Book Review: Readings
The argument that Harper's Magazine is all that stands between ourselves and idiocracy is a bit much, no?
Reviewed by Cindy Widner, Fri., Nov. 14, 2008
Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person From 'Harper's Magazine'edited by Bill Wasik
The New Press, 322 pp., $26.95
Roger D. Hodge can, and does, make bold claims for Harper's, the 150-odd-year-old stalwart/upstart magazine he edits. Still, his argument in this collection's introduction that its essays are all that stand between ourselves and idiocracy is a bit much. Submersion Journalism – a term meant to describe an approach that removes the boundary between writer and subject – is admirable in that it is not an anthology of confessional writing. The selections are tightly and sometimes masterfully written, and many of their subjects guarantee fish-in-a-barrel satisfaction (who among us can resist "On the Great Ukranian Bride Hunt"?). There is linearity and movement and sustained curiosity; reading them is pleasurable and not very difficult. It comes as a surprise, then, that what resonates is a sense that – perhaps because its writers are cowed by the mission of saving America from itself or are atoning for the considerable sins inflicted by their profession's cultural and class blinders – this type of journalism has become a small, craven thing.
It's an impossible quandary, of course: If you're part of a dominant culture, the only anthropologically correct thing to do is to write about a culture either on level with or more dominant than yours. Thus, we have the work of unmoored dudes (always dudes – the only exception here is Barbara Ehrenreich's landmark pink-ribbon deconstruction, "Welcome to Cancerland") assuming identities that seem not too far from their own to infiltrate nearby targets (a secretive Christian fellowship, Bush's 2004 campaign) and emerging freaked-out and guilty.
All of which has little to do with whether a piece works, as most of these do. The macho prose in "Teachings of Don Fernando," for instance, redeems itself with a vivid sense of danger and elegant insight into its subject, an improbably successful narcotics informant. Texas Monthly Editor Jake Silverstein transcends what would seem like easy condescension in writing about an amateur poetry contest in Las Vegas. And then there is "My Crowd," in which flash-mob inventor (and anthology editor) Bill Wasik's cogent reduction of hipsterism, conventional use of footnotes, and repositioning of social psychologist Stanley Milgram as a performance artist hit several millennial phenomena squarely on the head without even seeming to try very hard. His theoretical spin on a personal experiment is testament to the idea that maybe it's the thought that counts after all.