Diagonal shadows in black and white

As a columnist and a memoir writer, a fundamental question I confront when I begin a piece is this: Do I view and portray this topic as black-and-white, or do I allow for 50 shades of gray?

The fact that I need to ask myself this question reflects three things:

  1. The polarized times we live in
  2. Who I am as a writer
  3. How journalism uses data to predict audience

Consider this example:

On August 19, 2021, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a column, titled “You can’t make me eat these foods.” In it, he dissed specific foods (balsamic vinegar, hazelnuts) and one culture’s cuisine: mine.

Indian food, he said, is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice: curry.” He added, “If you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food.”

I didn’t pay much attention to Weingarten’s rant. I figured he was trying to be funny. When you decide to disdain certain types of food, you have to take extreme positions. Love or hate, all or nothing, black or white. No shades of gray.

Others were not as indifferent. The backlash from Indians was especially swift. On Twitter, comedienne Mindy Kaling said it was “weird to be defiantly proud” of dissing a cuisine. Former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara said he would not have dinner “with this guy.” Vice President Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena Harris, said, “Even Columbus knew it was more than one spice.” The most thoughtful response came from Padma Lakshmi, who wrote a scathing essay in the Post calling out Weingarten’s inconsistencies. The Post eventually published a correction, as did Weingarten.

But here’s the thing. One comment — I believe it was on the Post’s website — said that both Weingarten’s column and Padma Lakshmi counter-column went viral because they were polemics. Both dared to posit the extreme. Eventually, the paper “won” because the pieces had a high click rate, thus bolstering advertising. What was not to love?

Navigating the clicks

A lot, if you think about the underlying message. Much of today’s journalism draws on data to define the elements of quality that writers have long held sacred. Editors can predict which stories will draw the most “clicks,” the deep scrolls, and the most time on site. Except for a few literary magazines, most mass-market publications now use data to decide the type, tone and length of columns to publish and promote.

Fifteen years ago, I started writing a weekly column for Mint, an Indian newspaper that was an affiliate of the Wall Street Journal. I quickly learned that there were two ways to write a column.

Columns that went viral usually cast the issue in black or white. These included rants, take-downs, clever, often sarcastic satire, and one-sided essays. In such essays, the writer took a strong stand — one that brooked little room for another view. She simplified the argument to its basic principles, eschewing nuance for argument. They included quotable one-liners and sweeping statements. Weingarten’s column would fall in this category.

The other column approach embraced nuance. Writers considered an issue through many frames, many lenses. They offered description, history and perspective. They were the slow-cooked meal to the polemic’s fast food. They chose a rambling walk over a blazing rocket.

The good news for writers is that often we can do both types of writing. Most any writer, when provoked, can churn out a polemic. My natural tendency is to embrace nuance. But I have written columns in which I take a stand, even one that is contrarian, controversial.

How do I take a controversial and even contrarian stand without violating my own standards or values? It depends on the subject.

Even writers who are wired for nuance find they have hard edges on certain issues. An obvious example is abortion. You are either for it or against it — at least as a right.

There are other issues — Should Trump be allowed back on Twitter? — where you don’t much care, or view it through multiple prisms. It’s an “It depends” instead of “Yes” or “No.”

Both are okay. Both can be worked with and worked around. Here is the thing, though: In today’s world, both approaches need to be considered.

Writing in a polarized time

How does a writer choose a path in our polarized world? In a culture where everyone is in danger of being cancelled, is it possible or even sensible to take a stance? Conversely, are shades of gray even possible when people are out-shouting nuance?

The answer depends on the author, the issue and the context.

There are some authors who own their positions: Jonathan Chait, Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd come to mind. These are gifted polemicists whose values and stances are well known. If you happen to be clear about your stance in this way, by all means, lean into it.

There are other writers, such as David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof, whose writings rely on shades of gray to make their point, even within the leaning of their politics.

For every Joel Stein who writes smart-funny-dorky rants, there is David Sedaris whose essays are zig-zag elegies to nuance.

So what kind of writer are you? Do you want to write diatribes that could attract a lot of followers fairly quickly — but may also box you into rigid positions?

A great exercise would be to experiment with each approach. Pick a topic that you know and are passionate about. Will you be the lawyer who argues only one side, or the judge who sees both and a possible third in between? Then experiment. Write about the topic in black-and-white, then try again in shades of gray. What fits your personality, and the piece you want published?

But stay open to both. That’s the freedom of essay writing: You do have to plant a stake in the ground whenever you write, but it doesn’t have to be embedded in stone.

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Shoba Narayan is an author of four books, journalist, columnist and content creator.

 

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