Essays And Expiry Dates

My post yesterday on reportage and war porn, in which I quoted from a 1999 essay by Sebastian Junger, prompted a thought related to my December post on fiction and non-fiction and writing for posterity: How well do reportage-style essays hold up to the demands of time? (I ask this question as someone who, having made the claim that non-fiction will endure just as well as fiction in ensuring fame, is now a) dealing with the broadness of the category “non-fiction” and all the confusion it created in discussions surrounding that post and b) trying to get clearer on what kind of non-fiction will endure best over time and be granted posterity’s acknowledgement)

In the post linked to above, I had, in responding to Katha Pollitt, said,

“columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work.

Junger’s essays, of course, are not columns or book reviews. But neither are they extended meditations on philosophical, literary or cultural subjects; rather, they are long-form journalistic pieces written for venues like Vanity Fair, Harpers, Men’s Journal, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure; other than the essays on wildfires and fire-fighting, they were written to cover topical hot-spots of human and political conflict: Kosovo, Kashmir, Sierra Leone, Cyprus. The wildfires and whale-hunting essays belong to the kind made popular by forums like Outside magazine; the standard theme in this kind of writing is “man-against-nature revealing the human spirit in all its wonderfully varied cussedness.” (Man-Against-Nature as a theme is, I think, more likely to endure and age better than Man-Against-Man-In-A-Particular-Time-And-Place.)

In reportage essays, the expectation is that the traveling reporter will send back news but also background; the reporter will inform, update, ruminate, and crucially, prognosticate. The last part carries the most potential to date the essay; if fate deals the writer a cruel hand, readers in the future are likely to be struck–and turned off–by the silliness of the prognostication. In any case, such essays by virtue of being extended reports or news, are very much captive to that particular time. They are meant to be read soon; they are meant to make contemporary understandings of a ‘trending’ subject more extensive and thoughtful; but they are extremely unlikely to make for useful or illuminating reading down the line. The backgrounders in the essays, by virtue of space limitations, tend to be superficial; indeed, they have to be, if the essays are to maintain their readability in the intended forum. If you want a detailed history that underwrites Kosovo, Kashmir or Cyprus, you’d be an idiot to look for it in the pages of a Vanity Fair or Harpers essay. (In Junger’s essays, I enjoyed the material on Cyprus the most, and I suspect part of that was because of the collaboration that that required Junger and Scott Anderson to be placed in, and reporting from, the Greek and Turkish portions of Cyprus so that a contrast between their respective narratives could be brought out).

When it comes to reportage style history, the longer form will work better; the extended, improved, and more likely-to-endure version of this style of writing is perhaps the book-length reportage project like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (which, interestingly enough, started as an essay for Harpers).

Much more to be said on this. But later.

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