Friday, January 4, 2013

Journalism: not about you

Check what Gawker's Hamilton Nolan has to say about I-journalism -- that's "i" as in first-person, not internet.  He takes to task writer Susan Shapiro, who recently penned an Opinionater piece for the New York Times in which she extolled the virtues of sharing your innermost traumas on the page (or the screen) as the ticket to writerville.

She teaches a class in memoir to 20-year-olds.  She herself has written nine of them.  Her signature assigment is the "humiliation" essay.  She advises her students thus:
The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks.
What Nolan wonders is when reporting became tossed aside in favor of, you know writing.  So do I, if you'll excuse the self-reference.  I also wonder when and why journalism became conflated with first person essays.  Granted, there may be a few 20-year-olds out there with the life experiences of a Frank McCourt or Augusten Burroughs, whose stories definitely merit confessional prose.  But probably not a whole lot of them.

Anyway, Nolan begins:
Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation's college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you.

Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her "signature assignment" for her students is to write an essay confessing their "most humiliating secret"—when asked why, she replies "Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs." This confessional is good practice for launching all of these 20 year-olds on careers as 21 year-old memoirists and "Modern Love" columnists.
It is tempting to stop here and dismiss Shapiro, the author of nine(!) "first-person books" including three(!) memoirs, as a run-of-the-mill narcissist whose unfortunate students are being molded in her own misguided image. (Quoth the professor, "You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately, which is why I launched my second memoir with the line 'In December my husband stopped screwing me.'") But let us more generously interpret Shapiro's attitude as not a cause, but a symptom—her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.
Nolan ends his piece by suggesting that the biggest problem in teaching first-person-essay-as-journalism is that by focussing on one story -- their own -- young and talented journalists neglect the millions of great stories throughout the world that need to be told.

And, when it comes to journalism, isn't that the point?  bk

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