"Literary Journalism and the Naive Narrator"


John Seabrook

The New Yorker


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

March 1, 2000



I'd like to speak to you about first-person in journalism, and, specifically, a technique that I've been using for the last seven or eight years which I call the naive narrator. What is the naive narrator? Well, let me try to explain it by way of beginning with the nature of authority. When you write, you try to establish authority. That's, I think, probably the most important thing you do as a writer. If you can establish your authority early on in a piece, and get the reader to trust that you know what you're talking about, you can say pretty much anything you want. And most people establish authority by, in some way, letting people know that they are, if not experts themselves, then they have access to experts, and their authority is based on that special access. And then you try in your pieces to say things in a forceful, assertive way that suggests that you too, if not actually being an expert, have much more knowledge about the subject than the reader has. And that's why the reader is going to invest authority in you as the writer. That's the traditional way of writing stories, and I wrote stories like that for about eight years.


But I then moved to this technique that I call the naive narrator in which you say at the outset, you in some way establish that you don't know that much more about the subject than the reader knows, at least at the beginning of the story. And you suggest, or let the reader know, that what the story is going to be is not just an examination of the whatever the material or the information is, but it's also going to be your education and your learning and your acquiring expertise through the course of the story at the same time that the reader is acquiring that expertise. So, in other words, your authority is now going to be based not on having greater knowledge at the beginning, but rather your authority is going to be based on establishing a connection with the reader saying "I'm just like you. I'm an average Joe, and I want you to listen to me and believe me because in the course of this story, we're going to share some experiences that we both perhaps would have in common as we encounter whatever the subject is going to be."


I started using this technique when writing science and technology pieces, specifically writing them for the New Yorker, because I felt that the traditional approach, which was to claim expertise at the get-go, in using that approach, I risked alienating and losing at lot of readers who were perhaps fearful and anxious about the technology or the science. Because the New Yorker readership tends to be more of a literary audience and less of a scientific or technical audience. And I thought that I had a better chance of getting their attention and sympathy and winning them over by identifying with them at the beginning as novices or amateurs or anxious and confused myself. So I started using that technique for those particular stories.


Another reason I use that technique, and I would say this as a general point, that if you do write about science or technology for general interest magazines, it tends to be that writers who are drawn to that subject are people who are enthusiastic about technology or science. People who like gadgets. People they call early adopters. People who don't have a great deal of anxiety about trying new things. But you'll find that the editors at the magazine are often quite the opposite type of people. They're people who are anxious and fearful when it comes to new things, having to learn how to use a new computer technology, having to replace their Palm Pilot with a new Palm Pilot, or whatever it is. And so if you do write a piece that takes the point of view that "This is wonderful because it's new," you might find that the editor says, "Well, I don't agree with this. I think this is awful because it's new. And I want you to rewrite this piece." But if you take the point of view that, at the beginning, "I'm not sure if this wonderful or not. I'm going to find out through the course of using this technology," you have a better chance, I think, of getting the editors to feel sympathetic to you and then hopefully the readers will, too.


Of course what you risk in trying this technique, is you do risk losing your authority, because you are giving away your authority right at the beginning that every journalist has by virtue of having a byline up at the top and being the one who has his words in print. You risk losing that, and there will be people who will say, "Well, I'm not going to read this piece if this person is telling me right at the beginning he doesn't really know enough about this, he doesn't know anymore about this subject than I do." There will be people who will turn off. And if you're writing for a technology magazine, or a magazine where the readers do tend to be experts themselves, that might not be a good approach. But if you're writing for more of a general interest magazine, it can be.


There are a few other pros and cons I wanted to go through with you. One of the good things about using this technique, is that it gives your piece a natural narrative. The narrative is the course of your coming to an understanding, the course of achieving greater knowledge and insight about the subject you're writing about. You begin in this place, as someone that doesn't know that much, and you end up in this place as someone who does. And as writers, that's what we're always looking for. We're always looking for a way to structure a piece, in terms of giving it a beginning, a middle and an end, but you also want change to happen in your piece. You want something to change. You want to move from here to here, so that the reader feels he's not just been through a bunch of information, but he's been through some kind of a journey, which is what narrative does for us. Using this technique does give you a natural narrative, which is the narrative of your own experience with the material in the piece. And if you don't have another narrative, that can be quite handy.


