We just posted our 100th “Why’s This So Good?,” Abeer Najjar’s look at the Susan Dominus story in the New York Times Magazine, “Hana.” Nearly twice a month since June 2011, we’ve had accomplished journalists like Adam Hochschild, Chris Jones, Tom Junod, Wesley Morris and Paige Williams write about narrative journalism classics old and new, and why they work so well.
In honor of this milestone, we’re posting excerpts from the five most-read entrants in the series. Two of them were also on our list of the most read of the first 65 “Why’s This So Good?” essays. All five of these essays are small gems in their own right, soaring and vital and funny and learned.
5. “Why’s This So Good?” No. 1: Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando, by Alexis Madrigal, June 27, 2011
There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.
To read the whole “Why’s This So Good?” on Truman Capote’s 1957 New Yorker piece “The Duke in His Domain,” (1957), click here.
4. “Why’s This So Good?” No. 57: Joan Didion on dreamers gone astray, by Jennifer B. McDonald, September 4, 2012
…this, of course, is not your average tabloid account. It’s Didion – a native daughter of another California valley, the Sacramento; a writer with an affinity for “dangerous” landscapes, as she told The Paris Review – looking down from on high. So instead of a simple tale of a dotty dame gone bad, we get a narrative that’s not really about Miller at all. It’s not even fundamentally about people. It’s about the perverting power of place. And from the first sentence, Didion pours her energy into the setting:
This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.
To read the whole “Why’s This So Good?” on Joan Didion’s 1966 Saturday Evening Post piece “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” click here.
3. “Why’s This So Good?” No. 39: Gay Talese diagnoses Frank Sinatra, by Maria Henson, April 24, 2012
Why’s it so good? I could point to any of the usual signposts for superb literary nonfiction – scenes, dialogue, characters, interior monologues, the beginning, the ending, digressions and a structure that suggests a larger meaning. The 15,000-word story is as finely crafted as Sinatra’s (and Talese’s) custom-tailored suits. I prefer today to praise the humble but honest work that should come with any journalism, new or old: reporting.
To read the whole “Why’s This So Good?” on Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire piece “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” click here.[And see Elon Green’s Annotation Tuesday!: Gay Talese and “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”]
2. “Why’s This So Good?” No. 35: Malcolm Gladwell on ketchup, by Tim Carmody, March 27, 2012
Malcolm Gladwell is known, for better or worse, for books, stories, and essays that identify something counterintuitive. At first you think it’s like this, but really it’s like that. But his best feature writing, again, is better than that. Even as illustrative chunks fall out of them, the essays as a whole don’t come with easy, business-retreat-ready takeaways. They’re neither intuitive nor counterintuitive, but engage in acts of intuition, a playful oscillation between irreconcilable poles. They clarify your perceptions by revealing the inadequacy of your concepts. They are intelligence-games.
To read the whole “Why’s This So Good?” on Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker piece “The Ketchup Conundrum,” click here.
And the most widely read “Why’s This So Good?” is…
1. “Why’s This So Good?” No. 16: David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising, by Megan Garber, October 18, 2011
What makes “Shipping Out” such a fantastic specimen of literary journalism is how insistently un-literary it is. It is not delicate; it is not subtle. Wallace, given his remarkable talents, could easily have Shown Not Told and Onion-Peeled and Sublimated his way through the story, suggesting, through the intricacy of his diction and the elasticity of his prose, all the little ironies and oddities that a Seven-Night Caribbean Cruise (line: Celebrity; class: Luxury) might convey. He could have made the cruise a metaphor – for death, for life, for capitalism, for colonialism, for America – and called it a day. (Or seven.)
To read the whole “Why’s This So Good?” on David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Harper’s piece “Shipping Out,” click here.