Nicholson Baker Wrote an Article

Many journalists insert themselves into their stories, but how much is too much?

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Nicholson Baker wrote an article. Nicholson Baker wrote an article in which Nicholson Baker goes to South Korea to do research for an article written by Nicholson Baker. Oh, the things that happen to Nicholson Baker! Nicholson Baker gets a bloody nose, Nicholson Baker goes to the Korean Electronics Show, Nicholson Baker gets tired. And in between, readers learn about pixel density. It all happens to Nicholson Baker in the annals of technology in The New Yorker.

Nora Ephron also wrote articles. She even wrote a book talking about writing articles called, Wallflower at the Orgy, the 1980 edition preface to which mentions that she’s noticed a prevailing theme in today’s (1980) journalism. “The image of the journalist as wallflower at the orgy has been replaced by the journalist as the life of the party,” she observed. She is talking about the “I-lost-my-laundry-while-covering-Yalta school of reporting” era in which we now (1980) live; the reporting that uses first-person singular pronoun to the point at which the reader begins to blush at the revelation that what has been published is the author’s diary entry instead of an articulate, informative report.

Yes, Ms. Ephron concedes, she uses the first-person singular pronoun “gingerly” in her later articles, but that came with editorial prodding. Until such prodding occurs — and even when it does — it might be wise to consider some questions posed by the late, great author about the use of these pronouns:

  • Do you really need them?
  • Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care?
  • Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you’re covering?

It should be noted that Nicholson Baker does not necessarily believe that he is more important than what he is covering. The reader is informed of the birth and development of liquid crystals and is introduced to the crystals’ many foster parents over the years. Much of this information is found within seven paragraphs in which the word I is used only twice. Both times are inarguably irrelevant as one is a parenthetical — “(yes, I know)” — and the other informs that he read a book — “…as I learned from Joseph Castellano’s book…”

It should also be noted that Nicholson Baker does not necessarily write as if he were an electrified poodle-skirted preteen at an Ed Sullivan taping. The article works, it’s just distracted by its 111 I’s, me’s, and my’s. One-hundred and eleven times, in approximately eight pages, the first-person singular pronoun waves to the camera. Twenty-eight of those begin sentences. Twenty-five appearances are made in the first (and only) column on the first page, with four I’s beginning four sentences. First prize in “I, me, my” mentions goes to page 70 in which there are 29 occurrences, eight of which begin sentences.

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Perhaps, in Nicholson Baker’s excitement, he actually did turn in a stunningly long and detailed diary entry. This would explain so many instances of action narration: “I slipped,” “I slumped,” “I moved,” “I found,” “I registered,” “I went,” “I rode,” “I exited.” Perhaps he has no access to family and friends and must therefore update them on his life though his articles. Enter elucidations of: story of dropping his iPod in the snow, answering his own questions about himself, descriptions of food, sharing his history of technological purchases since “circa 1980,” and the description, “waving my hands excitedly.”

The topic of the article, as articulated by its subtitle, “Inside South Korea’s LCD revolution,” does not promote itself to be a bland or boring topic. Depending on the readers’ interest, it could be anywhere from mind-blowingly exciting to surprisingly informative. For those ever surprised at what they have been informed, it is nearly always thanks to the author. Few people expect to enjoy a seven-page article about bananas or 4,000 words on Congo’s Mbuti Pygmies, but thanks to Mike Peed and Paul Salopk, respectively, it actually happens. Readers enjoy the read because they enjoy the words. They enjoy the style.

Nicholson Baker has style. He has enough to make liquid crystal displays exciting and interesting without pushing them aside for “some extraordinary passion-fruit and apple pastries at a boulangerie called Paris Croissant.” He surly understands how to let go of form and have a little fun with sentences like, “the various cutters and punchers and buffers and rinsers and bonders and layerers and vacuum suckers…” And, about the Korean Electronics Grand Fair, can anyone argue that “This was the place that made all Best Buys possible”?

But the I’s, oh, the I’s. And the me’s. And the my’s. The thirteen on page 66, the fifteen on 73. It’s so hard to learn about “A forth State of Matter” when it’s written as a first-person narrative. This applies to stories everywhere. There seems to have been developed a difficulty in telling stories without inserting the storyteller.