Another thing it allows you to do, is that it allows you to express ambivalence in your piece about the subject that you happen to be writing about. If you commit to the mantle of expertise at the very beginning of a piece, then you pretty much have to be consistent throughout the piece. You can't say "I want you to read this because this is a wonderful new invention." And then halfway through the piece say "I'm not sure if this is such a wonderful, new invention at all." You have to be consistent in your initial selling of the story to the reader. But if you use the naive narrator, it does allow you to go back and forth in terms of your feelings about the material that you're describing. And the fact is, we often do have ambivalent feelings about stories, particularly if you're writing about big things like the Internet, or things where there's sort of good and bad. Where there's two sides and where your feeling about it might be ambivalent and where the reader's feeling about it is probably ambivalent too, you want to be able to express some of that ambivalence in your stories. Using this technique has allowed me to do that, so I think that's another advantage.


A third advantage is that you give yourself the opportunity to put your insights into the story. You're not starting from the point of already having all your insights and then just reproducing them for the reader, but you're having your insights about the material as the narrative is developing. And what that allows you to do, is not only pass along the information, but also to pass along the excitement about learning the information. So that the reader is not just getting the material, but he's also getting this more dramatic and more human experience of insight and excitement and the kind of emotional oomph that comes with that.


I think John McPhee actually is someone who does that very well. He doesn't necessarily establish himself as an expert in oranges, or in physics or in geology. In fact, he often represents himself as just tagging along with an expert. In his geology books, for example, he's tagging along with this geologist who works at Princeton, DuPhase, I think his name is. And he's trying to explain to McPhee this difficult material about geology and McPhee is trying to understand it. And what that does is it allows the writer to be a buffer between the difficult material and the readers, so that the writer can both pass along the material, but can also identify with the reader who may be confused or apprehensive about this material. And I think it just makes, particularly when you're doing science and technology, it makes the experience of absorbing the information more pleasant.


A drawback of this approach is that people may not believe that you're as naive as you represent yourself to be. And in a certain sense, clearly you're not, because you are starting to write the story after you have learned the information, so you are reproducing a state of mind that you're not experiencing at that moment, but you had experienced maybe a month or two before. So you are using a fictional technique, creating a persona for yourself, and some readers might not buy it. It does a good deal of skill. You're not lying to them, you're being honest. What makes it work is that you have to be honest and you can't use the technique as a way of making yourself look good. This is one reason a lot of people object to using "I" in journalism in general, is that they feel the journalist is giving himself airs, putting on airs, trying to claim a part of celebrity in the story that the reader would rather not accord to him.


That leads to another complication. How much of yourself do you put into the story? How much of what's going on in your mind do you let the reader know? Because, clearly, there's plenty of stuff that you've thought, that you might be thinking, that you're going to leave out. But at the same time, you don't want to use the story to represent yourself in the best possible light. You want to represent yourself as you are. How do you make the choices about what to put in and what to leave out? That's one of the hardest things about using "I" in stories and it's one reason why it's a good idea not to start out doing it right away. But to develop expertise in the more traditional, objective approach and then try to move into it.


What I did at first when I was beginning to use it, was I would set myself this limit, which was somewhat artificial, but which helped me organize and limit how much of myself I put in. And that was, I would ascribe to myself quotes sometimes, if I was in conversation with some other person, a subject I was interviewing, I might say "I said." But I wouldn't ascribe to myself thoughts. I wouldn't ascribe to myself stuff that was going on in my mind while I was having that interview, or while I was thinking about this particular fact. Or I would ascribe to myself actions "I went here, I went there," things that I might have been observed doing by someone else who was in the story. But I wouldn't ascribe to myself emotions like "This made me feel" or "And then when he said that, I thought this." And that was a way of limiting myself to what could be observed. Often what you do is you ascribe to yourself actions and thoughts that the other person you're interviewing might have observed, so you're in the scene but you're not then pulling back and going into your mind. I think that's a good way to start. It's a good way to limit yourself. And then I moved on from there to doing more internal type things.


