A scene from the opening of a prime-time cable series? Nope—it’s the lead from a story in last month’s Mother Jones. Dave Gilson’s piece narrates a mock riot in a former maximum-security penitentiary where he gets to play one of the prisoners.
In the midst of toy-pistol-and-talcum-powder mayhem, Gilson notes that asking questions about why a riot starts in the first place “is a bit like trying to discuss diplomacy at a nuclear test site.” During a lull, he declines one vendor’s offer to zap him, which qualifies as only the “first of many chances for voluntary electrocution.”
If shorter pieces are the future face of narrative (as suggested by at least one print veteran), Gilson shows that short narratives can handle more than inspirational stories and extended interviews. Coming in at 1,700 words, “My So-Called Riot” pairs laughs with the lockup in unexpected ways and makes readers think. Brief nods toward problematic issues, such as the systematic handling of rioters with no eye toward underlying causes, provide a built-in counter-narrative to a sometimes breezy story.
I called Gilson up and asked him what he hoped the piece might do. “There are so many big questions about what happens in prisons and the use of force. For us it would have been easy to go for the heavy, newsy story,” he says. Describing the atmosphere of the mock riots as “a convention combined with a reenactment,” Gilson knew “there was no way it could be the definitive story on the use of force in prisons. I think it had to bite off a little bit and hopefully give you a sense of what happened at this event and the way prisons deal with violence.”
Raising some questions without answering them makes Gilson’s piece as unsettling as it is entertaining. On principle, he also has a healthy respect for going short. “As an editor I see most writers want to write long,” he says. “They have a ton of material and want to use it. I’m always trying to convince people we can go shorter and still do really good work.”