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Lili Anolik became the main character in a Vanity Fair interview with Scarlett Johansson. She was nervous. She got flustered. She was timid, but opened up with time. She has to take an anxiety pee. This isn’t Johansson, this is Anolik. All of this is Anolik including the approximately 70 — although, if second-person narration counts, then 79 — self shout-outs throughout the piece. The feelings are Anolik’s: “I was acting totally and completely gaga,” “I’m hoping she’ll commit an indiscretion… something that will make for primo copy.” The familiarity is Anolik’s: “boobalicious,” “all of a sudden,” “un-makuped,” “I’m straying off topic, though.” She does stray off topic. Often to conduct an interview. During the biographical section (preceded by, “First, though, a recap…”), there is but a handful of I’s as the reader finally gets to know more about the magazine’s cover girl.

While Nicholson Baker narrates his actions, Lili Anolik narrates her thoughts. She felt “less like a lurking, peeping El Creepo from a James Ellroy novel and more like one of those sad-eyed old roués that Marcello Mastroianni used to play in movies that made Europe seem decadent and soul-sick and fun to visit.” She sees Johansson’s role in Iron Man as “proof, I think, of her unfussiness,” an observation evoking the famous Broadcast News retort: “Who the hell cares what you think?”

Alas, Ms. Anolik must ask the proverbial invasive questions. She admits a “wimped-out fear of offending,” yet inevitably asks. What follows is truly quite revealing — again, not from Johansson, but from the interviewer. She informs the reader, “I’m someone who responds to emotion and it’s my instinct to be on her side.”

This from a journalist to her reading audience and not, as Anolik — perhaps like Baker as well — may have confused, writer to diary. Johansson may not be running for office or be accused of a crime, but an admission like Anolik’s gives (or should give) readers serious pause. A few sentence later, the author reveals, “I trust her when she tells me…” No matter how that sentence ends; what matters is how it begins. “I trust her.” That’s wonderful, but what about the reader? Now the reader must trust a writer who has already admitted being swayed by displays of emotion — a skill an actress is likely to have. Anolik has not just inserted herself into the story, but her interpretations and conclusions.

And of those personal observations:

  • Does she really need them?
  • Is what she finds interesting enough to make the reader care?
  • Does she understand that she’s not as important as what she’s covering?

Nora Ephron’s advice was doled out over 30 years ago, as the problem of storytellers inserting themselves into their stories developed, apparently, over 30 years ago. No doubt it has grown worse with me-centric social media, but the real question is the cause. Why personally interject when there is no need? If the story is about a what, why insert your who? And if the story is about a who, why insert you? The answers lie somewhere between a writer’s ego and an editor’s acceptance. Would the editor not want the tone, it would be out. Perhaps they think it adds a charm, a quirkiness, an endearing quality to the piece. Maybe it’s what the “young people” like. Maybe it’s what the old people think the “young people” like. Similarly, perhaps writers believe their additions and observations are a sign of contemporary reporting. Maybe they don’t care about what’s in style, but simply feel their thoughts and interactions are warranted and valuable. It’s possible it’s narcissism on the writer’s part. It’s possible it’s laziness in finding other styles and sources. But what is also (and disconcertingly) possible, is its harmful effect on reporting.

Inserting irrelevant observations and intimate opinion where there is no effective necessity cheapens the relevant observations and rational opinion that can inform masses. Information that can be supported by multiple (and different) sources brings information that cannot be felled by a single event and can be, quite frankly, more interesting. The writer has the tools to tell someone’s or something’s story that cannot be told otherwise. That’s the job of a writer; unless you are a part of the story, it’s not your personal story, but a story to tell. Readers care about the subject, the thing on which the spotlight aims, they don’t tend to care for the lamp. This is not a matter of objectivity; it’s about knowing the difference between what contributes to the story and what contributes to word count. It is hard to do. It’s hard to tell a story without interjections — some would argue it’s impossible — but the hard things tend to be the right things and being mindful of reportage manholes is the first step.

By all means, read Lili Anolik’s profile of Scarlett Johansson. Learn what Anolik thinks of Woody Allen’s scripts and Theodore Twombly’s penis. Then consider what you learned about Scarlett Johansson. After that, read Nicholson Baker’s journey inside South Korea’s LCD revolution. Learn about non-Newtonian fluids and about Baker’s aching feet. Then consider which one makes your iPhone work.

Photos courtesy of Flickr Commons

Jordan Lints is a writer who likes Chicago. She has written for Splitsider and The Chiefly and other very good places. She does not have a Twitter.