Friday, January 4, 2013

Are Writers the Worst People Ever?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 1:18 PM

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I'd certainly like to think that they're not—that we're not. And I guess a lot of this is dependent on what is mean by "worst." Are writers worse than Republican members of the 112th Congress? No, of course not. Nobody is worse than the Republican members of the 112th Congress. But are writers as bad as people who litter Instagram with far too many selfies and far too few pictures of puppies? Possibly. We are possibly that bad.

At least, we are that bad if you agree with Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who wrote a post titled "Journalism Is Not Narcissism" in which he derides the current state of media as one in which aspiring writers are encouraged to "to exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit." As ironic as it seems that this was written for Gawker—a site which recently posted Rich Juzwiak's account of getting blown in a bathroom at a theme park—Nolan addresses Gawker and other publications' culpability in promoting what he calls "writers as robotic insta-memoirists" for pageviews and, basically, money. He admits that "at their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience." But also thinks that "for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game...a path that ends in hackdom."

Nolan was inspired to write this after reading a piece in the New York Times by journalism professor and memoirist Susan Shapiro, who routinely assigns her students to "write three pages confessing [their] most humiliating secret." Shapiro feels that this "encourages students to shed vanity and pretension" and allows them to access...well, I don't know exactly. Some greater truth? More lucrative book deals? It's kind of unclear. I mean, I understand Nolan's frustration with Shapiro's insistence that a good journalist must be able to write embarrassing things about themselves. Potentially that can make for compelling memoir, but that doesn't have anything to do with classic journalism, per se.


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The thing is, though, "classic journalism" doesn't really exist the way that it used to. In order to make a living as a writer—and, yes, even writers deserve to make some kind of a living—flexibility is paramount. This might mean that a writer makes a living from both journalism and memoir-writing. It might mean that, in order to even get hired for a job with a steady paycheck and maybe even health insurance (this is a needle-in-a-haystack-holy-grail situation) writers must build a platform on Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr where they share details about their lives that don't really have any place in their journalistic pieces. This might seem kind of sordid and it might be a situation where narcissism is fostered, but it is not mutually exclusive with writers producing something of value.

There's a lot of bullshit, shock-value writing out there right now. Nolan mentions xoJane as a venue for the kind of first-person accounts that are all about exposing the most private and, frequently, humiliating experiences of the writers. And while these posts might provide a lot of pageviews, if the writing isn't good, the writer sure as hell isn't going anywhere beyond xoJane or maybe Thought Catalog. I understand Nolan's point that promoting this kind of writing in aspiring journalists is breeding a generation of writers who are solipsistic and eager to expose the sometimes tedious minutiae of their lives just in order to get more Twitter followers.

But when haven't writers been navel-gazing? When haven't they inserted themselves into their work, whether fictional or not? Nolan thinks that writers' lives aren't that interesting and that what is lost by this generation of "robotic insta-memoirists" is all of the stories that go untold because writers are writing about themselves. Stories, though, are only as interesting as the storytellers. Just the other day a friend of mine told me about something that happened to him, a night that involved theft and police and missed flights and while the pieces were all there, it didn't come out in a compelling way at all. Because he's not a storyteller. So, while much of the writing that is out there is bound to be shit and while much of the writing that is currently out there is shit of the first-person narrative variety, that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of potential for great writing. It's just probably not going to be posted on xoJane.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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