NYT: When ‘long-form’ is bad form

Last week, the sports and pop culture website Grantland published a story called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” — a piece of “long-form,” as we now call multi-thousand-word, narrative-driven reported articles — about a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who claimed to have invented a golf putter of unsurpassed excellence.

Over the course of 7,000-plus words, the writer, Caleb Hannan, devoted a lot of space to the contentious relationship he had developed with his subject. Ms. Vanderbilt, who was transgender but in the closet — and also probably a con artist — didn’t like Mr. Hannan’s digging into the details of her personal and professional life. In the final few paragraphs of the story, Mr. Hannan revealed some shocking news: Ms. Vanderbilt had killed herself.

The piece was initially met with praise from across the Internet. (“Great read,” raved a typical Tweet. “Fascinating, bizarre,” read another.) Then the criticism started. Mr. Hannan was accused of everything from being grossly insensitive to Ms. Vanderbilt’s privacy to having played a role in her suicide. The controversy soon grew so intense that the editor of the site, Bill Simmons, felt compelled to address it in an apologetic, if defensive, 2,700-word post of his own. Mr. Simmons stressed that the decision to publish the piece had not been taken lightly and that somewhere between 13 and 15 people had read it before it was posted and had all been “blown away.”
It’s a familiar phenomenon: When you fetishize — as opposed to value — something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself. How many of those people who initially praised “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” I wonder, even made it down to those final few paragraphs before taking to Twitter to associate themselves with this great journalistic achievement?

When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function. That’s how a story with a troubled woman who commits suicide at its center gets told as a writer’s quixotic quest to learn everything he can about the maker of a golf club that he stumbled across during a late-night Internet search for tips for his short game. There’s a place for writers in their magazine stories, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering readers a glimpse into the reporting process. The trouble starts when the subject becomes secondary, and the writer becomes not just observer but participant, the hero of his story.

What, then, is the function — the purpose — of “long-form”? To allow a writer to delve into the true complexities of a story, and also to bring readers closer to the experience of other people. Whether a long-form story is published in a magazine or on the web, its goal should be to understand and illuminate its subject, and maybe even use that subject to (subtly) explore some larger, more universal truths. Above all, that requires empathy, the real hallmark of great immersive journalism.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if one is writing about a huckster or a fraud. The best work still enables readers to experience their subjects as human beings, not as mere objects of curiosity.
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Grantland has subsequently apologized for their piece, and brought in someone from GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to explain how they should have handled it. They should not have revealed the transgender part, even though it was part of the story as the writer attempted to track down the (false, it turned out) credentials of Dr. V.:

The deeper I looked, the stranger things got. It seemed as if there was no record of Dr. V’s existence prior to the early 2000s. And what little I managed to find didn’t exactly align with the image she projected of a world-class scientist. I couldn’t find any record of her ever living in Boston. The same went for Washington, D.C. And when I contacted Walter Reed, I was told the hospital had no way to prove she had ever worked there.

And she was also 6’3″ and had a deep voice. Just a little odd, no? But no journalist must allow himself (herself, itself?) to be curious enough to follow that up.

It also turns out that transgender people are seriously screwed up and commit suicide at a very high rate. But this is a mental issue (or it is not a mental issue, sorry, just a fact sitting out there by itself) that must not be spoken of or investigated. (The rate is as high as 46% according to the GLAAD woman, I mean person).

h/t Steve Sailer, who also has a follow-up piece here.