I guess that's about what I had to say. Like I said at the beginning, I think it's a technique that I wouldn't have started using right away, and I wouldn't use with every story. But it's nice to have in your back pocket, particularly when you find yourself dealing with material which might be dry or technical or it's a lot of descriptive stuff that doesn't really have a whole lot of human interaction in it, or when you're looking for a narrative and there's not a narrative in the story. I've found that it works. My last pieces, I've actually tried to combine the more discursive objective writing that I did before I started using the first person with a first person approach.


The last piece I had in the New Yorker was this piece I wrote about sleeping. My wife and I had a baby about a year ago, and as I was dealing with the whole sleep issue, I realized this was a very interesting piece, because there's all these interesting theories about how you get your baby to go to sleep. Whether you should sleep with him in your bed, or whether you should try to get him to go to sleep outside of your bed. And there's a lot of science that supports either position. And at first I thought I would do this to a more straightforward scientific approach, but I found that it seemed very dry. And it also seemed that it was missing something, which was the fact that I had had this experience, and it was happening to me, and it seemed like in a way, that was the story. By sticking to the objective approach, I was cutting myself out of a really interesting thing, which was this baby was even going to be in our bed or wasn't. I tried to structure it with personal bits of the story combined with more objective reporting and I think that's the ideal. But that's even harder to do in a way than just one or the other, because it's very difficult to control the tone. You go from a science-y, objective tone to a personal, intimate tone. If you don't work very, very hard at meshing those parts, you find that the story can be a little disjointed. Also, you really need to work on your transitions. When you're shifting from first person to third, your transitions become vitally important. How do you get out of here? And your endings for each section become vitally important, too.


A way it helps to make that work, I've found and this is a point that I would make about writing longer stories in general, is that it helps to have 800- or 900-word sections in your stories which have an integrity of their own. So they almost exist as, if you stripped them out of the piece, they could almost work as a little 800- or 900-word piece about a subset of the larger theme that you're writing about. Then you try to structure those smaller chunks within your larger story so they flow and go together, but they also hold together as separate units. And I think, when particularly writing for the New Yorker, writing pieces that are 8,000 or 9,000 words long, that technique can help a lot. So I just thought I'd share my thoughts about that with you, and maybe one day you'll try to write those kind of stories, it might not be for a while, but it's interesting to try. It's good to have tools in your back pocket. It's good to have more than one approach when you're approaching stories. Because, sometimes, your first approach just doesn't work and you need to try something else.





Anyway, so I'll answer questions about anything you guys want to ask, just thought I'd share that with you.


Question: Inaudible.


A: Right, sure. I started out writing book reviews, freelance book reviews. I went to graduate school and had a more academic graduate school experience, didn't study journalism. So when I got out of college, the idea of getting a staff job at a newspaper was out of the question because most people do go to journalism school for that reason. So I was looking at freelance work, and book reviews were something I felt comfortable with because I had been doing more academic writing and the kinds of books I chose to review were of a more academic nature. What I did was, I had a friend who worked at the Christian Science Monitor, and I called her and I said "Can you give me the name of the book review editor?" and she gave me his name, Tom Something. I called him, I had a couple of books in mind. I just called him up and got very nervous about it and psyched myself up and called him up. And he picked up the phone and I was like "Hello, what am I going to say?" and I sort of said "I want to do a book review." And he said "Well, what's the book?" and I named a few. And he said, "Well that sounds interesting. Why don't you try it on spec?" It was only going to be $100 anyway, so it wasn't like I was taking a huge gamble. So, I did that and he liked it and published it. And then I did a few more. And I did a few for the Village Voice, and I did one for the Washington Post Book World. And then I had eight or nine clips, and I went to a magazine called Manhattan Inc. Magazine, which was a startup, a business magazine that had started a few months earlier. It had young writers. This was 1985-1986, it was during the heyday of Wall Street celebration of guys in red suspenders, investment bankers, Gordon Gekko, that sort of era. Manhattan Inc. was a magazine that was started with the idea of doing feature type writing about businessmen, not doing the usual business reporting. They were looking for writers more than business reporters. I took my clips to them and I showed them to a editor and he thought they read pretty well. He asked me to a book review for the back of the book there, which paid 10 times more than a newspaper book review. I did that and that worked out. It was like a dollar a word. And then he said, "Would you like to try a reported piece for the back of the book, in a sort of arts section?" I said "Okay." I tried that, and that was the first time I actually did reporting. But reporting is mostly common sense. You ask the questions,  you write the answers down, you try not to make it up. So I did that, and turned the piece and they liked that. Then they asked me if I'd like to do a feature piece. By this point, I'd probably been at it about six months or so. There had been a certain amount of anxiety before I actually called that Christian Science Monitor editor the first time. I don't mean to suggest that it wasn't very nerve wracking and anxious. It seemed easy in that respect, but it seemed very impossible at the time.


