme song slowed down to sound like some demonic dirge.” One day, she takes all four kids to a nature center for an idyllic afternoon that gets interrupted by the reality of changing an adolescent’s diaper in a musty bathroom.

I heard about a veteran with PTSD who gave biweekly Italian cooking classes in an open-air gazebo, and I visited an online version of Yosemite created by a woman who had joined Second Life in the wake of several severe depressive episodes and hospitalizations. She uses an avatar named Jadyn Firehawk and spends up to 12 hours a day on Second Life, many of them devoted to refining her bespoke wonderland—full of waterfalls, sequoias, and horses named after important people in John Muir’s life—grateful that Second Life doesn’t ask her to inhabit an identity entirely contoured by her illness, unlike internet chat rooms focused on bipolar disorder that are all about being sick. “I live a well-rounded life on SL,” she told me. “It feeds all my other selves.”

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A Syrian man walks through a devastated street following an air strike. (Photo credit: Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP / Getty Images)
A Syrian man walks through a devastated street following an air strike. (Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP / Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan, Claire Dederer, Dale Maharidge, Leslie Jamison, and Nina Coomes.

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In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale: Overcoming the Evil Stepmother Stereotype

Photo by Jeff Christiansen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Leslie Jamison is stepmother to Lily, age six. Lily’s mother died of cancer just before she turned three, and in this essay from the New York Times Magazine, Jamison explores fairy tale stepmothers both as the rare “port in the storm” and the much more common “stock villain” stereotyped by cruelty and abuse, as she navigates the fraught role of stand-in parent.

The evil stepmother casts a long, primal shadow, and three years ago I moved in with that shadow, to a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Gramercy Park. I sought the old stories in order to find company—out of sympathy for the stepmothers they vilified—and to resist their narratives, to inoculate myself against the darkness they held.

My relationship with Lily, too, was not like the story we inherited from fairy tales — a tale of cruelty and rebellion—or even like the story of divorce-era popular media: the child spurning her stepmother, rejecting her in favor of the true mother, the mother of bloodline and womb. Our story was a thousand conversations on the 6 train or at the playground in Madison Square Park. Our story was painting Lily’s nails and trying not to smudge her tiny pinkie. Our story was telling her to take deep breaths during tantrums, because I needed to take deep breaths myself. Our story began one night when I felt her small, hot hand reach for mine during her favorite movie, when the Abominable Snowman swirled into view on an icy mountain and almost overwhelmed the humble reindeer.

For me, the stakes of thinking about what it means to be a stepmother don’t live in statistical relevance—slightly more than 10 percent of American women might relate!—but in the way stepparenting asks us to question our assumptions about the nature of love and the boundaries of family. Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct. Love is effort and desire—not a sentimental story line about easy or immediate attachment, but the complicated bliss of joined lives: ham-and-guacamole sandwiches, growing pains at midnight, car seats covered in vomit. It’s the days of showing up. The trunks we inherit and the stories we step into, they make their way into us—by womb or shell or presence, by sheer force of will. But what hatches from the egg is hardly ever what we expect: the child that emerges, or the parent that is born. That mother is not a saint. She’s not a witch. She’s just an ordinary woman. She found a sled one day, after she was told there weren’t any left. That was how it began.

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The Loneliest Whale in the World

Whales make calls for a number of reasons—to navigate, to find food, to communicate with each other—and for certain whales, like humpbacks and blues, songs also seem to play a role in sexual selection. Blue males sing louder than females, and the volume of their singing—at more than 180 decibels—makes them the loudest animals in the world. They click and grunt and trill and hum and moan. They sound like foghorns. Their calls can travel thousands of miles through the ocean.

The whale that Joe George and Velma Ronquille heard was an anomaly: His sound patterns were recognizable as those of a blue whale, but his frequency was unheard-of. It was absolutely unprecedented. So they paid attention. They kept tracking him for years, every migration season, as he made his way south from Alaska to Mexico. His path wasn’t unusual, only his song—and the fact that they never detected any other whales around him. He always seemed to be alone.

So this whale was calling out high, and he was calling out to no one—or at least, no one seemed to be answering. The acoustic technicians would come to call him 52 Blue.

Leslie Jamison, in a Slate excerpt of her new Atavist book, 52 Blue.

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Photo: hmj, Flickr

The Power of 'Confessional' Writing

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, a book of essays, writes in the Guardian about the power of confessional writing:

Confession doesn’t just allow – it incites. Someone tweeted about my essays: “After reading this book, I want to write about my hidden pain until my fingers bleed, and then I want to write about my bleeding fingers.” One woman wrote to me to say that as she was writing, her mother was collecting her things from her ex-boyfriend’s house: “I don’t know how to hold this hurt inside,” she said. “But I’m mortified at the thought of talking about it or writing about it or painting it – somehow that seems so much more embarrassing than drunk-dialling him, or falling off a bar stool and breaking my wrist, or whatever ways used to seem like options.”

Another woman wrote to say that one of my essays had made her turn down sex with a guy who didn’t love her. “As low as that sounds,” she said, as if it didn’t matter much. But it mattered to me. It didn’t sound low at all. It sounded like something I might have needed – at several points in my life – to hear. She told me she was writing drunk. She’d needed to get drunk to find the courage to write at all.

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Photo: matryoshka

Reading List: Leslie Jamison, Author of ‘The Empathy Exams’

“When people ask what kind of nonfiction I write, I say ‘all kinds,’ but really I mean I don’t write any kind at all: I’m trying to dissolve the borders between memoir and journalism and criticism by weaving them together.” – Leslie Jamison

This week, Choose Your Own Adventure with Leslie Jamison. I’ve compiled a collection of interviews with and essays and short stories by the author of The Empathy Exams. But the way you approach this list is up to you. Ready? Let’s begin.

To read Jamison’s interview with the Virginia Quarterly Review, proceed to number 1 (this is a good introduction to the author, if you’ve never heard of her or only know her a bit).

To read Jamison’s interview with Flavorwire, proceed to number 2 (best if you’ve already read The Empathy Exams, or are about to).

To read Jamison’s interview with The Paris Review, proceed to number 3 (best if you love the particular flavor of Paris Review interviews and have not read The Empathy Exams yet, because a version of this interview appears there).

Want to get to know Jamison through her writing first? To skip these interviews altogether, proceed to numbers 4 or 5.

1. “An Interview with Leslie Jamison.” (John Lingan, VQR, April 2014)

 

2. “‘The Empathy Exams’ Author Leslie Jamison on the Empathy of the Internet and the Limits of Opinion.” (Elizabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire, March 2014)

 

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'Write What You Want — But Be Prepared for the Consequences'

I’m reasonably certain that John Ashcroft didn’t recognize himself disguised as the evil high school guidance counselor in one of my novels. But like so much else, this thorny matter requires consideration on a case-by-case basis. In Mary McCarthy’s story “The Cicerone,” Peggy Guggenheim, the important collector of modern art, appears as Polly Grabbe, an aging, spoiled expatriate slut who collects garden statuary. Guggenheim did recognize herself and was definitely not flattered; it took years before the two women were friends again. Write what you want — but be prepared for the consequences.

Francine Prose, with Leslie Jamison in The New York Times, on the questions a writer asks when using real people and real experiences in fiction and nonfiction. Read more on writing from the Longreads Archive.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons and Flickr