Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:
Interviewland: Wells Tower talked to Bookforum about alternating between the worlds of journalism and fiction. When asked what he makes of longform’s new popularity he said, “It’s good news for all of us that early reports of the death of literary magazine writing appear to have been overwrought. I was one of those people who hysterically supposed that web-based hordes of armchair opinion-emitters would kill the market for longform reportage. But it appears not to be so. I think our appetite for literary nonfiction is pretty inelastic, from Pliny the Younger through De Quincey, Mayhew, Orwell, Didion to the heavies of the present moment. I think people are compelled in some essential way to read accounts of true things rendered with novelists’ tools.” (Bonus reading: a ridiculously good Tower short story with narrative applications in voice: “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” about — not even kidding — redneck Vikings. You are welcome.)
Highly recommended: The Daily Beast’s books everyone should read by the time they graduate from college, as suggested by Jill Lepore, Jennifer Egan, Francine Prose and others + The Verge’s neat multimedia treatment of the story of face-transplant recipient Carmen Tarleton + Jack London covers an earthquake. And, this is huge: James Agee’s Cotton Tenants, brought to life by The Baffler and published this week by Melville House. Cotton Tenants is the original, rejected magazine article that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and that the Fortune writer David Whitford calls “an extraordinary example of what magazine journalism is capable of,” adding, “That kind of journalism is just unsustainable now.” The Times writes:
What readers have known for decades is that Agee used his reporting material to create his 1941 book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a literary description of abject poverty in the South, accompanied by starkly haunting Walker Evans photographs. The original magazine article was never published, as Agee squabbled with his editors over what he felt was the exploitation and trivialization of destitute American families. In the early pages of “Famous Men,” he wrote that it was obscene for a commercial enterprise to “pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings.” What readers are about to discover now is what all the fighting was about. …
Mr. Summers received permission to publish a 9,000-word excerpt from the article in the March 2012 issue of The Baffler. Then he collaborated with the James Agee Trust and Melville House to publish the article in book form. Mr. Summers said that his only editing changes were to incorporate the handwritten notes made by Agee on the 90-page double-spaced manuscript. In a review of “Cotton Tenants,” illustrated by Evans’s photographs, scheduled to run in Fortune’s June 10 issue, David Whitford commended a work that he had previously assumed was “unpublishable as magazine journalism.” He noted in a phone interview that the new book provides a glimpse of the ambitious and unconventional journalism being written for Fortune at the time.
Lionel Trilling—who saw Famous Men as marking the moment when ’30s idealism became self-conscious, entailing both a wisdom and a timidity—wasn’t being glib when he called it “the most important moral effort” of that generation in America. He wasn’t necessarily correct—the WPA’s ethnographic interviewing project, initiated in the very year of Agee’s visit, 1936, which involved scores of trained volunteers, who set out with early field-recording machines to capture the voices of a vanishing generation, a generation, black and white, that had survived the Civil War, seems both a morally greater undertaking (certainly it involved less grandstanding) and equally great as a work of nonfiction—but he wasn’t glib, either. You see what he means. There is something angelic about Agee’s looking. If you’re moved to picture Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, so evidently was Agee, more or less. “Reverent and cold-laboring,” he called his spying. Walker Evans, whom no one has ever accused of letting shit slide in the department of human observation, once wrote that for Agee, “human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls.” If the writing occasionally seemed to strain after spiritual grandeur, it often enough achieved a spiritual grandeur. Consider this description of a primitive dogtrot cabin, a totemic form of southeastern architecture, known for its central breezeway (which the dogs would be always trotting through):
And this hall between, as the open valve of a sea creature, steadfastly flushing the free width of ocean through its infinitesimal existence: and on its either side, the square boxes, the square front walls, raised vertical to the earth, and facing us as two squared prows of barge or wooden wings, shadow beneath their lower edge and at their eaves; and the roof . . .
Steadfastly flushing the free width of ocean through its infinitesimal existence . . . Writers who can do that with English get to abuse it now and then.
Check back soon for our round up favorite highlights from the book.
Happy weekend reading!