Anyway, they asked me to do a feature piece. I did that and that worked out. And then I started writing feature pieces for that magazine. It was a good spot to start. It was small, it was a startup. People were very devoted to it. There were younger writers. It wasn't really like the big, big time. It was on the newsstands and the magazine trades saw the pieces and some business people were reading them, but it wasn't like starting off in Vanity Fair or Esquire where you're more in the big time. So I did that for about a year. They paid me more to commit to a year's worth of writing. Not many general interest magazines will pay you a salary. In order to get a salary job in magazines, you either have to work for one of the newsweeklies or you have to take more of an editorial assistant position and hopefully do some writing on the side. Most magazines do try to promote from within or build writers from within if they can. In theory they do, but in practice, it's been my experience at the New Yorker, that a lot of the young people who come there and get editorial assistant jobs who want to be writers end up leaving and getting writing jobs at other magazines and then perhaps returning to the New Yorker. At least at the New Yorker, it's hard for the editorial assistants to do much writing, but you do get a salary and benefits and all that stuff and most magazines won't give that to you. But they will give you these agreements to commit to a certain number of stories. And often they'll even come up with a fee they'll pay you in the course of that year and pay it to you in 12 installments. So it's like getting a paycheck. One of the big problems of being a freelancer is the uncertainty of it, not knowing how much money you're going to be making next month. You'll have good months and you'll have bad months, but because your expenses are fixed, it can be somewhat of an anxious situation to be in.


After I worked there for a couple of years, business writing was not something that really excited me. I liked the writing, but not so much the business. So after a couple years, I felt I was ready to branch out. And I stopped that full-time year's worth contract and became a freelancer and started taking assignments from other magazines. I did some stuff for Vogue, I did some stuff for GQ, I did some stuff for Rolling Stone. A lot of editors knew my byline by now. It's quite surprising how quickly editors will know your byline. A lot of editors do seem to be always combing other magazines looking for writers that seem to have some talent. People knew who I was, so I freelanced for a couple of years. And like I said, there was a lot of uncertainty involved in that. There was more freedom, I could do more subjects that I was more interested in. Did some travel pieces that were fun. You get to go to exotic places. But there's a lot of uncertainty. And also, if you haven't worked for the magazine before, you have to develop the relationship again and you have to figure out how your editor works, and how the whole production process of the magazine works, and what kinds of copyediting they do. Some magazines heavily copyedit, some don't. There are local, in-house styles peculiar to different magazines. And when you're starting out, you spend a certain amount of time learning that and you're not really getting paid for that. You're getting paid just to turn in 5,000 words, and all the other stuff is on you. So if you have to do three rewrites, it's the same amount of money than for one rewrite. So you want to know, going in, as much as you can what you're dealing with, which is another pitfall of freelancing for a lot of people.


The way I started with the New Yorker is I was about 28 or 29, and I had some clips. I had two clips, there was one from Manhattan Inc. that I sent, and one from Spy Magazine, and I had an idea to write about a gold-mining boom that was going on out in Nevada, which was based on a new technology for refining gold, which allowed them to do it much more cheaply and turned all this previously worthless rock into profitable ore. So I sent the letter into Bob Gottlieb, who's the editor of the New Yorker I write about this in Nobrow if you guys ever take a look at it you can see my encounter of this experience. I sent the letter in with the clips to Bob Gottlieb just thinking there's no way in hell that he'll ever call me. And he called me on the phone a week later and said "This sounds like a good story. Why don't you give it a try? And we'll pay you regardless of whether we publish it or not," which was music to my ears. I did the story, and it was very hard to do. It was like a 20,000 word story, far longer than anything I had ever written. But it worked out and they published it. And then I was into the New Yorker, but I actually found it difficult to come up with other story ideas for the New Yorker, so I ended up taking a contract with Tina Brown, who was running Vanity Fair. Tina Brown had always been interested in me. I started writing at Manhattan Inc. around the time that she started running Vanity Fair, and she liked the way that I wrote. I had written a piece about a fashion person that she had been particularly enamored with. So she had always been interested in having me write for her. And I'd always been kind of wary of her because I thought she was a little too trashy, I had higher ideals in mind. I wanted to write for the New Yorker, and Tina Brown, to me, was the opposite of the New Yorker. I write about this in my book, too.


One thing Tina did was, she started paying writers a lot more money than other people were paying them. She brought the pay scale up to a reasonable level, which was one of her great virtues, I think. Because people really tried to pay writers as little as possible, and it's not really fair. She offered me pretty serious money to write for Vanity Fair. So I wrote for her for about two years. I really liked the magazine, I didn't like writing about celebrities. It wasn't really my thing. It doesn't really turn me on. Some writers do it better than others. Some writers do the whole exposure, access to Hollywood and that stuff. It wasn't really my scene. After doing it for a while, I left and started freelancing again for the New Yorker, thinking well, thank God, I'm rid of Tina Brown. And about six months after I did that, Si Newhouse fired Bob Gottlieb then hired Tina Brown to run the New Yorker. I was like, oh my God, what have I done? What's she going to think? She wasn't that mad at me for leaving. As it turned out, she was quite open to me and then she made me a staff writer shortly after. I did an edit piece for her and then they made me a staff writer. And so, that's how it happened. It seems kind of logical in the telling. I think a lot of students feel like "How am I ever get a job in a magazine." We were sort of talking about this last night. I was saying there was this young guy in this class, Kevin Perrano, who I met out here last year. And he was a student. We kept in touch on e-mail, and he came to New York and I gave him some names of people to call. And he was like "Oh my God, this is impossible. How am I ever going to get a job?" Then he somehow landed a job at Newsweek, and one of his first pieces in Newsweek was about this Virgin Mary was sighted somewhere in New Jersey, and a book editor read it and said "Wow, this would be an interesting book" and he called me and he goes "What am I going to do?" and I said "Call my agent. It sounds interesting." So he called my agent, and now he's fielding book offers and he's got a job and came to my book party and is this very confident.


There's this other guy who wanted to work at the New Yorker. I was telling this story last night, too. He is an undergraduate, graduated from Yale, and he sent his resume to the New Yorker. I didn't know this guy. And he came in and they said, "Oh, we can't." He wanted to get a job as a fact checker, which was one of the staff's jobs you can get, and Peter Camby, who runs the fact checking department, said "Oh we can't possibly hire you. We have people here that are graduates of Yale Law School and the chances of hiring you are just so slim, I really think you should look elsewhere." I was in Peter's office a little bit after that, and I said "Peter, I've finished a draft of my book and need someone to help me check the facts." And this fellow, Ben's resume, was sitting on top of the pile. He said, "There's this guy, Ben ??, went to Yale, seems pretty smart. Why don't you work with him?" So I called him up, and he checked the facts, and I liked him and about a couple of months later, I was in the office and Peter said someone had just quit from the fact checking office. "We really need to hire somebody. What was that guy Ben Z? like?" I said he was very good, did a very good job, very nice guy, really liked him. He goes "Do you think we should hire him?" I said "Yeah, sure, I think you should hire him." So he goes, "Would you call him and see if he's still available?" So I called him and said, "Ben, guess what? The New Yorker wants to hire you." And he said, "Oh, yesterday, I accepted a job with the New Republic." So I called Peter back and said "He just accepted a job with the New Republic." And Peter goes, "No! We have to him. We have to. That's a terrible place to work." And then it was like if he didn't get Ben Z? the magazine could not survive. So he'd gone from outside to having no chance to being the only person who could possibly be qualified for this job. I don't know. It seems like things can turn around kind of fast. And a couple breaks here or there and you're in. As I said, the New Yorker, a lot of magazines do need people right away. Just before I left, I had an e-mail from the fiction editor saying they lost an assistant and they needed someone right away. Did I know anybody? So, it happens and it doesn't always happen the way it's supposed to happen, but it happens.


Q: Inaudible


A: Well that's a good question, because in a way, working at the New Yorker was always my kind of ideal, my sort of dream. It seemed to take a long time, but it actually happened to relatively early for me. I was in my early 30's and I was a staff writer. So then I had to figure out what my dream was now. It was great to be there, but you want to have another dream. So I guess book writing has become more of an ideal for me. It used to be, the New Yorker has changed. In the old days, the New Yorker, in fact when I started out there, you wrote long stories, 20,000 words, or even longer. You can write, people serialized their books in the New Yorker. There would be 40,000 or 60,000 words spread over three, four issues, and that gave you a great challenge in terms of being a writer. Because a long piece just challenges you a lot more than a shorter piece. And also, it gives you an opportunity to mix it up, to do shorter piece, to be working on a really long piece and also to do some shorter pieces. And it keeps your batteries charged as a writer. And it keeps you challenged.


But now, the New Yorker does a lot shorter feature pieces. The length has crept down over the years, from 20 to 12 to 10 to now to eight, and it's pretty much eight every time. So it comes harder to challenge yourself in terms of the form of the piece. Each piece is different, but after you've done a number of them, you do know that there are certain things about them that are going to be the same. And you're not quite as jazzed up going into it. So I found books to be a source of great challenge for me. And I've written two now. And I feel the second one is better than the first one, and I hope the next one I write will be better than this one. And I guess my dream is to write a really, really good book and something that will last for a long time.


I don't think it's necessarily important what your ideals are, I just think it's important to keep them. To not get them satisfied too early. Also, it's important not to burn out, because you can. I've been doing this for whatever, 16 or 17 years, it's a lot of stories. It's a lot of stuff. You can get burned out. People in other careers, like you're a lawyer, you get made partner and that means that something changes. You don't do as much of one kind of work. You get paid more if you do. But when you're a writer, there really isn't that kind of process or plateau you reach. No one's going to make you partner. You're still going to have to do it. You're still going to have to put it out there and write a good story. It might be a good idea, if people can do it, some people teach. Some people go back and forth writing and teaching and that gives them a chance to shift gears a little bit. Some people write about a number of different things. I've developed a couple of different areas of expertise or specialty. I started out doing business and stuff, and then I sort of moved into science and technology when I started working at the New Yorker. I was a science addict in high school. When I was in high school, all I did was I loved science, did science, I never wrote anything at all. I got placed out of first year lab science at college, so I didn't have to do that. So I decided just to take a writing course as a lark. And then I got really into writing and I never did science at all at college, I really just did writing. So when I was looking around for subjects that engaged me personally, I turned to science and technology. It was a way of integrating those two bases of my education. So I developed an expertise in that.


Then I did this book Deeper, which was about the Internet. At the end of that, I felt like, well, I'm kind of tired about writing about science and technology, I'd like to write more about popular culture. And then I started doing popular culture pieces, and those came together in Nobrow. Now, that's out. Now, I'd like to move on again and I'd like to start writing about food. The book I have in mind to write next is food related, and food has always been something that I've enjoyed. I like to cook, I like to shop for food. When you write, when you look for what you want to write about, you often find that what you want to write about are the things that you really like doing, what you never really thought writing about. Sometimes, it's hard to make yourself aware of the fact that that's what your subject should be, because it's just something that you did for fun, and never thought about doing professionally. But those subjects are usually the best subjects.


So, anyway, I try to use all these different approaches to keep myself challenged and to keep myself energized.